Open-hearted son of Belfast’s working class community
James Ellis: March 15th, 1931 - March 8th, 2014
Jimmy Ellis when he received an honorary degree at Queen’s University in Belfast. Photograph : Stephen Wilson/PA Wire
Although he died in England, where he had lived for many years, James Ellis’s family had no doubt about where he wanted his final resting place to be.
“We are taking him home to Belfast – Belfast meant the world to him,” his son, Toto, said. Ellis ( 82) died in hospital in Lincoln last Saturday following a stroke.
Last year Ellis had paid a nostalgic visit to the terraced house on Park Avenue where he was born in east Belfast. He spoke about how his father, a sheet metal worker at the nearby shipyards, had carried an unexploded Luftwaffe firebomb out of the family home during the second World War.
The plaque dedicated to Ellis at the house shows him in police uniform – for many, and for Northerners in particular, he will primarily be remembered fondly as Sergeant, and latterly Inspector, Bert Lynch from the groundbreaking Z Cars series set in a rundown industrial town in Northern England.
Z Cars ran from 1962 for four years and was later revived, finishing in 1978. At its peak it had 18 million viewers, including the queen. Ellis was in every one of its 565 episodes, which were filmed live. It was, he said, like a constant first night at the theatre.
Bert Lynch was complicated, had teddy-boy hair and a working-class Belfast accent. Ellis had been advised at drama school to lose the accent.
His proud refusal to do so blazed a trail for a stellar series of other actors, including Kenneth Branagh, Liam Neeson, Brid Brennan, Adrian Dunbar and James Nesbitt.
In a tribute to a “true gentleman”, Nesbitt said: “His was the first Belfast accent that people in the UK regularly heard in their lives . . . This opened the gates for all kinds of accents after that.”
It was by no means Ellis’s first act of defiance. By the time he moved to England in 1961, Ellis had already established himself not just as a gifted actor but as a man of courage and integrity.
In 1960 he was the director of productions at Belfast’s Group Theatre which he had joined in 1952. His roles as leading man had included Christy Mahon in Playboy of the Western World and he had been directed by Tyrone Guthrie in the acclaimed premiere of The Bonfire by Gerard McLarnon. Ellis would later boast that he had also given a start in pantomime to a plasterer called Frank Carson.
He was passionately determined to present Over the Bridge , which dealt with sectarianism in the shipyards from the socialist perspective of its author, Sam Thompson. However, the board of the theatre, chaired by a unionist grandee, banned the play as inflammatory and instructed Ellis to avoid henceforth work that dealt with religion and politics.