Troubles Over the Bridge

James Ellis's memoir raises questions of the times that deprived the late actor of his true off-stage potential as well as the wider barriers art must often overcome

Who would work in the arts in Northern Ireland? What with historic under-investment, chronic lack of interest from the man in the street, and a political class who only buy you drinks when you are banging their drum or speaking their language, why would you do it?

Who could blame anyone with an ambition for getting the hell out and finding somewhere where there is no perfection, but not all the odds are stacked against you. But think then what is lost to us as a society, how lives could have been changed and what talents we have missed?

Troubles Over the Bridge is one such story, of the effort to create art driving a true talent away, and allows us a glimpse of what was lost.

Almost 55 years after it's premiere in the Empire Theatre, which sat where Victoria Square shopping centre is now, Over the Bridge still shines its light. Written at the fag end of the 1950s, the play is the angry voice of Sam Thompson whose debut work was one of the most controversial plays in Northern Irish history.

Thompson's anger at sectarianism in the Belfast shipyards, his passionate delineation of the destruction of the humanity of man in the face of division and his anger at the impotence of the labour movement to affect change in the hearts of men represents a turning point in the cultural life of the North.

It wasn't just the play that caused controversy however, the censorship and golf-club calumny that accompanied it that also rings down the years. The establishment of Belfast colluded to attempt to strangle the play at birth, kill its message and make the Ulster stage safe for bawdy, unchallenging comedies about mixed sex hospital wards.

That the play came to the stage at all is down to the principles, talent and sheer bloody mindedness of James Ellis, aided by many quieter voices. Ellis, who died in March 2014, was feted at his death for the skill of his television acting, rightly lauded for his landmark roles in Z-Cars and The Billy Plays

However, none of the UK obituaries focused on his role in fighting direct censorship in Belfast, instead his short-lived actions as a producer-director in Belfast which should be remembered and respected. This book serves to clarify Ellis's role in these momentous events, a personal memoir of the times. 

The story of the book's creation was a drama in itself, with Ellis losing the finished manuscript via a misplaced pressing of the delete button and the published version being pieced together from early drafts by Ellis and his family and published posthumously by Lagan Press. It was worth the effort.

Here is a two-part story of both the making of Over the Bridge, but also Ellis's slightly apologetic explanation of why he was unable to produce Ellis's second play, The Evangelist. Ellis didn't write an great deal about these episodes, as he perhaps knew they could come to define him and his artistic life if he kept referring back. This book then is an opportunity for us to look back in anger and appreciation of the stand that Ellis took.

Troubles Over the Bridge

Toto Ellis, James's son, and actor Adrian Dunbar celebrate the launch of Troubles Over The Bridge

The potted story is that Ellis had become assistant Artistic Director of the Group Theatre, which in the late '50s was the main producing theatre in the country. Buttonholed by Thompson in Bedford Street, he was sold the idea of this 'shipyard play' and placed it on the upcoming slate for the Group in 1959.

The board, led by Richie McKee, effectively banned it however, and Ellis led a majority of the company from the Group to the Empire Theatre where from January 1960, Over the Bridge played to an estimated 42,000 people. To put that in perspective, it is the equivalent of the modern Lyric Theatre selling out for 110 nights straight.

That's the short version, but the real pleasure of this uneven yet thoroughly enjoyable book is that it is Ellis's personal story and the detailed and complex birth of this play is brought to the surface, in the witty, passionate voice of the frustrated but determined artist.

We learn so much from Ellis's memory, of characters now barely noted in the pages of our cultural history. Men like Henry Lynch Robinson, architect, set designer and openly homosexual at a time when it was a custodial offence to love someone of the same sex. Frank Reynolds, proprietor of the old Empire Theatre and the man who brought the Dublin theatre owners the Findlaters into the equation.

Meet the villain of the piece, Richie McKee, Unionist grandee, and a man so convinced of his own brilliance that he believed that the words 'conflict of interest' applied only to the little people. And Charlie Lavery, of the public house dynasty, who stuck in the extra £60 needed to get the whole Over the Bridge operation off the ground.

James Ellis

We hear of an irate Orson Welles belly-bumping Ellis and Thompson out the door of a pub in Dublin, Tyrone Guthrie recommending that they cut the female parts from the play, and Laurence Olivier getting lost in the fog of London town. It is brilliant stuff, and gold for anyone with any interest in our cultural history.

The second half of the book however, is a touch darker. Ellis, after the success of Over the Bridge, works unsuccessfully to develop The Evangelist, Thompson’s second play, but to no avail. He produces an underwhelming pantomime-cum-review as the last show at the Empire Theatre before it gets sold to Littlewoods, and leaves for London, the part of Bert Lynch in Z-Cars comes along and the rest is history.

What is interesting is the tone of weary exhaustion that enters his voice in the second part of the memoir. Over the Bridge was such an effort that to carry on developing his work in Belfast seems to become hopeless and the ferry across the Irish Sea beckons. Apart from one or two projects, Ellis dedicated his life to acting, not directing and producing. And that was what was lost.

No big deal you could say, he was a successful and brilliant actor, no matter. But think of this; the period of 1960-1967 was a period of intense artistic activity in Belfast, Heaney, the Belfast Festival, Van Morrison and so on. Imagine if Ellis's authentic working class work had been in that cacophony of change and passion? Imagine if he had been the leading theatrical voice before the Troubles kicked in?

This is a fascinating book, which asks us questions about what art is for, and how the struggle to achieve art effects to the artist. We should mark this period in our history well, and hope that future James Ellis's find the strength to overcome the barriers this odd place puts in the path of artists, even the great ones.

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.