Troubles Over The Bridge
New memoir tells of late actor Jimmy Ellis' fight against theatre censorship in 1950s Belfast. Listen to an extract read by longtime friend Adrian Dunbar
Toto Ellis, Jimmy's son, and actor Adrian Dunbar celebrate the launch of Troubles Over The Bridge
Belfast, 1959: the young Group Theatre director James Ellis is approached by local playwright Sam Thompson, who announces: 'I have a play you wouldn’t touch with a bargepole!'
Nearly 60 years on, the late James Ellis, known to all as Jimmy, presents an account of the strong and well-orchestrated attempts to censor Belfast playwright Sam Thompson in his recently launched book Troubles Over The Bridge.
Strewn with Ellis’s recognisable and evocative language, the story will not only still raise heckles in the arts community, but also among the younger generation who have little experience of such overt censorship.
Ellis’ memoir is a captivating tale of angry young men, of trailblazing Northern Ireland theatre, and of unwavering values based on strong ethics and a belief in telling the real story. For many, it may seem like a bygone era of artistic suppression. Others will argue that it still happens, albeit in a more subtle way and for different reasons.
Belfast-born actor Jimmy Ellis starred in much-loved productions such as the long-running BBC TV detective series Z Cars, and alongside a young Kenneth Branagh in BBC Northern Ireland's series of 'Billy' plays. Less may be known about his early days as a theatre director.
Sadly, Ellis passed away in March 2014, but alongside the legacy of his 60-year career in TV and theatre, he had penned Troubles Over The Bridge. The book tells the story of how the Group Theatre effectively banned the production of Over The Bridge, Thompson’s powerful portrayal of a sectarian dispute in Belfast’s shipyard.
Ellis was born into a shipyard family during the Great Depression and was immersed in the culture of the area from his early years. His father was a sheet-metal worker in Harland and Wolff who worked on the Titanic.
At that time, the Belfast shipyards were the most famous in the world. Having left Northern Ireland with his family to follow the work when times were hard, Ellis came back when the shipbuilding industry rejuvenated but found himself following his passion into performing arts and directing.
All those years later, it was poignant that he reconnected with the city and its primary, sweat-inducing industry through the most unexpected setting of a play in the shipyards.
In Troubles Over The Bridge, Ellis tells how the Group Theatre’s Board of Directors shied away from producing what they deemed was too controversial a play. Ellis felt he had no choice but to resign his position as Theatre Director in order to direct the production he knew had to be seen.
Together with Thompson, they went on to stage the play in Belfast’s Empire Theatre where it played to a welcoming audience of 42,000 people over seven weeks, with little of the anticipated resistance. 2015 marks 55 years since that first performance of Over The Bridge.
Since then, the play has since been staged in Dublin, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Brighton and the London West End, all following a trail blazed by Ellis.
Ellis’ son, Toto, himself a writer and producer, said: 'Whilst my father was rightly proud of his acting career, it was in fact his early days as a director of which he was most proud. Specifically, his battle to stage Over the Bridge in the face of censorship.
'To have become Artistic Director of the Group Theatre, as the son of a sheetmetal worker in 1950s Belfast, whilst still in his twenties, was a pretty remarkable achievement. So he certainly didn't take it lightly when he resigned that post on a point of principle to stage the play Thompson had written.
'He risked everything at this point to try and stage Over the Bridge, with absolutely no guarantee that they would be able to put it on, or even ever be able to find work in the theatre in Belfast again.
'Dad died without knowing his book would ever be published. So this is a pretty special moment for us to be able to tell his story to the world. It's a fascinating read and it documents an incredibly important moment in Northern Ireland's history.'
The pages of Troubles Over The Bridge are filled with amusing anecdotes and encounters with legends such as Orson Welles, all underpinned by the passionate story of how Ellis had the courage of his convictions and championed anti-sectarianism in the middle of the challenging post-war era.
Longtime friend, actor Adrian Dunbar has referred to how the story has passed into folklore among actors in Northern Ireland, telling of how it set up a template for actors to use the theatre as a platform to explore difficult political questions. Dunbar is to play Sam Thompson in a forthcoming film production of the book, being produced by Toto Ellis.
Troubles Over The Bridge is published by Lagan Press and is now available to purchase from www.laganpress.co as well as Amazon, Easons and Waterstones. Enter for your chance to win a copy now on our competitions section.