Belfast Telegraph

In his own words... early life of east Belfast acting legend Ellis centre stage in new production

By Mark Bain

The widow of Belfast actor James Ellis has told of her delight that his early years are to be brought to life in a colourful stage production.

Robina Ellis opened up some of the former Z-Cars star's writings to the Blunt Fringe theatre company. It features characters he encountered at his former Park Avenue home.

Jimmy Ellis: Home Again, a mixture of poetry and music, will debut next month at the EastSide Arts Festival.

Robina said: "Jimmy always had an amazing brain and was fascinated with poetry I couldn't understand. I always told him he should write and he finally did when he was in his 60s, but I made sure it was in language I could understand!

"He settled on writing around his time growing up in Park Avenue, calling it 'Portrait Of A House'. His mother took in lodgers and a lot of it centred on the characters he came across while living there.

"They were all beautifully written pieces, so easy to follow and listen to, and I was determined people would hear them in some form."

It was a chance meeting with Claire Murray from Belfast-based Blunt Fringe that sparked Robina into action.

She said: "I met Claire through a mutual friend and thought: 'Right, I shall pounce'.

"I told her about Jimmy's work and was delighted to find she was very enthusiastic."

Claire said: "We really hit it off. I'm sad to say that I never had the chance to meet Jimmy, but greatly admired him, not least for being a champion of Northern Ireland and being the very first Northern Irish accent on the BBC in Z-Cars.

"Robina told me about a piece written by Jimmy in 2001 that had never been published or performed before and wanted some help. I felt that I had been entrusted with something very special and was very keen to breathe some life into it by working with people who knew and admired Jimmy."

She approached poet and fellow east Belfast resident Glenn Patterson to edit it, and it will now be performed as part of the festival.

Robina said: "We settled on three acts - the house and family; the lodgers he came across, and the empty house at the end as the family grew and moved on. It's all very close to home, full of local references that a lot of people who grew up in Belfast will understand.

"I'm nervous as to how it'll be received. You always are with something you cherish personally, but the fact that Jimmy is still so well-loved in Belfast gives me great comfort.

"He has so many stories to tell that people will relate to. It was difficult to be selective, but hopefully it will give a flavour of life in east Belfast in years gone by."

After rising to stardom in Z-Cars in the Sixties and Seventies, Ellis became one of Belfast's best-loved actors and four years after his death remains close to local people's hearts.

His links to his home turf were cemented last year with the naming of The James Ellis Bridge, part of the Connswater Community Greenway scheme.

Robina said she's still amazed at the warmth and affection for her late husband every time she returns to his home city.

She said: "I get into a taxi and they're thrilled to talk about him once they know who I am.

"There's so much love for him. It's a joy and a delight for me."

And Jimmy's east Belfast roots remain close to Robina's heart.

"I visit six or seven times every year," she added.

"Everyone is well aware of the tragedies in Jimmy's life, the murder of his son in London and another son taking his own life.

"After that we decided to move to the countryside and I still live near Lincoln, but I always feel coming back here brings me closer to him.

"I know the production will focus on Jimmy's time in Park Avenue, but he had so many more stories to tell in a way only he could."

Jimmy Ellis: Home Again is presented on August 2 and 4 in St Martin's Church at 8pm. See www.eastsidearts.net.

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