Troubles Over The Bridge - James Ellis

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It was a bright March day in 1959 just a few days before my twenty
eighth birthday when I was stopped in my tracks by the playwright and
former shipyard worker, Sam Thompson. It was on the pavement
between the old Group Theatre and the Northern Ireland BBC in
Bedford Street and Sam was in no mood to be brushed off.

          ‘You’re the new theatre director aren’t you?’
          ‘That’s right Sam,’ I replied.
          ‘Well, I have a play here you won’t touch with a barge pole,’ he said,
brandishing the manuscript under my nose.
          ‘Why don’t we go for a pint and you can tell me all about it,’ I
suggested, ‘and I promise I’ll read it tonight.’

          This was plainly music in Sam’s ears. Obviously I was a man after
his own heart.
          At this point I knew very little about Sam although I had appeared
in two of his BBC Radio Documentaries, one of which was 'Tommy
Baxter Shop Steward' in which I played the part of Baxter but on these
occasions his attention was focused on his mentor and producer, Sam
Hanna Bell, who, being a distinguished writer himself, had no doubt
shaped and edited Sam’s work and in all probability written or rewritten
parts of the script himself, so our first real meeting was the challenging
confrontation on the street followed by our first friendly exchange of
our hopes and ambitions in a snug of the old Elbow Room, then just
across the road from the BBC and a favourite watering place for their
producers and members of the Group Theatre company.
          The first impression I formed of him was that of a forthright but not
unfriendly man with challenging eyes, a full face and a shock of dark
brown hair that partly covered his ears. His shoulders were broad and
his body was slightly on the portly side, no doubt because of his
fondness for a pint of Guinness; but he could obviously handle himself
in a shipyard confrontation. In short, a man’s man, like my father.
          The first thing we discovered about each other was that we were
both from East Belfast, the next, to our amazement and delight, was
that we were born within a couple of hundred yards of each other, he
in Montrose Street off the Albertbridge Road, and I at number 13 Gawn
Street in a house now demolished, off the Newtownards Road.
Needless to say, we got on famously on that occasion and established
a bond that continued after my departure for London where he stayed
in my flat near the BBC’s Television Centre. The best characteristic of
Sam, however, is, I believe, expressed in his own words to the electors
of South Down where he stood against the Conservative/Unionist
candidate Lawrence Orr. His message to the good people of South
Down was typical of Sam:

          “Those of you who have seen my plays, heard my broadcast
          social documentaries, or read my articles in the press, will
          know two things about me.
          “The first is that I care about people as people; I am angered
          at the pensions on which old people have to live; I know from
          my own past experience the misery caused by unemployment
          and I am bitter that a new generation of young people are
          suffering it still. Our children have a right to a decent
          education, a fair opportunity in life and a livelihood without
          forced emigration.
          “The second is that I am a forthright person and I am not afraid
          to speak up for my sincere opinions. People no longer want
          words and promises, they want action. If you elect me your
          member of Parliament, I will speak frankly and act decisively
          on your behalf – which is more than the weak contingent of
          unionists have done. If, as I believe, Labour forms the next
          Government, South Down will need a spokesman on the
          Labour benches.”

Needless to say, his words fell on deaf ears. Over the next couple of
years Sam Thompson became a close friend, not only of my late father,
but also of the leading actor in his most famous play, the much loved
J.G. Devlin.
          I read the play that afternoon and took it back to my parents hoping
my father, himself a shipyard worker, would cast his eye over the script.
Not only did he do that but he sat poring over the entire play, re-reading
many passages. When he had finished, at well past midnight, he handed
it back and took off his glasses before saying, ‘This is our play, son,
you must do it.’