Arts

Drama teacher Peter paying it forward for Jimmy Ellis

Belfast drama teacher Peter Ferris tells Joanne Sweeney how the late great James Ellis has guided him to inspire a new generation of actors

Acting teacher Peter Ferris with drama students at Mercy College in north Belfast Rebecca Todd, Tanfara Nyamhingura and Ellen McLarnon last week Picture: Matt Bohill

THE hit rock and roll musical American Idiot is likely to wow audiences at Belfast's Grand Opera House later this month just as it did in the US and at London's West End last year.

The rock opera features the iconic 2004 single by Green Day as well as other songs from their 2004 concept album of the same name and stars X Factor's Amelia Lily in the Tony-award winning show for five nights from June 28.

But most people will not be aware of the Northern Ireland link that the acclaimed show has with the city and the late and great Jimmy Ellis who died in 2014.

Behind the success of chart-topping singer/actor Newton Faulkner and actor Lucas Rush – who play two of the three lost and troubled boys trying to understand the world post 9/11 – is Belfast actor/director and drama coach Peter Ferris.

As one of the drama teachers at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts in London, Peter taught both Faulkner and Rush and a host of other top names on stage and screen such as Claire Sweeney, Martine McCutcheon and Louise Redknapp.

In an interesting twist in the story, Faulkner and Rush once played together in a Green Day tribute band and are now helping to extend the fame of the group which won a Grammy in 2010 for the best musical album. The show features the music of Green Day with the lyrics of its lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong and book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer.

Even the young Russell Brand got some of the Ferris magic when he attended the London school where Peter taught in between his own acting career.

And in what he sees as a major 'paying it forward' tribute to former Z Cars actor and director Ellis, who inspired him as a young boy growing up in Belfast, Peter (49) has spent the past 30 years passing on the love and skill of acting to others.

"Jimmy directed me in The Billy Plays when I played the lead role of Billy at the Arts Theatre in 1990. He helped me cope with the fact that the only other person at that time to play Billy was Kenneth Branagh who was up for an Oscar for Henry V at exactly the same time," says Peter.

"When Lucas was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in the West End this year he sent me a text to say 'I'm so sorry I didn't win... you were on my thank-you list. But in all honesty I was blessed by incredible mentors like Jimmy Ellis and all I did was pass on their wisdom.

"Jimmy was just an amazing person. I don't think Northern Ireland really appreciates him enough. He inspired so many of us. What Jimmy was doing at the Group Theatre in the 50s and 60s was the same that was happening in New York where Marlon Brando came out of.

"When you have benefited from somebody like Jimmy in your life, then you think that now it's my turn to give back. Jimmy should have got a knighthood or there should be at least a blue plaque erected for him in Belfast."

And it seems like Peter has put his money where his mouth is as he's been teaching a monthly screen acting class at the Dockers Club in Belfast since 2009. He was asked to take the class by Brian McCann who won the former talent show Opportunity Knocks. He's now treasurer of the actors union Equity in Northern Ireland.

A former Cabin Hill and Campbell College student, Peter grew up with showbusiness in his blood. His father John ran a theatrical agency and regularly had people like Roy Walker and Gloria Hunniford in their home.

His mother's cousin was dancer and choreographer Irving Davies who starred in West End musicals in the 1940s, as well as dancing in the Gene Kelly feature movie Invitation to the Dance.

He was fortunate to gain a place at the renowned Italia Conti school when he was 18 and ended up being the only person from Northern Ireland to be alongside young actors who were already starring in programmes such as Grange Hill.

Although he lives in England, Peter spends a week each month in Northern Ireland teaching screen acting at schools and colleges.

He says he's delighted that some of his former students are making their mark in the north, including Daniel Mays, who starred in Line of Duty, which is filmed here.

"I see these amazing young people as the 'star grand-children' of Jimmy Ellis and it is incredible seeing them come here and succeed in Northern Ireland. It's also amazing to meet people like Newton and Lucas, who are doing so well now in their careers," Peter adds.

Peter's screen connection with Northern Ireland is set to continue as he plans to direct two new films here next year.

:: American Idiot is at Belfast's Grand Opera House from June 28 to July 2. Tickets from www.goh.co.uk

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