Two Angry Men, the story of Artistic Director of the Group Theatre James Ellis and shipyard worker turned playwright Sam Thompson‘s struggle to stage the controversial play Over The Bridge has aired on BBC Two NI.
Directed by James’s son Toto Ellis, and starring Adrian Dunbar and Michael Shea, the film was shot entirely on location in and around Belfast in just three days. Locations included the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, White’s Tavern and the Masonic Provincial Grand Lodge of Antrim.
Over the Bridge was the first ever play in Belfast to tackle the build up of religious division between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, which would eventually lead to The Troubles. Thompson’s powerful portrayal of a sectarian dispute in the city’s shipyards was effectively banned by the Group Theatre’s board of directors following representations from the Unionist establishment, the Chairman of the theatre who asked to modify the play beyond recognition. As a result, Ellis resigned from his position as a matter of principle in order to direct the production of the play.
This film documents for the first time onscreen the battle of these two angry young men to stage the play, coming after the posthumous release of Ellis’s memoirs Troubles Over The Bridge, published by Lagan in 2015. Strewn with Ellis’s recognisable and evocative language, the memoir is a captivating tale of angry young men, of trailblazing Northern Ireland theatre, and of unwavering values based on strong ethics and a belief in telling the real story.
Toto Ellis said of the publication: “Whilst my father was rightly proud of his acting career, it was in fact his early days as a Director of which he was most proud. To have become Artistic Director of the Group Theatre, as the son of a sheetmetal worker in 1950s Belfast, whilst still in his twenties, was a pretty remarkable achievement. So he certainly didn’t take it lightly when he resigned that post on a point of principle to stage the play Thompson had written. He risked everything at this point to try and stage Over the Bridge, with absolutely no guarantee that they would be able to put it on, or even ever be able to find work in the theatre in Belfast again.
“Dad died without knowing his book would ever be published. So this is a pretty special moment for us to be able to tell his story to the world. It’s a fascinating read and it documents an incredibly important moment in Northern Ireland’s history.”