James Ellis: One of life’s gentlemen, say Nesbitt and Lynch

Actors James Ellis (left) and James Nesbitt, pictured in 2009.
Actors James Ellis (left) and James Nesbitt, pictured in 2009.

Veteran actor James Ellis helped inspire other Ulster actors to take their accent and talent “on the boat to England”, playwright and producer Martin Lynch said last night.

Mr Lynch, 63, who had known Mr Ellis for more than 25 years, said: “His was the first Belfast accent that people in the UK regularly heard in their lives – ever.

“This opened the gates for all kinds of accents after that. I have spoken to some of the actors who went across [to England] and they said they looked at Jimmy Ellis and said ‘if he can do it, we can do it’.”

Mr Lynch, whose plays include The History of the Troubles According to My Da, The Titanic Boys, The Chronicles of Long Kesh and Dancing Shoes – The George Best Story, said: “I found Jimmy an absolute joy to work with. He was one of life’s gentlemen. With everybody he worked with, he passed something onto them or gave them something.”

The Belfast playwright added that Mr Ellis was “very, very serious about his work”.

“I suppose I worked with him most in recent years, about four years ago, when I adapted Sam Thompson’s play Over The Bridge,” he said.

“And Jimmy, obviously having originally directed it, advised me quite a lot and I took his advice on the script.”

In 1960, when Mr Ellis was the Group Theatre’s director of productions, he dramatically resigned from the post to direct Over The Bridge.

At the time the Group’s board thought the play too controversial as it dealt with issues surrounding sectarianism.

“He came to our opening night and spoke. He was full of praise,” said Mr Lynch.

“We dedicated a plaque to Sam Thompson at one of his old houses in east Belfast and we went back to the Park Avenue Hotel and he spoke about my adaptation of the play.

“He very kindly said I was Sam Thompson’s natural heir which was very touching for me to have someone like Jimmy say that. Jimmy considered Sam Thompson a great man and a courageous one. He put all the praise on Sam Thompson for that episode in 60/61 but it was really Jimmy Ellis who made it all happen. He was courageous.”

Mr Lynch said that “Jimmy’s love for drama started after he won the scholarship to Methody College”.

“He found drama in Methody and it started then and there for him,” he said.

“Jimmy had a great sense of fun. He had a great sense of humour. He was one of those people when he walked into a room everybody was attracted to him. You know the phrase ‘larger than life’, that’s the way he was.

“You would stop in a pub with him for a drink and within three minutes half the bar was around him buying him drinks, you move on to another pub and it was exactly the same.

“He was famous in Northern Ireland and the whole UK. Everybody knew him and he took it all with great grace and spoke to everybody. He was very modest.”

Mr Lynch said he received news of Mr Ellis’ death whilst he was on holiday in Malaga.

“I am really hurt by Jimmy Ellis dying because he was such a great man who made such a great contribution,” he said.

Ulster-born actor Adrian Dunbar told the BBC that he had known Jimmy Ellis as a friend and a companion for many years. “He was a wonderful actor and a warm and generous man,” he said. “He blazed a trail for many actors in Northern Ireland.”

Top storyteller and a great ambassador

James Ellis was a complete gentleman, writes Liz Kennedy.

For children of my generation, he was Bert Lynch from our beloved Z-Cars, one of the few real Ulster voices on national TV at the time.

But James was so much more than that, when I got to know him in more recent times.

Courteous and charming, he was one of those people who would make time to talk to everybody.

He was a top storyteller, old-school style, with plenty of yarns about the greats of the theatrical world here.

We sat in the gallery of the Ulster Hall one day and reminisced about the Group Theatre.

James was delighted that I’d appeared on the stage of the Group, the home of Ulster comedy, before it became consigned to history, with the refurbishment of the hall.

And it made me feel very special that the man, who’d made such a mark at the Group, was sitting talking to me.

He put in a principled resignation, as director, when he stood down over the furore about Over The Bridge, a stand against sectarianism.

And that was the mark of James Ellis, a decent and honest man, a poet in his spare time, a fine actor and a great ambassador for our wee country.

I’ll still think of him every time I hear the theme from Z-Cars and say thanks for his time with us.

We were all the better for knowing you, Bert Lynch.