Born Belfast 15th March 1931
Died Lincoln, England 8th March 2014
Unshakeable and perspicacious character actor, whose career was as varied as it was long. He began aged nineteen, winning a Tyrone Guthrie Arts Council Scholarship to Bristol Old Vic where he made an early impression in the company of other young hopefuls Paul Eddington and Prunella Scales in a production of Shakespeare’s farce ‘ Loves Labour’s Lost ‘ in 1951. On his return to Belfast he made his professional stage debut as a police sergeant in Donagh McDonagh’s ‘Gods Gentry’ at the Arts Theatre in the late summer of 1951. He then joined the more prolific Group Theatre and for the raw but eager Ellis the Group was probably the best place to be, working in his native city, with the best repertory actors of the day. During the next few years he appeared in many Group productions, including Louis D’Alton’s ‘They Got What They Wanted’ 1952, Joseph Tomelty’s ‘April in Assagh’ 1954, ‘The Glass Menagerie’ 1955 and ‘A Saint of Little Consequence’ 1956.
His first television appearance in a 1958 episode of ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’, was not encouraging, credited uncharitably as Thin Man, he made a good fist of making himself obvious in a crowd scene and any thoughts of a screen career at that point were fanciful to say the least. Back at his day job that same year he found himself embroiled in an internal dispute at the Group, when playwright Gerald Mc Larnon became a reluctant cause celebre after his play ‘The Bonefire’, an observation of eleventh night celebrations in a Protestant district of Belfast, was rejected by the Board of Governors. The play’s subject material was deemed too sensitive and was quickly transferred to the Grand Opera House, opening in August 1958 and directed by Tyrone Guthrie, with a cast including JG Devlin, Colin Blakely, Harold Goldblatt and Ellis himself, playing to full houses throughout its run. In November 1958, another crack appeared in The Group’s structure, when Artistic Director and founding member Harold Goldblatt tendered his resignation, Ellis was offered and accepted the job, but would preside over only a handful of plays before another controversy would rock the theatre to its very foundations. In the Spring of 1958, Sam Thompson, an East Belfast born playwright and former shipyard worker, offered Ellis his play ‘Over the Bridge’ for presentation at the Group and after consideration, the play was scheduled for production in April 1959, but less than two weeks before opening the Group’s watchdogs again intervened, this time citing the collision of politics and religion as their reason for rejection.
The actors company incensed at yet more petty meddling, collectively resigned and Sam Thompson sued and subsequently won his case for breach of contract. James Ellis gathered the nucleus of the old Group company of actors, under the banner of ‘Ulster Bridge Productions’ and guest Harry Towb, for the eventual premiere of ‘Over the Bridge’ at the Empire Theatre, Belfast in January 1960. In a gesture brimming with sweeping irony, he cast himself in the small but fateful role as mob leader. Following several weeks playing to packed houses, the play transferred to the Olympia in Dublin and then a national tour taking in Edinburgh, Brighton and London where it closed after a short run. Back in Belfast, Ellis and Thompson booked The Empire again, this time for a big production pantomime which they hoped would maintain the status of their fledgling company but the heavily invested project ‘Cinderella’, although well received, was deemed a financial failure and thus the hectic one year life of Bridge Productions was no more.
Ellis at least was able to make a quick high profile return, when he was asked to play the lead role of Belfast shipyard worker Dandy Jordan, in Stewart Love’s televised play ‘The Randy Dandy’ 1961 and in January 1962 no doubt on the strength of this success, entered the national psyche as Constable Bert Lynch in the BBC’s new police drama ‘Z Cars’, set in fictional Newtown, the Liverpool set series was gritty and hard nosed as ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ was reassuring and neighbourly. The show ran for sixteen years with Ellis’character rising through the ranks to Sgt and for a period in the mid sixties, following his headhunting by the plain clothes division, became a Detective Constable in the spin off ‘Softly Softy’. After the final season of ‘Z Cars’ in 1978, he once again returned to theatre, with a long West End run at the Wyndhams, as Father Mullarkey in Mary O’Malley’s ‘Once a Catholic’ 1979 and followed this with ‘The Outside Edge’ at the Palace, Watford, in 1980 and his other stage work included Hugh Leonard’s’ Da’ at the Arts Belfast and Field Day’s production of Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ at the Guildhall in Derry, both 1981.
On television in 1982 he played a part which could have been written especially for him, that of Norman Martin, father of Kenneth Branagh’s Billy, in the first of Graham Reid’s trilogy ‘Too Late To Talk To Billy’, making three further appearances as the hard drinking patriarch in sequels during the eighties including ‘Lorna’ in 1987, spotlighting his daughter played by Brid Brennan. During this time he had a regular co-starring role as zoo keeper Paddy Reilly in the television series, ‘One by One’ 1984 and on the big screen had a small but memorable part as a vagrant in Alan Bleasedale’s black comedy ‘No Surrender’ 1985, which also feaured old Group colleague JG Devlin. Playing Bert Lynch for so many years locked James Ellis into a spiral of Irish character types, which,with few exceptions were the only screen roles on offer thoughout the remainder of his career
. In writer Paul Makin’s surreal comedy series ‘Nightingales’ 1990/93, he played Sarge, one of a trio of dysfunctional night security guards, let loose in an office block and although not exactly prime time humour, the cast including Richard Lindsay and David Threlfall dealt convincingly with the increasingly bizarre storylines. In the nineties his film work amounted to a number of cameos such as Father Ellerton in Jimmy McGovern’s ‘Priest’ 1994 and Pat in the thriller ‘The Near Room’ 1995, starring Adrian Dunbar. On television he appeared in Graham Reid’s ‘The Precious Blood’ with Amanda Burton and ‘Crossing the Floor’ both 1996 and had a guest starring role in the colonial police drama, mini-series ‘Heat of the Sun’ 1998 set in 1930’s Kenya, starring Trevor Eve. That same year he had an also- starring role in the dark and violent film ‘Resurrection Man’, a savage depiction of Protestant paramilitarism in seventies Belfast and from 2000 he worked intermittently in all mediums,which included a functional role as Dickie Best, father of George in Mary McGuckian’s ‘Best’, a bopic of the iconic footballer, released in 2000.
On stage in 2001 he played Old Mahon in the National Theatre’s production of ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ presented at the Cottesloe, was both dying father and ghostly grandfather in Brian McAvera’s ‘Kings of the Road’, at the Old Museum Arts Centre Belfast in 2002 and at the age of seventy five appeared with Ian Richardson in Bill Brydon’s ‘The Creeper’ at the Theatre Royal Windsor in 2005 which graphically underscored his undoubted affection for the stage. His last screen appearance was a guest credit as care home resident Joe Barlow, in the short lived fantasy/drama series ‘Eternal Law’ in 2012. It would be unfair to suggest that James Ellis’ career will be defined by his ‘Z Cars’ character, a more balanced assessment should consider the variety of his work spanning six decades, a veritable model of durability at the very least
Other Theatre, Film and TV credits:
– The Sparrows Fall (1959) Group Theatre, Belfast
– Dial M for Murder (1976) Riverside Theatre, Coleraine
– Sleeping Partner(1977) Theatre Royal, Bath
– The Churchill Play (1988) Barbican, London
– Son of Man(1995) Barbican, London
– Prayers of Sherkin(1996) Old Vic, London
– Ill Fares the Land (1983)
– Conspiracy of Silence (2003).
– High Rise Donkey (1980)
– Boys From the Blackstuff (1982)
– The Long March (1984)
– The Hidden Cirriculum (1984)
– In Sickness and in Health (1985)
– Common as Muck (1994)
– Playing the Field (1998)