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.
In one of the grandest artistic gestures in this country in the 20th century, Ellis then resigned his job, set up a new company with Thompson and put the play on at the Empire, to packed houses.
Martin Lynch, who revived the play in Belfast to mark the 50th anniversary of the controversy, said of Ellis that he had “broken the back of conservatism in the establishment at that time and very, very courageously stuck to his guns”.
As a working-class Protestant, Ellis got a scholarship to Belfast’s Methodist College where he had his first experiences as an actor. He went on to study English, French and philosophy at Queen’s University. He dropped out after two years to train at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, retaining a deep love of literature and ideas.
He translated poetry by Pierre de Ronsard and wrote stories and poems, publishing several collections and broadcasting his work on BBC radio. In 2008, Queen’s awarded him an honorary doctorate. Colin Davidson painted his portrait.
His numerous television parts included an archaeologist in Dr Who , a street drinker in Boys from the Blackstuff , and the eccentric Uncle Minto in Ballykissangel . In 2012 he played a care home resident in Eternal Law on ITV.
He had roles in films including No Surrender, Priest and Resurrection Man . Stage plays included Once a Catholic and Da . In 1982, he played the bullying father figure Norman Martin in Graham Reid’s Play for Today Billy trilogy on the BBC. Kenneth Branagh had his first major role as Billy.
Branagh said Ellis was a “great inspiration” to him and a “tremendous actor”. Enniskillen actor Adrian Dunbar said he was “a wonderful actor and a warm and generous man”.
Brid Brennan, from Belfast, who played his daughter in the Billy trilogy and worked with him on several other occasions, described him as “open minded and open hearted.” He was, she said, “hugely generous as an actor and in himself, a powerful actor and a kind and vivid man, full of humour and a great storyteller”.
Ellis had two sons and a daughter with Beth Ellis, whom he married in 1956. They divorced and in 1976 he married Robina, with whom he had another son. This marriage was lastingly and profoundly happy. His life was, however, marked by tragedy.
In 1988 his eldest son Adam, was attacked and murdered while fishing from a London towpath. His second son, Hugo, became depressed and killed himself in 2011.
James Ellis is survived by his wife, Robina, his daughter, Amanda, and his son, Toto.