Life

Anne Hailes: Former Ulster Television personality Jimmy Greene was a class act

James Greene, seen here in the David Walliams comedy Big School, was also art of the Radio Drama Company

A LOT has been written about James Greene who died at the beginning of this month but not a lot about the Jimmy Greene we knew, one of the original Ulster Television personalities back in 1959.

Jimmy was from the Ormeau Road, his father worked in the shipyard and, although there was no theatrical influence in the family, he dedicated his life to acting. Until his death he was one of only two remaining members of the Group Players, Barbara Adair being the other one.

She remembers those vibrant days of theatre and how the acting fraternity met with artists and writers in the famous Campbell's restaurant. She recalls going there with Jimmy to the coffee lounge on the first floor, overlooking the flower sellers on the pavement outside Belfast City Hall.

A famous meeting place for the glitterati of the arts world and a place where, after shorthand and typing school, I'd go and sit in the corner and gaze on the likes of Sam Thompson, JG Devlin, William Conor, Joe Tomelty, James Boyce and Rowel Friers, little knowing that years later I would meet them all through working in Ulster Television. How fortunate am I to have such memories.

When he was 27 Jimmy also joined the new independent television company, one of six original ‘front of camera' people along with Ivor Mills, Ernie Strathdee, Adrienne McGuill, Anne Gregg and Brian Durkin.

Jimmy was a gentleman with high standards and a dry sense of humour. In those early days of television at ‘close down' and just before the queen atop her horse indicated a stern-faced goodnight to the sound of the British national anthem, there was a short interlude called ‘End the Day.' It was the idea of Sir Laurence Olivier – when he opened and closed the new station on opening day 1959 he finished off the evening viewing with a quote from the Bible.

This started a trend and each continuity announcer had to come up with their own little homily. Adrienne Catherwood, in those days McGuill, says she had books of quotations and sayings on her desk every day. “I was always looking for something deep and meaningful.”

But Jimmy had it down to a fine art. “One night he smiled at his public, read them a recipe complete with method and then said ‘And if that doesn't work out just open a tin of beans. Good night.'"

Playwright Graham Reid held Jimmy in high regard. “Both as an actor and a friend, a quiet man, you didn't hear him before you saw him unlike many actors.”

He appeared in Graham's TV play You, Me and Marley, playing the part of Fr Peter, a priest in west Belfast coping with wayward boys during the Troubles.

“I remember him telling me about one experience he had with two school friends. Jimmy Ellis, Ken Jamison and Jimmy Greene all went to Methody where they were known as the Three Musketeers. In later years they planned a boy's trip to Paris and, with a few hours to spare in London, they decided to visit the Courtauld Institute, the leading centre for the study of art history, meat and drink to these young men.

"Despite being a Sunday morning they went to the front door and rang the bell. To their surprise the door was opened by a distinguished gentleman wearing a dressing gown. Jimmy Greene introduced the party and explained they were on their way to Paris and had some time to spend and would like to see round the Institute.

"The man in question was the director and such was Jimmy's charm that he invited them in, and after showing them round, entertained them to tea and toast. Only afterwards did they realise they'd had breakfasted with Sir Anthony Blunt, one of the five famous spies working for the Russians.”

On another occasion Graham was standing outside the Theatre Royal in London's West End when a man in an overcoat resembling a bearskin sidled up to him.

“He pounced on me and demanded in a real Belfast accent: ‘I claim my £5.' That was in the days of an advertising campaign featuring Mr Presents who, if you could identify him, would hand you over a fiver. We had a great chat and caught up on everything going on in theatre. He often reminded me that he never got his fiver!”

Jimmy's film and stage work covered a multitude of performances from the Old Vic to Dublin's Abbey Theatre and the Lyric in Belfast. A shout would go up in our house when he appeared on television – “Jimmy's on” – Wolf Hall, Dr Who, Downton Abbey and the head of science in the David Walliams comedy Big School.

Tragedy visited his family one day in August 1968 when in a fatal car crash at Ballynure on the Larne Road a trailer broke away from the cab of an articulated truck, veered on to the wrong side of the road and fell on top of a Renault car returning to Belfast after a family day out. The driver, David Marshall, was floor manager at Ulster Television and a dear friend to us all. David died, so did his wife Annette and two of his three children.

Annette and Jimmy's wife Diana Payne, both actresses, were sisters and immediately Diana and Jimmy absorbed baby Maggie into their family.

The last time I saw Jimmy was about five years ago. I was having lunch in a restaurant in Bedford Street when I saw him walking by. I was out of there like a dose of salts and down the road after him. It was a lovely meeting, a modest man with all the warmth of those Ulster Television days when we were such a close knit bunch of enthusiasts.

Certainly the boy from the Ormeau Road made the right decision when he said ‘I want to be an actor'.

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