Troubles Over The Bridge

James Ellis

About the book…

Belfast, 1959: the young Group Theatre director James Ellis is approached by playwright Sam Thompson, who announces “I got a play you wouldn’t touch with a bargepole!”

The play was Over the Bridge, 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, Ellis resigned from his position as a matter of principle in order to direct the production of the play.

In this book, James Ellis provides a first-hand account of the strong and well-orchestrated attempts to censor Over the Bridge, and how these were overcome, allowing for the eventual staging of a dramatic work that would become a defining landmark in the cultural history of Northern Ireland.


"This is a story that still resonates, the story 
of a moment when theatre was made to matter in a place where, sad to say, that hasn’t happened very often. And when Jimmy Ellis draws you into the heart of it all again, in his own inimitable voice and with his own quietly intense passion, you feel stirred and heartbroken in equal measure." - David Johnston

"A trailblazer's story of rebellious opposition to censorship of the arts in the 1950s" - James Nesbitt

"A struggle to stage the work of an idealistic 
playwright told in a tale bubbling with enthusiasm and decency as the Artistic Director of a theatre takes his stand against censorship." - Stewart Love

Photo of the author, James Ellis

About the author…

James Ellis was born in east Belfast in 1931, the son of shipyard worker. He is best known as an actor and stage director with a career stretching over sixty years. Educated at Methodist College, Belfast, he later studied at Queen’s University, Belfast, and trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

He began his acting career at the legendary Group Theatre in Bedford Street, Belfast, quickly become one of establishing himself as the company young male lead in such plays as 'April in Assagh', 'Is the Priest at Home?' and 'Playboy of the Western World'.

Having worked his way by the late 1950s to the position of Artistic Director, Ellis was instrumental in the decision to stage Sam Thompson’s controversial Over the Bridge. After its effective banning by the Theatre’s board of directors following representations from the Unionist establishment, Ellis resigned from his position as a matter of principle in order to direct the production of the play with a new company made of up of former Group actors who had likewise quit the Bedford Street theatre over the Thompson affair. It was a huge popular success.

Despite the overwhelming reception for the play, Ellis left Northern Ireland soon afterwards. He quickly quickly established himself on British TV screens – most notably as Sgt Bert Lynch in the groundbreaking  series 'Z-Cars', a role he was to play for many years.

In 1982, he portrayed Norman Martin, the violent and troubled father of a Protestant working-class family, in Graham Reid’s ‘Billy’ triology. He also featured in many comedies and dramas including 'Doctor Who', 'Ballykissangel', 'One By One', 'Nightingales' and 'Priest'. He also appeared in countless cameo roles in many shows including such popular hits as 'Boys from the Blackstuff' and 'Only Fools and Horses'.

He has issued a collection of poetry, Domestic Flight (1998) and a collection of short stories, Home & Away: Ten Tales and Three Dreams (2002). In 2015, Lagan Press posthumously published his memoir Troubles Over The Bridge

A well-loved feature in his native Northern Ireland, Ellis was awarded an honorary doctorate by Queen's University in 2008 and was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Belfast Film Festival. He passed away in March, 2014, aged 82.