James Ellis 1931-2014

JIMMY ELLIS 1931-2014

Jimmy Ellis was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1931 and died a few days ago. He was an actor best known for his role as Birt Lynch in Z Cars, (right) a BBC TV series that ran from 1962-1978, among many other roles he also appeared as Norman Martin in a trilogy called Billy by Graham Reid. The web abounds with good information about him. What is not so well known is the fact that he played the part of Niall, the Caretaker, in a BBC Radio 3 play called Albion Tower (1996) by my partner of 30 years Max Hafler and produced by Sue Wilson. The play won the Sony Radio Awards best production 1996 and The Commision for Racial Equality Award for best Radio Play in the same year. Max says Jimmy loved the play and was great to work with. In remembrance of Jimmy I reproduce here with the author’s permission Jimmy’s opening speech in the play.

Albion Tower: Albion Tower is a Midlands (UK) tower block of flats and Niall is the caretaker who is constantly preoccupied with the task of scrubbing the often obscene grafitti off the stairwell walls; in the play he becomes the narrator who remembers the tragic events that happened there: (my introduction to Max’s excerpt)

SCENE ONE

(STAIRWELL IN A LARGE TOWER BLOCK. CITY SOUNDS. THE RATTLE AND HISSING OF PAINT SPRAY CANS . FOUR KIDS ARE GRAFFITI-ING THE WALL., THEIR VOICES ECHOEY. WHEN THE KIDS SPEAK THEY STRETCH THE SOUNDS, SPEAKING WHAT THEY HAVE WRITTEN.)

BOY 1 (AS IF WRITING) Albion Tower.

GIRL 1 By Max Hafler

BOY 2 Load of Bollocks…..

(THEY LAUGH, ROAR LIKE WOLVES, RUN OFF. PAUSE. A MAN SCRUBBING THE WALL OF THE STAIRWELL. NIALL AGED 50 , NORTHERN IRISH CATHOLIC. A CAR PASSES. WINDOWS RATTLING WITH SOUND , DEEP BASEY RAP. NIALL’S VOICE ECHOEY IN THE STAIRWELL . HE STOPS SCRUBBING.

NIALL Gaaaaaad,
What a noise.

(SCRUBBING)

Whatever I do
This stairwell stinks of piss!
No, not piss, it isn’t piss.
The stench comes off
The filthy writing on the wall.

(THE SCRUBBING CONTINUES. THE KIDS ARE HEARD ECHOEY, FAINT, THE SOUND OF SPIRITS AGAIN. THEY SPEAK WHAT THEY HAVE WRITTEN.)

BOY 1 S – H – I – T

GIRL 1 B -I -T-C-H

BOY 2 C – O –W

GIRL 2 W – H –O –R –E

GIRL 2 This is a picture of –

ALL (FULL OF HATE) Sandra Moore!

NIALL Drawings. Cave drawings.
Monstrous girls legs open wide.
Cartoon fellahs with giant… things.
Is that a thing to look at
When you climb the stairs?

(NIALL SCRUBS, SIGHS SATISFACTORILY. UNDER THE SPEECH WE HEAR THE KIDS LIKE GOBLINS, SPRAYING AND GIGGLING.)

NIALL My wife Elsa tells me –
I’m wasting my time.
“You’re not expected to –
Caretaker’s pittance.”
I just go on.
It’s like –
Like it’s a cancer in the block
And I’m trying to cut it out.

KIDS (SEVERALLY ENUNCIATED) PISS
SHIT PRICK SPEW

NIALL I never look back
As I work my way up.
If I looked back I’d lose heart.
Some days I go home, and my fingers are bleeding .

BOY 1 (OVER THE SPRAYING) Vile Niall

NIALL That’s me.

BOY 1 Thick Mick.

GIRL 1 (SINGING) His wife’s a Yi –id!

(FEROCIOUS SCRUBBING)

NIALL Gaaaaaaad
This patch… everlasting paint.
Get…..God… won’t come off.

(WRYLY) What would the archaeologists
Make of these I wonder?

BOY 1 (WHISPERED) Spastic

GIRL 1 (WHISPERED) Aidsman.

BOY 2 (WHISPERED) Big fat slag.

GIRLS 2 (WHISPERED) Chantal’s mum is a plastic bag.

NIALL Names.
The calling of names is where everything starts.

GIRL 1 YOUR DAD’S A LESBIAN!

NIALL Fire a name.
Watch what happens.
If he doesn’t react,
If he watches the name zing past his nose,
Seek out his softness,
Aim the name there,
Set the lad roaring.

BOY 1 (VENOMOUS) Your mum.

NIALL Cussing your mum,
That’s a great shot.
If you simply say ‘your mum’ these days,
No more, just say ‘your mum’
The knives are out I’m telling you.
The other day I heard a kid
Scream at another kid,
‘Your mum’s a credit card!’
They nearly killed each other!

(SOMEWHERE IN THE LABYRINTH ABOVE HIM A DOOR SLAMS, THE WIND, A LITTLE GIRL, CHANDNI SINGS A HINDI RHYME, ECHOEY)

Albion tower,
Babel of the Poor,
Where the forgotten live.

KIDS (WHISPERED UNDER NIALLS NEXT SPEECH ) Jocks. Paddies. White Bastards. Chinkos. Slant Eyes. Pakis. Niggers. Spiks. Greaseballs!

NIALL English, Scottish Irish Boat people still with the terror in their eyes. Indians, Pakistanis. Caribbeans. Portuguese. Africans. Chinese. Spanish. Maltese.

They gaol themselves here
When darkness comes.
Slam their doors,
Lock their chubblocks, deadlocks, padlocks, catches,
Hide behind grilles,
Wrought iron gates,
Wait for morning
Or if they do go out
They keep their heads down.

(CHANDNI’S SONG AGAIN)

Not long ago,
I thought the block was cured.
Something happened here.
Something terrible.
For weeks they left the walls alone.

(SONG FADES, SCRUBBING)

End of script quote

At this point in the play Niall begins to narrate the intro to the story and the play begins.

It is interesting that for some reason Max describes the caretaker as a Catholic, Jimmy was not of course, but the description didn’t worry him it seems. It would be nice if the BBC did a repeat of it: it is oddly enough not that dated except by references to Princess Di’s wedding!

This will be the way I remember Jimmy Ellis and Z Cars of course!

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