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Joe Cushnan: Remembering James Ellis

In: Guest Editorial Author: James Ellis

Joe Cushnan reminisces over a "master class in storytelling" in 'Home & Away: Ten Tales and Three Dreams' by James Ellis

Picture for blog story Joe Cushnan: Remembering James Ellis

For people of my vintage (I am sixty-one), there was a police series on television in the 1960s that seemed to run forever. It was called ‘Z Cars’ and it starred the Belfast-born actor James Ellis, a trailblazer of the Ulster accent on mainland TV. Ellis was born in 1931, the son of a sheet-metal worker. He was a Queen’s University graduate in English, French and Philosophy, and had a fervent interest in the creative arts, especially theatre. He was awarded a Tyrone Guthrie scholarship, his ticket to join the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and eventually he became a professional actor/director. 

On his return home to Northern Ireland, he joined the prestigious Group Theatre and produced, directed and appeared in many plays. In the late 1950s, he took the decision to produce a controversial play – Over The Bridge by Sam Thompson - about religious bigotry and tension in the Belfast shipyards. The local council, owners of the Group, forbade him to proceed with the production, fearing violent reactions on Belfast’s streets. Ellis rejected their decision and resigned. He took the play elsewhere and it had a very successful run, with little or no adverse reaction. In retrospect, many people have acknowledged James Ellis as a man of courage, prepared to pitch his belief in a creative arts project against any odds that might have attempted to block him.

Ellis’s primary career in theatre and television continued after he left Belfast and, apart from his famous role as Bert Lynch in ‘Z Cars’, he appeared in many small screen shows including ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Ballykissangel’, ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ and ‘Only Fools and Horses’. He also appeared in several feature films. He has performed at the National Theatre and the Old Vic. He was adept at drama and comedy, especially handy with a cheeky one-liner. But it is his secondary or parallel career as a writer than concerns us here. He was a Belfast man through and through and he loved the city, with all its faults and foibles, and stayed true to its artistic soul, even though he lived in England for a large part of his life. In his performing career, he rarely changed his native accent. In his writing career, he was always drawn back to his homeland.

Home & Away – Ten Tales and Three Dreams is a master class in storytelling. James Ellis collected stories from around Europe, works by Guy du Maupassant, Alphonse Daudet and Paul Verlaine, amongst others, and not only translated them into English but also rewrote them, changing locations and resetting them in and around his beloved Northern Ireland. He wrote original stories too. The collection, as the cover blurb says “sings with northern wit and lyricism”. The stories are as quirky as some of the characters but standards of writing and entertainment are consistently very high.

So, the actor becomes storyteller, as Ellis explains: ‘The assembling of a group of stories of my own construction together with others translated and adapted to an idiom and background that best suits my style of delivery is in a sense an extension of my repertoire.’

‘My Uncle Julius’ tells of the father of the Davenport family who is preoccupied with the fate of his long lost brother Julius, described as a downright rogue, a waster and a black sheep. Joseph, the narrating son, wonders too about his uncle’s fate. Julius left home in Belfast and, using the family inheritance money, sailed to America to start a new life. Letters from him, years apart, kept his family informed loosely about his new life, fabricated to sound upbeat and prosperous. He promised to return home to share his fortune. On a trip to the Isle of Man, the Davenports spot an oyster seller on the boat and, well, let’s just say that coincidence enters the plot. It is a simple story but Ellis tells it beautifully, hardly wasting a word in drawing us into an emotional, if predictable, dilemma.

In ‘The Miller’s Tale’parish priest, Father Martin is in despair because none of his parishioners bothers to come to church, a building, it seems, occupied only by him and a few spiders. But, he refuses to give up hope, prays for a solution and looks for inspiration even in the cobwebs. If a spider can try, try, try again, then so could he. He posts a notice in the town square:

          ‘To the Good People of Ballyslapgattery and surrounding districts
          If you attend Mass this coming Sunday you will hear
          something greatly to your advantage. This concerns every
          family in the parish without exception and entails
          the presence of every member of each family, save only the aged
          and infirm. The information you will receive will be
          of benefit only at first hand; hearsay will not be worth a brass farthing.’

Lo and behold, at the mention of a farthing and advantage, the church was full to the rafters the following Sunday and Father Martin had his audience mesmerised with a passionate yarn about Heaven, Purgatory and Hell, a yarn that he remembered from years before told by a travelling entertainer but retold to the flock as a tale of choices and potential doom. From that day onwards, every Mass was blessed with full attendance. It would be wrong of me, of course, to spoil the story but let me just say that James Ellis, the actor, would have had a wonderful script to enable a bravura performance of Elmer Gantry proportions.

‘The Hidey-Hole’is a secluded fishing spot on a river claimed by Mr and Mrs Fox. All the regulars know it belongs to them and them alone. But one day, they arrive for a day’s angling only to be shocked to see that another couple (nicknamed ‘the Sparleyfarts’) had hijacked their spot. The two couples sit side-by-side, with tensions high and tempers simmering. Matters are not eased as Mr Fox watches Mr Sparleyfart catching fat fish after fat fish. A war of words breaks out between the two women, then scuffles and the introduction of Mrs Sparleyfart’s whirling umbrella. Mr Sparleyfart gets involved in the fray but he tumbles back, falls into the river and drowns. The story takes place in court. Mr Fox was arrested regarding the death. Is he found guilty or not guilty? The narrative is mainly Mr Fox’s testimony to the judge, a feisty, breathless and funny account of what actually happened on that fateful day. This is another example of a writer with an actor’s ear for dialogue.

The other seven tales are told in similar fashion with expertise and efficiency, outlining themes from the start, defining characters and settings, driving plots along, building tension when necessary, injecting humour as appropriate and resolving problems and conflicts with clear, sometimes surprising, endings. 

‘Strolling Players’ is largely a conversation between a working actor and an itinerant former actor. They stand on a bridge, enjoying the scenery and reflecting on life from a privileged and underprivileged viewpoint. Sympathy, pride, generosity, all feature in a subtle story that balances sadness and hopefulness skillfully. 

‘Sculley’s Goat’, a cautionary tale, takes the form of a letter from a wise, old head to a young man about to turn down a lucrative journalism job because he wants to remain a free(lance) spirit. A tethered goat longs to escape its farm to go to the distant mountain and roam free. The farmer, sensing the goat’s intentions, locks her in a barn but forgets to secure a window. The goat escapes and enjoys frolicking in the daylight. But when night falls, a howling wolf deflates the spirit of freedom, and things do not end well. This is a Roald Dahlesque story and a finer compliment I cannot imagine.

A luxury liner, nicknamed ‘The Pepper Pot’ because of its former condition as a Second World War vessel battered and damaged by shells, arrives in Belfast for a refit, including the installation of a luxury bathroom in the best suite. The centrepiece of the bathroom is the bath, carefully lowered into position before being adorned with gold taps and fancy fitments. But from the day of the job’s completion to the day of inspection by the ship’s management, the bath disappears and so a seemingly unsolvable mystery begins. The storyteller keeps the mystery alive throughout and the reader has no choice but to be gripped until all is revealed in the last paragraph.

‘Fear’ is really a debate about the nature of that very thing – fear. Two characters exchange stories in attempts to define the word and the experience, trying to outdo each other with talk of horror, terror, panic and danger. It is possibly the weakest story in the collection because it seems incomplete. But what we are given retains enough quality for it to have earned its place here.

‘The Devil’ is the funniest tale. A young farmer’s mother is very close to dying but he can’t afford to neglect the harvest and tend to her. So, he hires Granny Greer, a local miserly hag who specialises in looking after the dying. Normally, she operates a daily rate but the farmer insists on a set fee. Much to Granny Greer’s disgust, the mother refuses to die quickly and Granny becomes incensed that she is missing out on more cash via her normal daily rate arrangements. She comes up with a mad plan and eventually the mother passes away. Granny Greer, in full devious, miserly mode, ensures that the farmer pays her more than is necessary. Here is a tale that crackles with humour borne out of a dark situation, and we learn a lesson that deviousness and a dash of ruthlessness pays off sometimes.

Take an extremely thrifty wife, a henpecked husband and an everyday object and watch mayhem and chicanery at work in the ‘The Umbrella’, a story that is daft and brilliant, but hilarious in its depiction of the inconsequential becoming disproportionately significant. Did Mrs McIvor allow Mr McIvor to buy a new brolly to replace a damaged one? All I’ll say is there was a storm before the calm and within the calm was a canny woman.

‘Master Manole” is unusual in that it is part verse and part prose. It tells of a prince who hires a gang of builders to erect a shrine on his estate. He promises rewards for a successful job or severe punishment for failure. But time and time again, whatever the builders built, it would fall to rubble for no apparent reason. Fearful of the prince’s wrath, they must find a way to succeed. The foreman, Manole (known as Maloney), has a dream and is convinced that their work is cursed. The only way to break the curse, he insists, is to ensure the death of the next relative of the gang members to appear on the building site. Reluctantly, they all agree. And soon, Maloney spots the first one along. The cure for the curse is suddenly closer to home than he anticipated. This is an unusual story told in an unusual way. It works perfectly.

The book ends with the Dreams section, with James Ellis musing on his home city and on his father, using dreams as his tool to explore things he remembers vividly and things he thinks he remembers via that blur of nostalgia and emotion. In the tales, he looked outwards to the wide imaginative world of fiction. In this tailpiece segment, he looks inwards to examine his personal life and loves.

James Ellis died in 2014, a week shy of his 83rd birthday. Professionally, he leaves behind an impressive theatre and screen CV, an excellent book of poems (‘Domestic Flight’) and this collection of delightful short stories – a fine repertoire indeed.

Joe Cushnan was born in Belfast. With a long career in retail management behind him, he is now building a portfolio of published features (most recently in Belfast Telegraph), reviews and poetry. His books include 'Stephen Boyd: From Belfast To Hollywood'. http://droppedthemoon.blogspot.co.uk/

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