'Jimmy Ellis was like the fifth Beatle - he couldn't walk the streets without being stopped for an autograph'
Robina Ellis, the widow of legendary east Belfast actor Jimmy Ellis, marks the third anniversary of his death today by unveiling a new bridge named in his memory at Connswater Community Greenway. She talks to Lee Henry about Jimmy's life and how losing his two sons in tragic circumstances left him broken.
The late, great actor-cum-renaissance man Jimmy Ellis was undoubtedly best known to millions around the UK and Ireland as PC Bert Lynch, zealous linchpin of seminal mid-century crime series Z Cars, one of the BBC's most successful ever.
As the only actor to appear in every episode - 803 over a 16-year period - Ellis became synonymous with the show, celebrated by critics and audiences alike as much for the ground-breaking use of his natural Northern Irish accent as for his sharp-tongued portrayal of a no-nonsense cop on the beat.
Robina Murphy met Ellis at the height of his fame, at the beginning of the Seventies, long after Ellis had left his native Belfast behind to seek out fame, fortune or a steady income as an actor across the water. Their eyes first met in the smoky environs of the BBC Television Centre Club, but it wasn't love at first sight.
"I was working as a secretary at the BBC at the time, studying to move up to PA, to what they used to call a 'continuity girl' back then," recalls Robina (70), originally from the village of Collingham in Lancashire.
"Jimmy knew that I was set to get the job on Z Cars, ensuring that the actors and props and things were kept in sequence while filming, but I wasn't yet aware. With that knowledge, he asked me for a drink but I declined the offer. I was going out with someone at the time. Oh dear."
Not to be deterred, Jimmy waited patiently for his next opportunity. He had divorced from his first wife Beth - with whom he had three children, Amanda, Adam and Hugo - some years previous, in 1966, so he was free to pursue her. Robina was 26, stylish and clearly very pretty. The Belfast charmer in him knew what to do.
"Jimmy was set to perform in a midnight charity special of a Terence Rattigan play," Robina remembers, "and because the police costume he was to wear was an exact replica of a real policeman's uniform, it couldn't leave the BBC. They had to have a dresser present but none volunteered as the play began at midnight and finished at 3am, so the conscientious secretary in me offered to fill the role.
"I said to Jimmy and the director that I would set my alarm, go home to bed and come back to pick up the costume at 3am, but Jimmy wouldn't hear of it. 'You're staying and you're coming out for dinner with me', he said. The rest is history."
The pair officially began courting two months later, on January 10, 1972 and married four years later, settling in Chiswick, at the time considered a leafy, somewhat removed suburb of west London, "perfect in which to raise a little boy". Their only child, Toto, was born there in 1981.
Life with Jimmy was "flabbergasting and peculiar but exciting for a country girl like me", says Robina, mainly due to the incredible success of Z Cars. For a time, at least, Jimmy Ellis was, in essence, the fifth Beatle, a more attainable but no less charismatic competitor to fellow Belfast boy George Best in that regard.
"So many millions of viewers watched Z Cars every week - there was no record and watch back later function then - so Jimmy really was known to millions, recognised by everyone," she explains. "He couldn't walk the streets without being stopped for an autograph. He didn't even have to open his mouth. He was just so loved."
Nowhere more so than in his beloved home city, capital of Northern Ireland. Jimmy, a very proud Belfast boy, rarely stayed away for long, and Robina quickly fell in love with his east Belfast neighbourhood too, always keen to learn about the big-name artists who came from the same area - CS Lewis, Van Morrison, Sam Thompson et al - about whom Jimmy knew so much.
"When we travelled over to Belfast, he would have trails and trails of little old ladies and younger ladies following him down the street," she says.
"It was awkward sometimes when we were trying to have a romantic meal, but Jimmy always said that he didn't go into showbusiness to be unknown, so it was just part and parcel. Like many people in Belfast, he loved to talk, so he was never uncomfortable with the attention."
Z Cars came to an end in 1976, but Jimmy and Robina had their hands full with work, life and Toto, officially named Matthew William Joseph. With his parents "being a bit theatrical", however, and with lots of creative influences present in the Ellis household - from The Wizard of Oz to Roald Dahl's The Enormous Crocodile - the unusual nickname stuck.
Over the following number of years, Jimmy continued to work, appearing alongside a young Kenneth Branagh in Graham Reid's The Billy Plays on BBC TV and making further television appearances in everything from Doctor Who to Only Fools and Horses by way of the stage, to which he regularly returned. "But he was much more than merely an actor," adds Robina. "Particularly in later life."
During an acting trip to Romania, for instance, Jimmy discovered an indigenous poet and set about translating his texts. He did so by referring to the patchy Latin he had learned while attending Methodist College in Belfast and siphoning it through an Italian dictionary. He found "great pleasure" in history, philosophy and music, and also composed original pieces on his piano at home.
But there was also tragedy in Ellis's life. His first son, Adam, was murdered in 1998 while fishing at the Grand Union Canal in London (his murderer was later given a life sentence), and in 2011 his second son, Hugo, died by suicide. Robina was at home in Collingham, to which the family had debunked in the Nineties, when news of Hugo's death broke.
"Jimmy literally physically crumbled when I told him. It was just awful," she says. "But in his heart he knew, because Hugo had been missing for 48 hours and had been suffering with depression. Thankfully, even by the time of Adam's death, Jimmy had become very close again with all of his children and his first wife, so there was great support there.
"Jimmy tried very hard when he had his first family. He was young and incredibly busy at the time, trying to earn a living and make a name for himself, and sadly it just didn't work out for everyone.
"But he found great joy in Toto and not a day went by that he didn't say how lucky we both were to have Toto and his other children in our lives."
Always a relatively healthy, active and hard-working man, in 2000, aged 69, Jimmy suffered a near fatal heart attack, and two minor strokes followed in 2003 and 2005. He survived them all but was deemed to have had a nervous breakdown in 2007, which was subsequently diagnosed as bipolar disorder.
"It took a long time for the doctors to come to that conclusion," says Robina, "and for Jimmy to settle on the correct course of medication for him, but it was debilitating. Jimmy always believed that it was brought on partly by the London bombings on July 7, 2005, which killed 52 people.
"He had been rehearsing in our London flat alone and travelling into the city on the Tube. When he arrived in the city that afternoon, all of the stations were closed. He wasn't directly involved in the bombings in that sense, but the experience did have a huge impact on him."
Regrettably, Jimmy passed away from another stroke on March 8, 2014, aged 82, and on the third anniversary of his passing Robina finds herself again in Belfast, this time to open a new bridge dedicated in honour of her late husband and located in the newly rejuvenated greenway at Connswater.
"It will be a great honour, particularly as the dedication was voted for by the Northern Irish public by way of BBC Radio Ulster," adds Robina. "If Jimmy had been alive, he would have been thrilled. His father, also James Ellis, was a shipyard worker, and his name is also on the plaque."
The docks and the great cranes of Harland & Wolff are, of course, within view of the Connswater Greenway, and they played a singular part in Jimmy's career. The shipyards and the sectarianism prevalent there in the Sixties, after all, were the subject of the play that made his name in Northern Ireland, Sam Thompson's Over the Bridge, which Jimmy first directed at the Empire Music Hall in 1960.
A new film, Two Angry Men, about Ellis and Thompson's eventful struggle to have the controversial play staged in Belfast, despite establishment interference from all angles, will air on BBC Two NI this coming Sunday at 10.10pm.
Written and directed by Toto Ellis, it brings Jimmy's story "full circle", says Robina, who will subsequently travel to Rome and various other cities with Toto as the film makes the festival circuit.
"It's spectacular, this wonderful film and the bridge named in his honour. Jimmy really did wear his fame so lightly, he was just so humble a man that he would not have believed what is happening. And with the anniversary of his death today, it's all been a huge comfort to Toto and I," concludes Robina. "To keep Jimmy's legacy alive is just fantastic."