Portrait of A House

We are delighted to unveil Portrait of A House, a collection of poems by the esteemed Northern Irish actor and theatre director, James Ellis. This book, a homage to Ellis’s cherished childhood memories, launches on Friday 15th March 2024, coinciding with what would have been his 93rd birthday.

In the spring of 2000, as James Ellis’s sister bid farewell to their family home of sixty years, he found himself grappling with a wave of nostalgia and creativity that inspired this heartfelt ode to the past. In Portrait of A House Ellis invites readers into the family home, where the walls resonate with stories of joy, friendship, and resilience. Through vivid imagery and heartfelt prose, he recounts the everyday lives of his family and a cast of characters who passed through their doors, leaving indelible marks on his memory.

With support from the Arts Council for Northern Ireland, The Linen Hall has curated a special edition of Portrait of A House, featuring an introduction by critically acclaimed writer and academic, Glenn Patterson, and a selection of unique family photographs. This edition is exclusively available for sale at The Linen Hall.

This video, inspired by Ellis’s poignant autobiographical poem of the same name , pays tribute to his remarkable life and career. From his early days growing up in east Belfast to a remarkable career in theatre, television, and film, Ellis’s journey unfolds with profound emotion and nostalgia.

We extend our heartfelt gratitude to those who contributed to the making of this video. Special thanks to Robina Ellis, James Ellis’s widow; his son, Toto Ellis; Producer Claire Murray; actors Julia Dearden, Katie Tumelty, and Adrian Dunbar; and Senior Lecturer in History at Northumbria University, Connal Parr for their insightful contributions and sharing of reminiscences.

About James Ellis

Born in Belfast in 1931, James Ellis was raised in the shipyard area of the city where his father was a sheet-metal worker. After his early education he won the Tyrone Guthrie Scholarship which took him to Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. On returning to his home town he joined the Belfast Group Theatre under the tutelage of Sir Tyrone Guthrie, who remained his mentor for the following decade.

Choosing to develop his career beyond acting, he soon became a respected theatre director and was appointed the youngest Artistic Director of the Group in 1959, shortly before he confronted the Establishment of the time in an early bid for freedom of speech in the arts and to oppose censorship. Resigning from his position in order to successfully stage Sam Thompson’s controversial play Over The Bridge – to audiences of 40,000 in Belfast, a sell out in Dublin (and in the process forcing Orson Welles to close a nearby theatre) – this was followed by Laurence Olivier’s Company tour of Britain. Now seen by the Establishment as the ‘bad boy’, he became effectively an artistic exile from his home country in London. There, in 1962, he was cast in a lead role of the ground-breaking and iconic police drama Z Cars, a part he played for the next sixteen years, becoming a household name.

The following half century saw Ellis take a range of lead roles and character parts spanning radio, film, television, and theatre, including seasons at the Barbican, Sir Peter Hall’s company at the Old Vic, the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Among hundreds of television performances, one of his most outstanding and memorable was as Norman in Graham Reid’s The Billy Plays.

A lesser-known part of Ellis’ profile was the writing he did in his spare time, which stretched from an original stage play written in hexameters to translations of Mihai Eminescu, Virgil’s Aeneid (which he rewrote from French translations), and more besides, which are housed in The Linen Hall. Two books were published in his life-time; one of poetry and the other of short stories which were adapted to radio readings. Portrait of a House will be the second posthumous publication after Troubles Over the Bridge (2015), which tells the full story of the Over the Bridge controversy whilst melding in a partial autobiography.