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James Ellis 'much more than an actor' says son and Two Angry Men director Toto

Toto Ellis, son of fondly regarded Belfast actor James Ellis, reflects on his father's 60-year career and tells Jenny Lee how he felt compelled to make a film based on his dad's 1959 struggle to stage a play that tackled the build-up of sectarianism in the city's shipyards

Belfast actor and writer James Ellis was most proud of his involvement in Over the Bridge, playwright Sam Thompson’s portrayal of sectarianism in the city’s shipyards

HIS childhood was filled with mingling with stars of the screen and hanging around film and TV studios, but Toto Ellis admits he didn't realise just how famous his father, James, was until Michael Aspel presented him with the coveted This is Your Life red book in 2001.

"As a child I found it fascinating and wonderful. I got to wander around places like the Going Live studios. I didn't think it was unusual to hang around with Richard Attenborough and Frank Carson or have the likes of Kenneth Branagh turn up at your home," says Toto.

"It wasn't until This is Your Life that I appreciated how much of a unique person dad was and how rare a talent he had."

James Ellis, more affectionately known as Jimmy, became a household name in the early 1960s playing the hotheaded PC Bert Lynch in the BBC police series Z Cars before appearing in many other roles including in Graham Reid's Billy Trilogy, Doctor Who, Ballykissangel and Only Fools and Horses. He died of a stroke in 2014, aged 82.

However, his son Toto is keen to emphasise that there was much more to his father's talent than acting.

"He wrote poetry, novels, plays, screenplays, directed, performed, did Latin translations, did set design and penned romantic music compositions, based on French poetry," he says.

His publications include his poetry collection Domestic Flight (1998) and his short stories collection Home & Away (2002), while the BBC broadcast a selection of his adaptations from French in 2007.

Jimmy started his career as a stage actor and director in Northern Ireland and was appointed director of productions at Belfast's Group Theatre at just 27. It was these early years of his career that his father was most proud of, Toto says.

"Aged 29 he managed to put on a play about bubbling sectarianism in the shipyard against all odds. Everyone and everything was against it. During dad's later years it became very apparent that he believed this story was his greatest accomplishment," he says.

The play was Over the Bridge, east Belfast writer Sam Thompson’s powerful portrayal of a sectarian dispute in the city’s shipyards. After its effective banning by the Group Theatre’s board of directors following representations from the unionist establishment, Jimmy Ellis took his stand against censorship, resigning from his position in order to direct the play.

The wider story of this rebellious opposition to censorship of the arts in the 1950 was documented in Jimmy Ellis's own book Troubles Over the Bridge, which was published posthumously.

"A week before my father died a publisher agreed to publish the book, but sadly he would never know that because he had a stroke and wasn't well," recalls Toto, who went on to make his own big-screen writing and directorial debut in Two Angry Men, a 20-minute film based on his father's book.

"I felt compelled and duty bound to tell the story. And the book was so vivid that it lent itself brilliantly to film."

When it came to casting, was it simply a matter of Toto looking up his father's old contacts book and phoning his friends?

"Not exactly," he laughs. "Adrian Dunbar is a good friend of the family and a pretty damn fine actor too. I was at an event he was speaking at and I said to him 'You would be a great Sam Thompson'. I opted him into it without even asking.

"Michael Smiley was another actor from dad's old friends book and I'd been made aware Conleth Hill was an admirer of my father and he instantly agreed."

When it came to casting for the role of Jimmy Ellis, it was his godmother, a teacher at LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art), who rang him to say she had the perfect actor in her class in Michael Shea.

"Myself and my mum met him. He'd got a bit of that cheeky confidence about him and we agreed that he could live up to some of those facets my dad possessed in his character."

The film won much critical acclaim on the festival circuit, with many suggesting it could be developed into a full-length feature.

"There is a lot we couldn't tell and a lot we had to take out, such as the brilliant scenes down in Dublin when [Jimmy Ellis and Sam Thompson] got into this big bust-up with Orsen Welles. Then there is the story of Laurence Olivier bringing [the play] to Scotland and then England where actually it came to a catastrophic end when the entire set fell into the audience.

"A full feature has been muted a lot. The tricky thing is people in the rest of the UK don't really understand Northern Ireland politics, which you can see with the whole coalition government – people are asking me: 'Who are the DUP?' You would have to explain the context of how sectarianism began in Northern Ireland. Not that that couldn't be done."

While Toto did harbour directing ambitions from a young age and even considered being a television presenter, he was drawn into the corporate world of advertising and is currently head of strategy at major ad agency in London.

"Through nepotism it could have been very easy for me to get a job but I wanted to get there with my own merit – something my dad was very pleased about. I wanted to try directing at a later point and, motivated by the desire to pay tribute to my dad, Two Angry Men was my opportunity."

A screening of the film will take place during next month's John Hewitt International Summer School – a fitting location as Toto has fond memories of attending the festival as a teenager when his dad was a speaker.

Following the screening Toto will be joined in a panel discussion by Brian Garrett, Sam Thompson's literary executor, and Denis Tuohy, former broadcaster and actor who appeared in the original production of Over the Bridge.

Just as Sam Thompson and Jimmy Ellis in the 1950s believed in the power of the arts, Toto believes that amid today's political climate and global terrorism threat, freedom of expression and the arts are crucial.

"With social media and 24-hour news coverage the public get more of a voice now than they used to. But the arts can express society's opinions and emotions in a more profound way, or in a way indeed in which the establishment wouldn't want them to be expressed," adds Toto who was delighted to join his mum Robina Ellis, in opening the new James Ellis Bridge in east Belfast in March.

"That was a really heart-warming and wonderful moment. It connects the bottom of the street that [Jimmy] grew up on with another part of east Belfast – the shipyard where his father worked and just a few bridges down from the Sam Thompson bridge."

And is he tempted to give up his advertising career to further pursue his film dream?

"You never know – one day," he laughs. "There are various feature ideas knocking about, but the pressure of fitting that around the day job means nothing has started yet."

:: Two Angry Men screening and discussion will take place at Armagh's Market Place Theatre on Thursday July 27 at 4.30pm as part of the John Hewitt International Summer School. For full programme and booking visit johnhewittsociety.org

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