LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS... welcome to the big top blog of Douglas McPherson, author of CIRCUS MANIA, the book described by Gerry Cottle as "A passionate and up-to-date look at the circus and its people."

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Film Review: Fortune’s Wheel - The story of Irish lion tamer Bill Stephens

On the afternoon of 11 November, 1951, the Fairview Grand was packed with children thrilling to the adventure film Jungle Stampede. Little did they expect to emerge from the cinema to find a real lioness roaming the streets of Dublin.

Such incidents aren’t quickly forgotten, and Joe Lee’s entertaining documentary, Fortune’s Wheel, rounds up a posse of locals, now in their 70s and 80s, who remember it like it was yesterday. Filmed in the streets and gardens where the events took place, their fond testimonies track the escaped cat’s bid for freedom, which at the time made headlines from America to Italy.

The lion was owned by circus star Bill Stephens, and the film goes on to relate how the locally-born former welder came to be keeping lions in the back yard of a suburban high street garage in the first place.

The youngest of nine children, Stephens grew up with a love of music and a love of animals. His mother used to take in stray dogs.

Although he trained as a welder, Stephens soon quit his day job to play drums in Billy Carter’s swing band. He also caused a family rift by marrying a girl who kept snakes. Because of her dark hair and exotic looks, he liked to say Mai was a circus performer “from the East” - although she came from no further east than East Wall Road, a few streets away.

When Duffy’s Circus came to town, however, the couple left with it. At first, Stephens drummed in the circus band, but he soon acquired a lion cub from a performer who was leaving the show, and trained it like a pet dog.

A self-taught trainer, the young Dubliner modelled himself on Clyde Beatty, the whip-cracking star of America’s Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus who was known to Irish audiences through movie serials such as The Lost Jungle.

Clad in a pith helmet, Stephens performed an aggressive ‘bouncing lions’ act in a small beast wagon that was pushed into the ring.

Circus historian Michael Ingoldsby saw the act when he was 10-years-old and describes it as “The most thrilling act I’ve ever seen in the circus. The lions did a wall of death. They ran around the sides and the wagon was rocking from side to side. People were breathless, because you didn’t know if the wagon was going to turn over.”

Stephens had some narrow scrapes, such as the time he put his head in a lion’s mouth, and the lion closed its jaws on him.

But the escaped lion incident when he was wintering in his home town ramped up the trainer's taste for danger. For one thing, he was sued by a young petrol station attendant that the escaped lion pounced on - so he needed money. Second, the blaze of publicity stoked his dreams of hitting the big time in America.

To increase the sense of terror in his act, he purchased a particularly dangerous male lion from Dublin Zoo that everyone warned him against working with. Alas, on the day a Ringling talent scout came to see his act, he was so keen to impress that he wore a new suit, recently acquired for a wedding. The lion didn’t recognise his scent in the unfamiliar garment, and mauled him to death when he was just 29-years-old.

Because of the era he lived in and the limited fame he attained, no performance or interview footage of Stephens features in this doc, just black and white photographs and newspaper clippings, although a recording of the trainer’s voice is heard early on, relating his efforts to recapture his escaped lioness.

Told in a series of talking heads by mostly ordinary people, unknown bystanders to the tale rather than circus stars (although the big top’s Tom Duffy and Herta Fossett are there to relate Stephens’ final days), Lee’s film has the feel of a regional television documentary rather than a big screen biography. But Stephens’ story is no less engaging for that.

In fact, the low key local charm is part of this award-winning documentary’s appeal. Although circus fans will obviously love it for preserving the story of a performer in danger of being forgotten, Fortune's Wheel is more than a circus film. It's the story of a man from an ordinary suburban background who ran away with the circus but never severed his roots from the neighbourhood where he grew up. It’s as much about that community as it is about him; and the lasting impression a not-quite-famous son left upon the people that still live there.

As one resident says with a grin all these years later, “People were proud to have a lion tamer living in Fairview Green. It was an exciting thing to be close to.”

Fortune's Wheel is now available on DVD.

For details of the latest screenings, or to buy the film on DVD click here to visit the Fortune’s Wheel Facebook page.

See also, my review of The Last Circus Elephant.

And my review of The British Circus 1898 - 1972.

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