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The Group Theatre

James Young

The consummate character actor who became the comic voice of Northern Ireland

Updated: 19/09/2008

Born in Ballymoney in 1918, James Young's family moved to the Ormeau Road district of Belfast that same year. Young attended the Cooke Church School until the age of 14 when he began work at an estate agents office at Shaftesbury Square. His job was to collect rent from the many terraces that constituted the working class areas of Belfast. It was here that Young met many of the characters he was to make famous in later years.

At 16, Young progressed from a love of watching theatre to a passion for acting itself. Joining a number of amateur dramatics companies, Young started down the long road of becoming a professional actor. His first major role in the theatre was as Willie John in Joseph Tomelty’s Right Again Barnum at the Group Theatre, Belfast.

This initial success saw Young decamp to Stockport where he worked in repertory theatre, eventually gaining a role in the West End production of Sean O'Casey's Red Roses for Me. After the end of the second world war, Young returned home to live in a flat above a butchers on the Newtownards Road. Tomelty then offered him the role of Derek in The McCooeys, a BBC radio play which ran for almost a decade. James Young was now a household name.

Performing in Bangor and The Empire Theatre, Young utilised the writing skills of Sam Cree and John Knipe, creating the template for shows that were to continue until the mid 1960s. In 1964, The Empire was bought over and developed by Littlewood’s stores, and Young and his partner Jack Hudson were lured to the Group Theatre. Their plays were invariably sold out, and Young cemented his extremely close relationship with the Northern Irish public. Indeed, it is hard to overestimate the intensity of this relationship, and some indication is given by the fact that Young was able to single-handedly keep the Group Theatre alive.

Young’s defining period of fame came with the advent of his television show Saturday Night. The characters Big Derrick, Orange Lily and The Striker became well known to the Northern Irish public. Young also performed to sell out audiences in Canada and Los Angeles in the early 1970s. Sadly, the gruelling schedule he maintained took its toll, and Young died of a fatal coronary on July 5, 1974.

'Our Jimmie', as Young was known, was in many ways an old fashioned performer who harked back to a music hall past. His success was founded on the basic tenant of comedy—to make people laugh. In addition, Young was aware of how Northern Irish people enjoyed laughing at themselves, and in the dark days of the 70s, that laughter enshrined Jimmie in our national consciousness.

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