Interview: Joe Lee, director of ‘Fortune’s Wheel’


Joe Lee spoke to Film Ireland about his documentary Fortune’s Wheel, which tells the fascinating story of lion-tamer Bill Stephens in 1950s Dublin.


One Sunday afternoon in 1951 in Dublin’s Fairview Cinema, audiences were being transported to the exotic plains of the film Jungle Stampede, which featured a wild beast stalking its human prey – little did cinemagoers know that outside the cinema that same afternoon, Fairview was playing host to its very own beast roaming the streets as a lioness, owned by local man Bill Stephens, escaped from her pen menacing shocked locals.

Joe Lee’s documentary Fortune’s Wheel, which is currently screening at the IFI, introduces us to the events that occurred that day which ended when police were forced to shoot the lioness dead. From this point on we are led into the remarkable world of the lioness’ owner Bill Stephens, the Fairview lion tamer, whose act, ‘Jungle Capers with Bill Stephens and Lovely Partner’ (his wife, May) travelled around Ireland.

Joe gives a bit of background to Bill Stephens – “he was a welder by trade and something of a mechanic but he was also a drummer in The Billy Carter Swing Band. But he had always had an interest in animals. He bought a lion cub from Dublin zoo and he reared it alongside his own Alsatians. He soon began travelling with Fossetts and Duffys, two of Ireland’s biggest circus families. At the time of the escape in November 1951 Bill was keeping 3 or 4 lions at the back of Fairview cinema, which he used for his act.”

The escape, which is remembered in the film by a colourful cast of local people, turned Bill into a star as the story spread across the world. He became, as Joe describes, “that famous guy whose lioness escaped in Fairview” – but that fame was a doubled-edged sword as Bill had lost a very valuable animal which would prove very difficult to replace. But if he was to fulfill his ambition of taking his act to America, Bill knew he had to do it with his next lion.

The lion he replaced her with was a very difficult lion – a very aggressive one that would  ultimately lead to tragedy. Joe refers to Bill’s time with his newly acquired lion as his year of living dangerously. Seeking to emulate his hero Clyde Beatty, the famous American lion-tamer, Bill had raised the stakes, performing more and more dangerous acts with a more aggressive animal.  As Joe explains, “He was a guy in his 20s and like a racing car driver he always wants to drive that extra 5 miles per hour  to push the boundaries of what it was. All the time he would have been looking at Clyde Beatty with his 12 animals and mixing lions and tigers and wanting to do that himself. In Beatty’s book Jungle Performers it says Get an angry animal into your act. It makes it more exciting.” Unfortunately for Bill, seeking such excitement involved taking one risk too many.

Alongside his partner May, a lot of Stephens’ life has been clouded in myth, stories that had stayed untold and memories that had remained hidden for various reasons. Thankfully, Fortune’s Wheel provides a voice for those stories and a space for those memories culminating in moments of catharsis that are a testament to a remarkable man who truly dared to dream.


Review: Fortune’s Wheel



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.



     Dee O’Donoghue

76 minutes

Fortune’s Wheel is released 5th June 2015