Born Ballymoney 7th May 1918
Died Belfast 5th July 1974
Adept character actor and veracious ethnic comedian, whose combination of camp and drag endeared him to a localised, captivated audience for almost twenty years. He was introduced to acting through the drama group of the Youth Hostels Association and in 1943 was awarded actor of the year by adjudicator St John Ervine during the amateur dramatics festival at the Grand Opera House Belfast. No doubt fired by this accolade, he hired a suburban Belfast cinema and with his fellow acting apprentices he produced Jack Loudan’s play ‘A Story for Today’, which considering the circumstances proved a moderate success.
This brave enterprise received the appropriate attention, when Group Theatre director and actor Harold Goldblatt offered him a position with his progressive acting company and in December 1943 he made his debut as Willie John Marley in Joseph Tomelty’s comedy ‘Right Again Barnum’. The following year he transferred to the Grand Opera House Company and after a short stay left for the north of England, where he found work with a local repertory troupe based in Stockport Hippodrome. His first appearance there was in Edward Percy’s ‘Four Walls Told’ and after a strenuous but rewarding period, he went south, first to Aldershot and then to London where at the New Theatre in 1946, he barely made the cast list in Sean O’Casey’s ‘Red Roses for Me’. The thought of begging for acting scraps was not appealing and was a major factor in his decision to sign up with Combined Services Entertainment, for a tour of the Middle East in ‘Night Must Fall’ and ‘Worms Eye View’.
In 1948 he returned to Belfast and the now thriving Group Theatre, appearing as Albert Magellan in George Shiel’s ‘Mountain Post’ and in 1949 was a regular cast member in a number of plays, which included a notable Percy Todd in Cecil Cree’s ‘A Title for Buxey’ and a memorable George in Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’. In the latter he played opposite an inspired Joseph Tomelty as Lennie and a new but hardly young recruit to the professional ranks, J.G. Devlin, who after many years in local theatre was now establishing himself as a valued Group Player. Tomelty himself was about to launch his own radio show that year based on a fictional Belfast family entitled ‘The McCooeys’ and offered Young the minor role of Derek, the amiable but inquisitive window cleaner.The series ran for a brilliantly successful six years and despite the selective memory of folklorists, his character did not feature as frequently as was often suggested.
Shortly after his appearance in the title role of the J.R Mageean/Ruddick Millar comedy ‘Arty’, at the Group in 1951, he was invited to join Tyrone Guthrie’s ensemble at the Arts Theatre London for George Shiel’s ‘The Passing Day’, presented as part of The Festival Of Britain celebrations. A change in direction occurred in 1952, when he was given his own radio show ‘The Young Idea’, a clear case of BBC NI. cashing in on the ongoing McCooeys success. The programme , broadcast from the stage of the Empire Theatre, Belfast, gave him more air time to expand his rapidly developing repertoire and gave a leg up to Group colleague and aspiring actor Patrick McAlinney. Throughout the fifties, together with his long time friend and partner Jack Hudson, he worked on a diet of review at the Empire and summer season at the Legion Hall in Bangor.
In late 1959 in the wake of the ‘Over the Bridge’ furore, which effectively ended the Group’s status as a legitimate theatre, he was offered the venue on a permanent basis. The new regime opened in March 1960 with Sam Cree’s adaptation of Glenn Melville’s ‘The Love Match’ followed by ‘Wedding Fever’, an original Cree farce, which established an Irish theatre record of 205 consecutive performances. In one year, with Hudson’s help, he had made the Group financially viable, albeit with an alternative form of theatrical expression but as he often said himself ”theatres are there to be filled” and house full notices were commonplace throughout the early sixties.
Noteworthy among the successes were ‘All the Kings Horses’ 1961, ‘Love Locked Out’ 1963, ‘Holiday Spirit’ and ‘Sticks and Stones’, both 1965. In 1966 he introduced a new phase in his comedy presentation, that of solo performer and opened at the Group with ‘Young at Heart’, which gave him the opportunity to project his considerable personality at his own speed. The one-man show format continued for the remainder of the sixties, with ‘It’s Great to be Young,’ ‘Young and Foolish’ and ‘Comedy Tonight’ which ran for a staggering 327 performances, confirmed by the Guinness Book Of Records as the longest running solo comedy show ever. He returned to conventional farce in 1970 with ‘The Cat and the Fiddle’ and pursued this routine until 1971, when the Group was forced to close it’s doors, a casualty of the now entrenched civil strife, leaving a void for Young , who in the eleven years at his adopted home, instituted an wholly ethnic brand of comedy never before exploited in such an engaging way.
He resurrected his summer review in Bangor from 1972, supplementing this with stand-up appearances across the religious divide and in the winter of that year the first of his BBC television shows, ‘Saturday Night’ was screened to a local audience in the midst of almost daily violence and descruction. He ran rampant with his exaggerated studies of Ulster types, Mrs O’Condriac, Orange Lil, Sammy The Abominable Schoolboy, Cherryvalley Woman, Sadie and of course the ubiquitous Derek. This blend of television, cabaret and his legendary one-man shows sustained him throughout 1973 and into the final year of his life.
James Young for the greater part of his career effortlessly cornered his own parochial market but his range was much wider than was generally percieved, he began as a promising actor who later saw more potential in playing for laughs and with much panache, followed his chosen path.
Other Theatre credits:
(All Group Theatre, Belfast)
– Poor Errand (1943)
– Candida (1949)
– Master Adams (1949)