DIR: Joe Lee • WRI: Lorraine Kennedy, Joe Lee, Bill Whelan • PRO: Joe Lee • ED: Joe Lee • MUS: Les Keye • DES: Alex Bradley • CAST: Bill Whelan, Bob Cuthbert, George Smith, Alice Hazley, Patrick Caufield
While Bill and Mai Stephens may not be familiar to contemporary audiences, in early 1950s Ireland and North Dublin City in particular, this ordinary yet eccentric couple were somewhat celebrities thanks to their audacious circus act, “Jungle Capers, Bill Stephens and Lovely Partner” involving their band of lions and Alsatian dogs. Captivating audiences with wildly reckless capers including putting his head between the lions’ teeth and feeding them from his own mouth, Bill’s unrestrained fearlessness and Mai’s exotic mysteriousness isolated them from the prevailing socio-economic austerities of the decade and brought an element of glamour and excitement to the north city area.
A welder and drummer but always yearning to become a lion-tamer, Bill Stephens first gained notoriety when one of his lionesses escaped and went on the prowl for almost two hours on the streets of Fairview in November 1951. The incident garnered huge media interest and untold panic in the local community, including attacking Bill himself but as his celebrity grew from the incident so did his burning ambition in becoming a successful international circus star. He travelled the country with Irish circus troupes, the Duffys and the Fossetts and under the influence of American lion trainer Clyde Beatty but against the advice of his circus associates, Bill acquired a temperamental lion named Pasha from Dublin Zoo. This decision was to culminate in tragic consequences for both Bill and Mai and along with the escaped lioness incident, the Stephens have remained shrouded in mystery ever since, until now.
Sixty-four years on since Bill’s lioness prowled the north city streets, Dublin film director and visual artist Joe Lee brings the intriguing story of the duo to life in his documentary Fortune’s Wheel. Acclaimed for his work in investigating urban Irish cultures through a visually captivating style, Lee returns to the Fairview and Marino areas to unearth the urban legend surrounding the ambiguous pair. Despite the story being largely forgotten outside the local area and many not having spoken of the incident since that day, Bill, Mai and the lioness remain firmly entrenched in the memories of the community, families and friends of the curious circus couple.
Archive stills and loquaciously illustrative recollections vividly recreate the day the lioness stalked the streets and largely motivates the reflective tale, which is also driven by an investigative hunt to unearth what happened to the elusive Mai Stephens. Lee unravels the urban myth behind the couple, with residents wittily recalling memories that range from the factual to the fabricated, some with great fondness and some with slight fear but all consolidated by a genuine warmth, fascination and pride for the simple Dublin man whose love of animals brought international media attention to their unassuming community one November day in 1951.
Fortune’s Wheel fuses Dublin’s past with its present through engaging perceptions and recollections of an event that shaped a local area and resonates with its community to this day. Bill Stephen’s Fairview recalls an economically tough Dublin but one that was solidly united through its palpable sense of social cohesion and community resilience. Amidst the abundance of wit and warmth however, a profound sense of sadness and regret imbues the community’s parable of their local hero whose simple ambitions rooted him in a by-gone age that has since eroded thanks to the city’s ever-changing identity. While Bill’s challenging feats garnered him acclaim and celebrity amidst the economic hardships, his abiding passion for animals and his dogged determination to become an international circus star proved to be his undoing and as Fortune’s Wheel delineates, would go on to have a profound affect on Mai Stephens and this local Dublin community for decades to come.
Fortune’s Wheel is released 5th June 2015