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1923-1952
 
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James Alexander Young was born in Union Street, Ballymoney in the County of Antrim , Northern Ireland in 1918. He was the only son and youngest child (with three older sisters) of a working class Ulster family, his Father being employed as a bread server .When he was only six months old his parents moved to Belfast and took a house in Fernwood St on the Ormeau Road (still standing today and marked with a Blue Plaque from the Ulster History Circle) as it was quite close to his maternal Grandmothers home which was in Donegall Pass . There his father accepted the responsibility of carting for the large stable of horses maintained by the Inglis's bakery in the city. The family later moved to Ava Park ( just around the corner ) and at that time Jimmy was a member of the 8th Boys Brigade (held in the Cooke Centenary Church on Park Road) .

Young James
 
Jimmy and FamilyHe attended a school that is now no longer in existence, the Cooke Church School. The only subjects he excelled in were reading and English and often he would have read the current book from cover to cover and digested the plot and dialogue long before most of the other boys had got past the first chapter. On many occasions this lead to trouble with the teacher. As he had already read the first book Jimmy used to take the second one with him to the class , which he would read while the other pupils were being instructed to read aloud. When the Teacher realized what was going on he would shout out "Young - carry on from where the last boy finished!". But such was Jimmy's power of retention that he was able to continue the story from memory, without knowing which page the class was at. This great gift was to last him all his life and he had the ability to totally recall pages and dialogue from plays he had performed in , many years before .


Grand Opera House  -  BelfastThe schooldays of 'Student Young' were not very eventful and he started earning his own living at the age of 14, when he commenced work in an Estate Agents office in Shaftsbury Square. It was during his few years here that a lot of his later characterisations were born. His basic job was Rent Collecting especially from the little working class streets and furnished flats in the local Belfast area. He met a great many colourful characters many of which he was to portray on the stage and small screen in later years. For a while he earned the princely sum of two shillings and sixpence (twelve and a half pence). In those days ,the early thirties ,one could visit the 'gods' at the Belfast Grand Opera House for sixpence and this was where Jimmy was to be found once a week. He saw all the famous visiting stars and envied them their glamorous lifestyle .His first stage disillusionment came one Christmas when he followed the Principal Boy of the pantomime from the Stage Door along Great Victoria Street and watched her going into a rather seedy cafe' and ordering a bowl of soup. He had assumed all actors lived the high life feasting on Caviar and ice cream.

 

Jimmy as a young man.At 16 James Young joined an Amateur Theatrical Company, doing all the odd jobs in the theatre i.e. sweeping up, checking the props, Call Boy and eventually the exalted position of Prompt. It was at this time that he was told that his Northern Ireland accent would not get him very far in the theatre and he should take elocution lessons. Knowing no better he went, as he related, "clutching sixpence in my hot little hand to be elocuted". The first lesson consisted of taking deep breaths and controlling the diaphragm." As I had no idea where the diaphragm was or what it was supposed to do, I could only assume that the deep breathing somehow worked the thing". He ran back for his second lesson to be greeted by the instructress who said - without so much as a Good Evening - "when I see my Aunt dancing on the grass I must laugh'." His reaction, although he knew perfectly well that she was merely demonstrating the proper pronunciation of the words, was typical of his humour. He replied, "well of course you know her better than I do" and promptly left ,fortunately never to return . If he had lost his Ulster dialect at that age he may never have regained it. He was forever insisting to budding artists "Never lose your own dialect .The words you speak are tools of your trade."

 

James then joined the Youth Hostel Association Drama Group. In his first year as a member (1943) he virtually took control of it and entered the Y.H.A. in the Ulster Drama Festival . The play he chose was called 'A Story For Today' and was written by Jack Loudan. He cast the play himself ,played the leading part, organised the costumes and begged, borrowed or stole the furniture and stage properties. The play was then performed at the Opera house as part of the Drama festival; the adjudicator for the season being St John Irvine. On the Saturday night Jimmy was unable to be there for the final judging ,so his two sisters attended. He arrived home some time after they did and asked them eagerly "Well what did St John Irvine say about the season?" "Oh so and so got the award for this and so and so for that etc .... Oh ,and by the way this is for you." And they handed him the award for best actor of the year . Soon after this James was offered a part in the old Ulster Group Theatre's production of Joseph Tomelty's new play 'Right Again Barnum' playing a character called Willie John a role still fondly remembered by many Belfast people. The Group Theatre was at this time managed by such well known names as Harold Goldblatt , J.R.Mageean, R H McCandless, John F Tyrone, Jack O'Malley and Dan Fitzpatrick. Although his experience was widening he still needed a greater variety of roles and so he applied for and obtained a job offering juvenile leads in a company in England and set sail in 1944.


A Young Jack HudsonThis then was the beginning of a full professional career. After two years at Stockport and 104 plays, James was offered a part in the London West End productions of a Sean O'Casey play " Red Roses For Me ".As this play neared the end of its run he auditioned for a part in a play called "Worm's eye view" which was going on tour around the Middle East. It was during this tour he would first meet his lifelong partner Jack Hudson. After the war and back home in Northern Ireland Jimmy's first job was back with the Ulster Group Theatre . Jack Hudson ,who had moved to Belfast to join Jimmy took a job as manager of the Plaza Ballroom . At this time they lived together in a flat above a butchers shop on the Newtownards road. Soon after ,Joseph Tomelty who had a radio series running on the Northern Ireland BBC called 'The McCooeys', approached Jimmy with a view to writing in a character for him based loosely on Willie John ,the part he had played in 'Right Again Barnum'. Between them Jimmy and Joe decided that the new character should be a window cleaner called Derek . The part was an immediate success and it was said that at the time the country would come to a standstill every Saturday Night while everyone listened to the show. The success of the radio show had a great effect on the bookings for the Group Theatre. People who had never been to the theatre were booking tickets to see 'Derek' even though he was playing a completely different character in the current play. Jimmy's involvement with the McCooeys was however short lived ,as Joseph Tomelty had difficulty writing for the character of Derek But although Jimmy's time as a radio star had come to an abrupt end he had captured the publics imagination . James Young was now a household name and everyone wanted to see him.


Derek the Window CleanerAt the Group theatre at this time James Young was earning £7.00 per week. But following his success he began to get offers from variety managements promoting concerts throughout the country, who invited Jimmy to appear for a ten minute spot for £25 and £30 a night. Jimmy and Jack devised a short script for a variety spot, which was as Jack says "absolutely awful" and had a running time of about fourteen minutes. Jimmy's first engagement was for a week's variety in St Mary's Hall in Belfast. He was very nervous about the show but on his first night he walked out to a packed full house where he was received with a rapturous welcome .The MC announced him and he opened his mouth and not a sound . He didn't need ,to the audience wouldn't stop applauding! When the applause finally died down he said his first two words, the two words which in his five appearances in the McCooeys had become a catch phrase in every Ulster home: 'Oh, now!!' Just repeating his radio catchphrase gave him his first laugh . Somehow he 'topped' the laughter and carried on with the rest of the act; but by the time he got to the end he had been on stage for thirty-eight minutes instead of fourteen, and still they wanted more. He adlibbed certainly but it was the timing which added the minutes - that and the laughter. By the end of the week the act had stretched to least forty-five minutes and Jack and Jimmy were richer by £150! This represented over twenty-one weeks normal work at the Group, just for seven nights of variety.
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