Belfast Telegraph

Jimmy Ellis portrayed the best of our shared culture

By Gail Walker

There has been much talk of "culture" in our media, especially on the news. This culture and that culture. Your culture and my culture. One culture versus another.

Much of the discussion has not been particularly "cultured" itself. Many of the people who shout most loudly about it demonstrate very few of the characteristics we might expect to see from it. Not much civilisation. Not much hospitality. Not much thoughtfulness. Not much brightness.

I'm sick of that, to be honest. I make no apology for taking the widest definition – that is, whether it's through sport, or the fine arts, or "entertainment", or just adding to the gaiety of the nation, however the life of the emotions, or intellect, or soul, finds expression, that is the culture of a place.

That's maybe a grand way of putting it. And no doubt it's all contentious and low brow and "dodging the ishooz". But what isn't in doubt is that when "our culture" sustains a blow, we all know immediately what loss has been sustained.

There is a palpable weakening of resources, a drainage of joy, a sudden deficit of gladness, which is felt and registered as important and grievous in a way which is more than personal, but is personal, too.

Over the last years, there have been several such blows, different in each way, bringing their own tonnage of disquiet, complexity and affection with them. George Best. Alex Higgins. Frank Carson. Seamus Heaney. All of them monumental in their own ways, all of them – in addition to their own particular powers in their chosen trades – with deep roots in the common condition of who we are, who we want to be and, in our fantasies, who we might be yet.

James Ellis (above), who died at the weekend just a few days shy of his 83rd birthday, belongs in that company.

Many have already testified to Ellis's championing for decades of the Belfast accent. That is no mean thing. With Sam Kydd and Harry Towb, but more visibly and for longer in the popular mind, Ellis sustained that forthright delivery which seems to suit our tongue so well and he will be rightly remembered for that – putting our familiar oral culture onto the record, as it were.

Seamus Heaney spoke of John Hewitt's use of the word "townland" as having given him a thrill, back in the 1950s, what he called "something like a premonition of demarginalisation". That may be grand again, but completely appropriate in this context.

But Ellis was, below the glamour of TV, stage and film, a major figure in our social history, a role placed on him by the controversy around Sam Thompson's anti-sectarian play Over The Bridge, but which he studiously sustained, with grace, charm, wit and authority, for all the decades after right up to the end. That controversy put him at odds with the prevailing political and social norms of the time – as well as with the guardians of the BBC and CEMA, forerunner of the Arts Council.

It did not, however, put him at odds with the people. Quite the reverse. The production of Over The Bridge which he staged at the Empire in 1960 played to record-breaking crowds – around 40,000 people. Working-class people responded to the truth of the tale and the giant character of union leader Davy Mitchell, whose self-sacrifice on behalf of a Catholic worker remains a triumph of principle, if with a sadly predictable outcome.

Ellis's courage made that possible. He carried the principles of that worldview right through his professional life. In a strange way, the role for which he will be longest remembered in his native place – Norman Martin in The Billy Plays – recaptured much of the dogged, bewildered, repressed and untameable energy of Thompson's hero, though Graham Reid's vision is of a more haunted and hunted man even than Davy Mitchell.

But Ellis has now passed easily into that company. A character himself on a par with the great fictions of the Belfast imagination. In his own life also, as poet, translator, short story writer, memoirist, raconteur and easy companion, he added to his status as an actor in the very best traditions of the Ulster stage all the unexpected gifts, the stereotype – and mould-breaking interests and passions of a civilised man.

A cultured man in the real sense of the word.

Our culture, today and from now on, is, not a mean thing – Ellis would never have entertained that thought about the people of his native place for all their faults and often nasty habits – but perhaps a smaller thing in one sense.

But because of his massive contribution to it, he leaves it a much better thing than he found it.

Further reading

Video: Jimmy Ellis - Book of condolence opened for Z-Cars actor whose performances opened door for Branagh and Nesbitt

Jimmy Ellis: An actor of courage and great talent whose performances opened door for Branagh and Nesbitt 

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