‘Dream’ took us to places you couldn’t even imagine. There we were going to Aintree for probably the greatest race on the planet. – Howard Davies
The man you see in the picture above is Howard Davies. He is a tax adviser in Cefn Fforest, a small Welsh town where the community has gone through hard times since the mining industry collapsed in the area. Howard worked for the biggest tax firm on the planet for 15 years, got sick of it, resigned and did his own thing for a while but it did not work very well. He is a middle-aged man who wants to get a bit more out of life.
Okay but why are we suddenly interested in a tax adviser living in South Wales? Well, Howard Davies is the man Damian Lewis is bringing to life on screen in his upcoming movie Dream Horse.
Dream Horse is an independent movie directed by Euros Lyn whom I know as the director of the first three episodes of Happy Valley (one of my favorite British TV shows) but he also directed episodes of Sherlock, Black Mirror, and Doctor Who. Neil McKay writes the screenplay and the brilliant cast includes, next to our favorite actor, Toni Collette, Owen Teale, and Joanna Page. The backers of the movie are Film4 as well as Ingenius Media and Ffilm Cymru Wales. Warner Bros has the UK distribution rights and Bleecker Street has the US rights to the movie. While they have not announced an official release date, we expect Dream Horse to arrive at a theatre near us sometime in 2020.
While we do not have much information in the media about the film we know that the plot is based on a true story that was previously told in Louise Osmond’s wonderful 2014 documentary called Dark Horse (also backed by Film4). The film won the World Cinema Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival in 2015 and later had a limited release in the U.S. And guess what? I watched it! 🙂
Now, if you do not want any spoilers, stop reading here. If you want to watch the documentary, you can find it on iTunes or Amazon Prime. If you want to take the short cut and find out more about the plot as well as Damian’s role in Dream Horse then keep reading!
Janet (Jan) Vokes (whom Toni Collette is portraying in the movie) is a barmaid at the Working Men’s Club where the town people go to relax, drink and dance in Cefn Fforest.
Jan married and had kids at a very young age and had to work at a factory for 23 years to make the ends meet as she raised her family. Now that her children are grownups though, while she is working two jobs (she is also a cleaning lady at a local supermarket), Jan has some time in her hands for a hobby. And she is intrigued by Howard Davies, a regular at the Working Men’s Club, talking about horse breeding. Howard once set up a small horse syndicate and found a horse trainer who needed some tax advice 😀 The horse won a few races but Howard ultimately had to deal with £5,000 debt.
Jan knows nothing about breeding horses but she is no stranger to breeding animals. She grew up with a father who bred show budgies. Then they moved on to racing pigeons and went on to win the Welsh National. As she grew up, Jan bred whippets and had great fun winning rosettes and cups. And while she does not know anything about horse races, she knows this:
“I knew nothing whatsoever about racing as such. But I did know that these sort of people, these well-to-do sort of people like to keep their sports to themselves. They like to keep us commoners out, I think.”
And that is, ladies and gentlemen, what lies at the heart of this movie. We are not simply talking about a sweet story about a bunch of small town people breeding a horse. We are talking about a bunch of small town people doing it when the cards are stacked against them. The story is about courage, love and community. It is about ordinary people with no titles like “Lord” or “Earl” or “Millionaire” getting into a world traditionally reserved for the cream of the cream in the country.
Horse breeding is widely considered a rich man’s hobby (£15,000 minimum per year for training) with no room for those with the background and socioeconomic status of Jan Vokes. If you stop for a second and think… who comes to mind first when horse racing is concerned in the UK? The Queen!
Breeding a racehorse from scratch means you first need to buy a brood mare and then find a stallion for a match. The breeding process costs a lot of money especially when you choose the mare and the stallion carefully based on their success on the racetrack. And the costs do not end there. Not that I am any kind of expert on the matter but a little bit of research shows a horse owner is responsible for training fees, farrier services, supplements, clipping as well as regular visits to the vet. So most people who do not have the financial means would never dare to get into horse breeding.
Not Jan Vokes. According to Jan’s husband Brian ‘Daisy’ Vokes, a retired coal deliveryman (whom Owen Teale is portraying in Dream Horse):
“When she says she’s going to do it, she does it.”
And this project is no exception!
So, like the joke goes, a barmaid, a retired coal deliveryman and a tax adviser walk into a bar, ahem, into the world of horse racing. How? With little money and lots of heart on a bumpy road. And while I do not intend to give away the whole thing, I would love to talk a bit about how they set up the syndicate to get you all in the mood for the movie!
Since there is no way they can afford a brood mare with a serious record, they look for a cheap and a cheerful one, and found her in Llandeilo where some certain ginger spent a lot of summers at his family’s house. Small world!
Rewbell had a short career in which she never won a race. And since she tried to kill every jockey that sat on her, nobody wanted to ride her anymore. The owner asks for £1,000 but Jan and Daisy are able to get Rewbell for a bargain £300. Their next task is to find someone with some experience in horse breeding.
Enters Howard Davies!
While Howard first makes fun of Jan for buying Rewbell, a horse you would never take a second look, he is intrigued by the impossibility of the project. He always loved the idea of breeding his own horse and seeing it on the track…
…and so even though it takes some time for Howard to convince his wife Angela (whom I guess Joanna Page is portraying in the movie) who does not want Howard to lose money for a racehorse, again, Howard is in!
They make a simple calculation. If 30 members pay £10 a week, then they should be able to cover the stud fee (Davies finds Bien Bien the most affordable stud he coud at £3,000) as well as the foal’s training fees for at least 7 months a year (£315 plus VAT per week).
They put up a sign in the Working Men’s Club: Anybody that wants to join a syndicate of horse ownership should speak to Jan. 23 people from the village sign up.
And ‘Dream’ is born.
While a lot of names — from Top Hat to Red Robin to Power-gen — fly around in the syndicate’s “naming of the horse” meeting, Jan’s proposal is accepted with a vote:
“We’re all in an alliance. This is our dream. We’ll name him Dream Alliance.”
Dream for short 🙂
And that is, ladies and gentlemen, what this movie is about. People who come together and collectively pursue their dream against all odds!
Any success? I will not give anything away other than saying there exist a number of ups and downs for ‘Dream’ and his owners along the way. Besides the story is quite different, and in my opinion way better and more inspirational, than the standard “underdog” story — think Rocky or Seabiscuit — which ends with the underdog at the top. And while the class struggle is not as much a focus in the story as the syndicate members having an outlet from their blue collar lives thanks to Dream, the upper class dominance in the sport is tangible.
One of the most memorable scenes in the documentary, which I am really hoping makes it to the movie, is where Kirby, the syndicate member you see above, is told at the entrance of Dream’s first race in Newbury that he is not allowed to bring in food. It turns out Kirby packed his sandwich and also brought along his Lager because he thought he would not be able to afford the overpriced food at the races. And the moment the syndicate members enter the tracks with their “owners’ badges” on, they enjoy the feeling of being part of the racing world along with the upper class.
Howard Davies suggests:
“We actually broke the mold. We actually went there and did it and did it for a ‘tenner’ a week. It’s elating when you can do something, particularly when no one gives you a chance.”
It seems that exactly like Dream Alliance, the horse, making dreams come true for the Syndicate, Dream Horse, the movie, is doing the same for director Euros Lyn:
“I grew up in the Welsh valleys where everyone knows this story – it’s a local legend. The moment I read Neil’s brilliant script I knew I had to direct this funny and moving film. Casting Toni Collette as Jan Vokes, our extraordinary heroine and Damian Lewis as Howard Davies, her intriguingly conflicted accomplice is my own dream come true. They’re the perfect actors to tell this true story of how against all the odds, an ordinary woman inspires her community to go on the ride of a lifetime and rediscover a sense of hope.”
Katherine Butler, the film’s producer, is exactly on the same page:
“I fell in love with this story when I first heard about Louise Osmond’s documentary – and when I met the real people involved, I was hugely inspired by both their steely determination and their joyous outlook on life. Our brilliant writer Neil McKay spent hours with many of the people whose story this is to craft an exciting, moving and often hilarious script. And Euros Lyn’s immediate and passionate response to the script completely convinced us that he was born to direct this film. We couldn’t be more thrilled with our dream casting of Toni Collette and Damian Lewis, and together with the support of all our financiers, the local welsh cast and crew and the horse racing community, we are off to the races!”
Finally, it turns out we have a “third time is the charm” situation for Damian to work with Toni Collette!
Twice I've almost worked with Toni Colette. Third time lucky on Dream Horse.
Toni Collette & Damian Lewis To Star In ‘Dream Horse’ For Raw, Film4; Warner Bros UK, Cornerstone Also In The Saddle https://t.co/tbxSQ9OUxi via @deadline
— Damian Lewis (@lewis_damian) March 16, 2019
And, you know, the director is not the only Welsh boy in the production! Damian, whose dad is 100% Welsh, is quite romantic about his Welsh roots:
“Although I went to school in England, grew up in London, we’ve always been made aware of Welsh roots by dad, who’s been very keen to stay in touch with his Welshness, even though he can’t speak more than five words of Welsh… It’s London-Welsh, I guess!”
Oh and not just that but he is also married to a half Welsh girl! Helen is half-Welsh with a Welsh speaking mother living in Cardiff. Her grandfather was Welsh boxing champion Bobby Morgan.
And Damian loves coming to Wales:
“I rush here to be honest. And I try to get my kids here as much as I can. They grow up in London. They are at London schools. I love getting them down here into Welsh countryside… We’re just on the Black Mountain… Our house… It’s… The air, here, tastes and smells like no other area in the world, and it, after three and a half hour journey from London, it’s, you just sort of drink it in… like a… like a… you know, a long needed pint.”
Lechyd Da, Damian 🙂
The way Damian talks about Wales makes me think that the commute between London and Wales during the movie shoot in April – May was fun for our guy. And we owe huge thanks to the fans who shared their selfies with Damian or photos of him or from the train station and the film set! It was so much fun to see these smiles during filming!
Finally, it seems there will be some music in the movie! I am not sure about the real-life Howard Davies’ musical skills but we would love “our Howard” to show off a musical skill or two on the big screen. And is it me, or does this tweet by Bari Gwilliam, a trumpeter and the musical director of Sistema Cymru – Codi’r To, say that he performs with Damian Lewis in the movie? Fingers crossed!
— Bari Gwilliam (@barigwilliam) May 18, 2019