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Before the Flood

Connal Parr

Troubles Over the Bridge: A First Hand Account of the Over the Bridge Controversy and its Aftermath, by James Ellis, Lagan Press, 168 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1908188557

The British and Irish prefer their actors not to have too much political or social significance. Things changed briefly in the late 1950s and sixties with the emergence of Stanley Baker, Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Vanessa Redgrave, but normal service has resumed in recent years. In Northern Ireland this phenomenon appears to be located in the bitterness of the political divide. There are a few: Ballymena-born Liam Neeson has inhabited Michael Collins and voiced Rising commemorations (in between some shockingly poor action thrillers); Siobhan McKenna wowed the United Nations with anti-apartheid speeches (and expressed sympathy for the old IRA on the BBC), and, of course, Stephen Rea. But by and large it has been left to American film stars and character actors to involve themselves in politics – Burt Lancaster, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, not to mention B-Movie supremo Ronald Reagan, and on to a more recent era which has seen Sean Penn denouncing the invasion of Iraq and paddling through Louisiana at the height of Hurricane Katrina. In this mould was Jimmy Ellis, who is one of the few actors on either of these islands who could claim to have actually impacted on the political scene. It was his decision, responding to the challenge of playwright and former shipyard worker Sam Thompson, to direct a play which exposed a web of Unionist cronyism, allowing opponents of prime minister Lord Brookeborough to mount a challenge to replace him with a younger moderniser by the name of Terence O’Neill.

Ellis left the Group Theatre and directed Thompson’s debut, Over the Bridge (1960), also taking the role of Mob Leader – a figure familiar, still only too familiar, in Northern Ireland, where the play was seen by an estimated 42,000 people over the course of six weeks. Over the Bridge then toured to Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Brighton and London, coming unstuck in the latter (its ambitious revolving set broke down), losing all the money it had made everywhere else. But theatrical censorship in Northern Ireland had been shattered for good: “never again would the authorities try to interfere in the affairs of the theatre, or attempt to unofficially censor the work of our local playwrights”, Ellis writes. Meanwhile the play’s exploration of sectarianism within the labour movement and in Belfast continues to stand up because these themes remain powerfully pertinent.

This memoir feels like a blast of fresh air from a bygone time. Ellis writes in a pristine, affectedly clever manner, reflecting his working class east Belfast roots (things are so bad these days that some people think working class people aren’t able to be articulate on page or in person). He had published before, poetry mainly – notably Domestic Flight (1998) – as well as short stories. His poem titled after Thompson’s play gives an inkling of his feelings at having to leave his home city for good:

I crossed a bridge and thought to shake the dust
From off my feet, but it was not to be;
I fled across the Irish Sea,
Nursing resentment and profound disgust

That individuals had betrayed their trust
And held the public stage in ignominy,
Events o’ertook the ancient enemy,
And time has mellowed memory, as it must.

Over the Bridge had been accepted, cast, and publicised at a press conference when the board of Group Theatre, who were producing the play, elected by six votes to two to withdraw it a fortnight before opening night in May 1959. Thompson faced an establishment antagonist in the form of the Group’s chairman, John Ritchie McKee, who was also chief executive of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (or the “Council for the Encouragement of the Migration of Artists”, as Thompson termed it). McKee was by profession an estate agent, and more importantly, a golfing companion of Lord Brookeborough. Following a breakdown in talks aimed at resolving the dispute, the Group board released a statement to the press asserting that “The Ulster public is fed up with religious and political controversies …. [Over the Bridge’s] grossly vicious phrases, and situations … would undoubtedly offend and assault every section of the public.” Thompson proceeded to sue the company for breach of contract and received an out of court settlement. In further response some of the Group’s actors, led by Ellis, founded a company called Bridge Productions Ltd. The play was finally staged at the end of January 1960 at the Empire Theatre in Belfast, in a space which is now Victoria Square.

Troubles Over the Bridge shines much light on the detail of the affair. We discover for instance that the Lord Carson Memorial Flute Band provided men for the crowd scenes, giving a flavour of the docklands (the Irish army took these roles in Dublin), and there are intriguing meetings with impresario Tyrone Guthrie. Over the Bridge is conventionally seen as having been directed against the establishment, but it is actually a certain kind of provincial establishment in Belfast that emerges as having been the problem. Ellis’s account refers to a number of powerful figures who were emotionally, and even financially, in tune with Thompson. Michael Morris, 3rd Baron Killanin, “would become a sort of patron of Sam, lending him a house on his estate of Spiddal in County Galway to finish his next play”, while another unlikely ally was governor of Northern Ireland Lord Wakehurst. Along with his wife, the governor attended Over the Bridge, being “wonderfully indiscreet after the performances and in congratulating the author and the cast”. He “didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. ‘Why did they take it upon themselves to ban this play?’”, a theme he continued “in the stalls bar where he had laid on something of a party”. The governor gelled with Thompson in particular, commenting “Yes I have met Mr McKee, I think.” Ellis provides by way of a coda an anecdote of McKee and Wakehurst attending the same event together some months later, leading the governor general to call out as he was leaving “Any riots yet, McKee?” Thompson’s grievance was against a more local form of cronyism, of those occupying the multiple jobs on multiple boards, and the web of favours this involves.

The role of the mob has been cited approvingly by left-wing activists over this year’s Easter commemorations, reflecting the assessment of James Connolly: “All hail, then, to the mob, the incarnation of progress.” Things are rather different in Belfast (it was ever thus), where mobs are deeply malevolent forces in times of strife and sectarian conflict, not just in the later Troubles but in the era Sam Thompson wrote about: the communal strife of the 1930s, when he saw men kicked to death in the streets. Over the Bridge’s simple premise was of a shop steward, Davy Mitchell, staking his reputation and his life on the right of a Catholic worker, Peter O’Boyle, to come in to work, defying the threats of the mob. Though it concerned a certain Protestant bigotry – and has occasionally been misconstrued by nationalists keen to put the boot in to one community – the play was against all intolerance, and may more appropriately be seen, as playwright Martin Lynch phrases it, as a story of how the individual behaves in the face of a not-so-progressive mob. Lynch adapted the play for a hugely successful run at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast in the spring of 2010, reflecting its continuing relevance.

Ellis’s career and prospective life in Northern Ireland ended the day he took on Over the Bridge, and he knew it. He would go to England, audition for the main role in the television version of Stewart Love’s The Randy Dandy, and the rest, as they say, is history. There followed sixteen years as the inimitable Bert Lynch in the BBC television drama Z Cars – the first time a British television audience became properly acquainted with a Northern Irish accent – before returning to the Irish stage and screen in the early1980s, most memorably of all as Norman in Graham Reid’s “Billy” plays (1982-84). He also showed up, memorably, as a tramp in Alan Bleasedale’s Boys From the Blackstuff, occupying a status somehow even lower down than Yosser, but Ellis’s son Toto pointed out at his funeral in March 2014 that his father was really proudest of his work as a director in Belfast before he left.

The book relates numerous highlights along the way, one of which, involving Orson Welles in Dublin, deserves particular mention. Conceding that the success of Over the Bridge had essentially “driven Orson Welles out of Dublin”, depleting the great man’s audiences at the Gaiety for a production of Chimes At Midnight, Ellis relates how he and Thompson went to a night club where Welles and the director Hilton Edwards were holding court on their last night. Thompson adored the cinema and wanted to meet the boy wonder himself, but for some reason Edwards never made the introduction. As Edwards walked past Thompson’s table as the night wore on, the pugnacious east Belfast playwright grabbed him: “What followed was an unstoppable flow of invective and insults, many of them to do with Hilton’s sexual proclivities [Edwards was gay].” This roused Welles, who bellowed towards the table “Who is this bum insulting Hilton?” Fearing a brawl, Ellis attempted to get in between the two bulky customers, though “it ended in no more than a battle of stomachs as the megastar propelled Sam and myself across the small dance floor and against the far wall of the nightspot”.

Ironically Edwards would go on to direct Thompson’s less impressive follow-up, The Evangelist – by all accounts lifting a rather stagey, one-dimensional play into the realms of rip-roaring entertainment – and Ellis’s early involvement and eventual separation from this project is the second part of this memoir. Eventually filled by the redoubtable Ray McAnally in the title role, Ellis makes clear his difficulties with the play, and also on occasion with Thompson himself. He always considered it “unfinished business” (though he only read it as a script). Even in this more minor section of the book there is much of note on the world of legendary Belfast actors like JG Devlin, Kitty James, Margaret D’Arcy, Doreen Hepburn, Maurice O’Callaghan and Joseph Tomelty.

One detects that Troubles Over the Bridge has been written to correct the record; that that Ellis wished to re-insert himself into the Over the Bridge story, a narrative which has been naturally dominated by Sam Thompson since his premature death: “It seemed to me that everyone, from the man in the street to theatre historians, poets, play producers and academics have wanted to air their views or be seen to be a part of the action and as often as not have simply been wide of the mark.” Ellis feels that Thompson somehow had it slightly easier, “despite the fact that he never missed an opportunity to attack the powers that be. His compelling play had, however, done the talking for him and he had the unswerving support of a working class community who at that time regarded him as their hero and spokesman.” This was true only up to a point, for Thompson was also unable to survive the politico-cultural sub-zero of Belfast for very long. A mere five years after Over the Bridge’s original run, all the stress, pressure, and a poor diet caught up with him. Thompson suffered a massive heart attack and died, aged forty-eight, more than symbolically in the Waring Street offices of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. It felt like the loss of a Protestant working class leader who might have offered an alternative voice, one that was sorely needed as the Belfast proletariat tore itself to pieces from 1969 onwards.

The new details of how Ellis brought Over the Bridge to the stage after its unofficial banning by the Unionist authorities of the time will of course be of interest to theatrical, cultural, and political historians. The book is, however, more than that. It is a cultural artefact that is about the personalities involved in an era when Belfast and Northern Ireland may, strangely, have been different from its settled image. Politically we might say that it represented a high point for the Northern Ireland Labour Party – which Thompson would stand for in elections (absurdly, in the rural South Down constituency in the 1964 Westminster election) –which then attracted 26 per cent of the electorate and seriously challenged the Unionist Party for the Belfast vote. The Troubles was only a few years away from the events described in Troubles Over the Bridge, but it feels like an eternity. Terence O’Neill, who had benefited politically from the episode, set out to thwart the rise of Labour, meaning that Ulster Unionists would thereafter deal with the nationalist SDLP (from 1970), and after that with the even more nationalist Sinn Féin. Ellis ran into one of John Ritchie McKee’s daughters in a restaurant in Belfast some years later. “My father loved the theatre you know,” she remarked. Ellis felt he had been clumsy in replying that he did too, “but it was just that we loved it in a different way and from vastly different points of view”. But he had, as so often, said exactly the right thing. There were other Ellis lives, tragedies, and triumphs beyond the heady days of 1959, and they are briefly alluded to in an account of his arrival in to London and rendezvous with a legendary troupe of expatriate Irish actors. We can only hope for a few encores from the Ellis family archives.

Ellis was a warm character and a generous man. He had great confidence but little ego, and was the star of many a dinner party and drinking social which would go on far longer than anyone imagined. There is also the erudite Ellis, the Methodist College grammar school boy who adored his French and English classes and didn’t want school to end. Sometimes the east Belfast force of nature fused with the cultured literary gentleman, and you wouldn’t have wanted to have ended up on the wrong side. In March 2014, at an event in Belfast’s Europa Hotel following Ellis’s funeral, an actor told the story of his appearance in a play by a local writer which was running at the Edinburgh Festival in the summer of 2003, with two other younger actors (including the storyteller) who also happened to be comedians. The play had apparently ended with Ellis’s character ripping the head off a comatose body which had lain motionless on a bed throughout the performance. The two younger actors were not enamoured with this ending and neither was Ellis. The playwright patronisingly explained “But Jimmy, you don’t understand the Celtic mythological reference I’m making, little knowing that Ellis was extremely well-read on such material: “Celtic mythology? I know more Hungarian mythology than you do about Irish mythology and more besides, now get the fuck out of here!” The local writer wisely avoided attending rehearsals again, and Ellis and the other two actors just about salvaged the show.

Ellis was frail towards the end of his life and his public appearances could be fraught when he mislaid or forgot to take his medication. But the old sparks crackled now and then, and this illuminating memoir allows us to remember the man in the prime of his life, all that energy and fire, before the boat to the successes which gave him the profile to come back to Belfast now and then, always preferring the ferry from Liverpool so he could take in the daffodil yellow cranes of Samson and Goliath, the timbers of Victoria Park, the “hills of Antrim etched upon my heart, / For truth to tell, I never really left.” The original stand of Over the Bridge has never been forgotten, forging a path for all Northern Irish dramatists to approach the darkness.

In April 2014, following a public campaign, Sam Thompson Bridge was opened by the former first minister of Northern Ireland, Belfast’s mayor, poets, and actors. Ellis is currently the subject of another bid to rename a new east Belfast overpass, so that some time in the near future, James Ellis and Sam Thompson Bridges might both stretch over the cold, rich waters of east Belfast, while the names of the politicians who tried to thwart them are long forgotten.


Connal Parr was awarded a PhD from Queen’s University Belfast in 2013 and has published articles in Irish Political Studies, Fortnight and the detail. He is a board member of Etcetera Theatre Company, established in September 2012 to stage plays and generate artistic initiative in working class Protestant areas.



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