Whatever became of Kenneth Branagh’s Billy?

Graham Reid’s Billy plays brought Belfast lives on to British screens in the 1980s. Now he is staging a sequel


They were landmark television dramas which, in the early 1980s, introduced mainstream viewers in Britain to the hitherto impenetrable mysteries of the Belfast accent and opened up whole new perspectives on what constitutes “Irishness” and “Britishness”.

From being widely regarded as an undiscovered country from which no traveller returns, Northern Ireland was suddenly portrayed as a place, in many ways, much like any other and Belfast as a city where, away from the violence of the Troubles, working-class families faced similar problems to those of their counterparts on the other side of the Irish Sea.

The four Billy plays — Too Late to Talk to Billy , A Matter of Choice for Billy , A Coming to Terms for Billy and Lorna – were responsible for significantly raising the profile of playwright Graham Reid, as well as for giving the big television break to a young, raw Belfast-born actor called Kenneth Branagh.

From time the time, they have raised their heads out of the mists of time. In 2009, Omagh District Council community relations department financed the public showing of all four dramas and, in February 2012, a BBC Northern Ireland documentary looked back on the first screening in the company of the three lead actors — Branagh, James Ellis and Brid Brennan.

Now, there is to be a fifth, commissioned by the Lyric Theatre as part of its Tales of the City season, which commemorates the 400th anniversary of Belfast’s city charter. Love, Billy sees a world-weary Billy Martin returning home to a changed city after an exile of 25 years in England. It reveals the reasons for his sudden departure and the still-to-be-resolved grudges within the family.

One wonders whether Reid ever experienced a “Steve Redgrave moment”, a pledge that if he ever contemplated writing a sequel, he should be shot.

“Oh no, absolutely not,” he laughs. “I have often thought about writing another Billy play, maybe looking at the two young sisters and what might have happened if they headed off to England.

“Yvonne Friers [widow of former Irish Times cartoonist Rowel Friers] sent me a copy of an interview with Ken Branagh, in which he said he would like to do another, but for television. I started thinking about what the story might be and had several conversations with Ken. He was coming up to 50 and wanted to get in touch with his roots again.

“Then I met Richard Croxford, the artistic director of the Lyric, and we talked about doing a new play for the theatre. And here we are. For this production — which will be directed by my old friend Roy Heayberd — we have cast Joe McGann as Billy. He’s a very sensitive, supple actor, who has a tremendous stillness about him. I think he will do a super job.”

Reid was raised in the loyalist area of Belfast where the Martin family lived. While they may be fictional creations, he makes no bones about his real-life link to them.

“The plays are autobiographical,” he says. “I grew up with people like the Martins in Coolderry Street, off the Donegall Road. It’s long gone now and has become part of the City Hospital.

“Friday night was pay night. Men would be staggering home drunk, there were riots and fights. I knew a lot of men like Norman Martin, who were devils in drink. Norman was a hard man, who didn’t give way to his emotions. He talked with his fists. When his wife had an affair he couldn’t forgive her; for a man like him to be betrayed in that way was simply unacceptable.

“But after his wife dies, he marries an Englishwoman, who tames him.”

The knowing grin accompanying this final remark, underlines another aspect of Reid’s life — his marriage to the English actress Gwen Taylor, whom he met when she was cast in the role of Norman’s second wife.

Reid regularly comes back to Northern Ireland, where his two daughters and other family members live. He still cares deeply about Belfast but admits that he no longer has the same attachment to the city, mentioning in passing that, in the late 1960s, he was a vigilante on the Shankill Road.

“Well, saying that, I walked around with a stick in my hand. We spent most of our time stopping people from breaking into meters. But make no mistake, it was a very dangerous city back then.

“For me, the notion of home changed when my mother died in 1983. She was the centre of gravity. Her great gift was to bring us up to treat people as you find them, regardless of religion.

“I hate the idea of the people who are running the place now. I think Northern Ireland is entirely undeserving of its politicians. We should have had very different people in charge.

“The main problem with this flag business is that the protesters have been let down by their leaders. If I had been part of it, I would certainly not have been on the streets using the flag as a weapon, a rag to be dragged around the gutters. The commercial damage to the city amounts to more than Margaret Thatcher’s funeral.

“I was an admirer of [former Northern Ireland prime minister] Brian Faulkner. I remember him saying that an Ulsterman would walk 10 miles to be provoked and there’s still a lot of that kind of thing going on here now – as Billy is about to find out.”

Love, Billy runs until May 25th.

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