Harold Goldblatt

Harold Goldblatt

Harold Goldblatt from Dictionary of Ulster Biography.

Harold Goldblatt was one of the leading figures in the theatre life of Belfast for half a century, as actor and manager, closely involved with the Group Theatre based in Belfast, while also managing to earn a respected reputation on screen.

His forebears were from the then Baltic provinces of Russia and arrived in Belfast by way of Manchester. They were mostly tailors, pressers and seamtresses, although through his mother (whose family name of Ross was originally Rosenzweig) Goldblatt was descended from Talmudic scholars. The family settled in the Lower Crumlin Road area (Lonsdale Street) near Annesley Street synagogue. He was founder, producer and principal actor of the Jewish Institute Dramatic Society which won the President’s Cup at the 1929 Ulster Drama Festival for a production of “The Melting Pot” by Israel Zangwill, a prominent Jewish dramatist; the play, which gave currency to what is now a familiar expression, depicts aspects of life for Jewish immigrants to the United States in the early twentieth century, of which Zangwill was himself one. During the 1930s Goldblatt’s company produced repertoire including Ibsen Shaw and Chekhov, as well as work by local writers such as Joseph Tomelty.

The Jewish Institute merged with the Northern Ireland Players and the Ulster Theatre in 1940 to form the Group Theatre, of which Goldblatt was a prominent figure, on and of stage, for example negotiating the leasefor for their premises in the Ulster Minor Hall, Bedofrd Street, Belfast. This new company laid a distinct emphasis on plays by Ulster writers, such as Patrick Riddell’s ‘The House Of Mallon’, which Goldblatt directed and in which he played the principal character, Michael J. Murphy’s ‘Dust Under Our Feet’; Joseph Tomelty’s ‘Is The Priest At Home?’ (a comedy”);1954, Greer Ervine’s ‘Martha’ and Louis MacNeice‘s ‘Traitors In Our Way’. However, controversy arose towards the end of the 1950s. In August of 1958, ‘The Bonfire’by Gerald McLarnon, about the traditional bonfires illuminated across Ulster every eve of the Twelfth of July, the Orange Order’s annual day of commemorations of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, was banned by the “myopically cautious” (in one description) of the Group’s Board Of Directors (who for their part justified their decision as designed to keep political controversy away from their stage). The play was performed with the planned cast, a powerful local one indlucing besides Goldblatt, Elizabeth Begly, James Ellis and Colin Blakely, at the Grand opera House, Belfast, directed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie; it enjoyed a successful run. Goldblatt relinquished his directorial posts at the Group in 1959, a new controversy was not going to tempt him back: in 1959, a play by Sam Thompson, “Over The Bridge”, which depicted sectarian (Protestant-Catholic) relations in the Belfast shipyards, was accepted for production by the Group. Just weeks before the scheduled run, the directors again pulled a play on the grounds that it was “full of grossly vicious phrases and situations that would undoubtedly offend and affront every section of the public. It is the policy of the Ulster Group Theatre to keep political and religious controversies off our stage.” The play was performed elsewhere and also outside Belfast to positive acclaim, aprtly because it precisely did depict vicious situations which, vicious as they may have been, were drawn from life by a writer who knew first hand that about which he wrote. In 1963 Goldblatt formed a new company, the Ulster Theatre Company, including a number of former Group figures.

Goldblatt worked frequently for BBC radio and in the 1960s developed a screen career which included both television and cinema work, from “Frontier in Space”, an episode of Doctor Who, the BBC science fiction series, to a rôle in “A Night to Remember”, the film about the Belfast-built liner RMS Titanic which sank in 1912. Losing two-thirds of its passengers and crew, and is surely the best-known (though not the worst) shipwreck in history; the film was produced by Ulsterman William MacQuitty.

Goldblatt was proud of his Jewish heritage and was a sometime honorary secretary to the Belfast Hebrew Society. In 1976 he was awarded an honorary degree from Queen’s University, Belfast (1976) for his services to theatre. He died in London while workingon a Barbra Streisand film. His family created the Goldblatt Archive of theatre-related material in the Linen Hall library, Belfast. 

Richard Froggatt

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