Damian Lewis brought to life a number of real-life characters on big as well as small screen. And I admit it has been my dream to interview a real-life character Damian played but it was obviously impossible to talk to Steve McQueen or Henry VIII about the impression Damian made on them as an actor and as a person. Yet, my dreams have recently come true and I am thrilled to have Howard Davies who Damian plays in Dream Horse today on Fan Fun.
While we find out about his enthusiasm in horse racing in the movie, Howard is a man of many talents. And he was so kind to answer my questions about the film, the special premiere for the syndicate, the memoir he recently published about Dream Alliance as well as the inevitable questions about the guy who names this blog. ENJOY!
How much were you involved in Dream Horse movie? Did you meet director Euros Lyn and the actors early on? Was talking to you part of their preparation for Dream Horse?
After the extent of our involvement in Dark Horse it would be far too easy to say our participation in Dream Horse was marginal. Most people didn’t appreciate the documentary was entirely unscripted. Louise Osmond/Judith Dawson (sadly passed) wanted the documentary to be fresh to the point they wanted us raw in terms of our emotions. We weren’t aware of this in the moment but with hindsight it’s obvious and it worked! When we sat down for the interviews we had no idea what was coming.
Although we didn’t meet the actors, including Damian, until filming was underway we were kept informed from the outset by Katherine Butler in her pivotal role at Film 4. We also had a very early intro to Neil McKay the screenplay writer who spent a lot of time with us in his quest to find a winning formula for his version of the story. By Neil’s own admission, he found it extremely difficult to improve things on the back of Dark Horse but he was determined to find his own interpretation; and he did just that. It actually felt quite a seamless transition from Dark Horse to Dream Horse as there was continuity and of course the success of the former was a significant factor in turning the documentary into a movie.
Euros came to our home early on to get a feel for us and our family environment which was quite accurately reflected in the movie. I was aware of his CV as a result of the brilliant drama Happy Valley and his directorship of Damilola’s tragic story. Euros told us he was inspired by Dark Horse and readily grabbed the opportunity to direct a film about real people especially real Welsh folk. We had no idea of casting as it was kept a closely guarded secret until just before filming commenced.
In summary, armed with a wealth of information, including the documentary and all our scrapbooks/newspaper cuttings Neil and Euros set about creating their interpretation of the story. Per the reviews they succeeded.
You wrote your own memoir of Dream’s story. I just got my copy! What should I expect to learn from the book that I did not from the movie?
This is the toughest Bahar as it asks me to self promote, something I’ve never been comfortable with. The short answer is I hope readers will discover in the book that I was more than just along for the ride! Having said that I understand the economic strategy behind the film version and being objective, I can see the appeal it makes to critics/people who do not know the full story. The most important thing is that the film celebrates Dream’s life and it does that ‘full on’ to the point that the audience’s hearts are beating louder than the horse’s.
It’s a fact that my book, Miracle Racehorse – Dream Alliance was completed long before I met Neil Mckay the screenplay writer who found the book a source of information and ideas e.g. we actually did travel one New Year’s Day to the races in an undertaker’s executive limo but for dramatic purposes we travelled in an actual hearse in the film! At the time of writing the story, my aim was to catalogue the astonishing chain of events that constituted more than pure coincidences. There are just too many and people who have read the book that tell me that it’s downright spooky and goes beyond even fate. One funny human’ coincidence is that I share the exact same date of birth 26 July as Brian Vokes (sorry Owen Teale) and our trainer, Philip Hobbs!
I set up and ran my first racing syndicate in 1986, ‘Small Acorns Racing’. It lasted for two years and at its peak we had 28 members and three horses. We produced two winners and I fulfilled my ambition of owning a racehorse. In fact, we won our first race in 1986 with Sweet Gemma, ridden by Richard Dunwoody who the Saturday before had won the Grand National on West Tip. It doesn’t get much better than that; at least it seemed that way at the time. Unfortunately, horses are notoriously fragile and when they inevitably got injured we had nowhere to house them locally and the syndicate folded. This taught me a huge lesson, which proved to be the deciding factor in me agreeing to set up the syndicate with Jan and Brian. They had a smallholding and Brian was brilliant with horses. Far from almost ‘losing everything’, Angela and I were living the suburban dream with two young children and two well paid (tax accountant and teacher) jobs. When the syndicate folded, it cost us £5,000 to wind things up properly, including finding good homes for our horses. It was a financial blip which meant the much needed new car was put on hold but that was soon resolved when my new employer, Deloitte handed me the keys to a brand new company car. Nevertheless, I have to be honest and admit that having to draw a line under racehorse ownership was a massive blow to my pride and I swore to Angela I wouldn’t do it again. The truth is, Jan didn’t have to persuade me she only had to find me and I was hiding in plain sight in the bar in which she was working. Once Angela knew there was no financial risk she was ‘in’ from the outset and she adored Dream in the same way all who came within his space simply had to.
Obviously, the book is ‘my story’ of Dream’s life but it is 100% factual and supported by the records I’ve kept, including all emails. People who read the book are astonished by the chain of events that motivated corporate bodies to invest in a documentary and a film. You have to read the book to believe them and there are simply too many to summarise or be reflected in a movie. If I had to choose one selfish moment in Dream’s life that I would have loved to have been reflected in the film it would have been my single handed refusal to send our horse to the Hennessy Gold Cup instead of the Welsh National when most of the syndicate seemed hell bent on taking on our horse’s nemesis, Denman for a second time. Having fought back from a near death experience, I believed Dream was destined to do something special and winning the most prestigious race in the Welsh calendar was far more appealing (and likely to succeed) than tackling the horse that had trounced us two years earlier. I was right, as Denman duly slaughtered the Hennessy field and with hindsight the syndicate was conspicuous by its silence. The rest really is history!
There is also one ironic fact which concerns our horse’s name. Jan had asked me to try and come up with a name that related to our horse’s pedigree and cutting to the quick this was a hard one as he had such a wide ranging ancestry. After a couple of weeks and pints over the bar, I decided on two names, Lost Youth which was as as close to the pedigree as possible and Dream Alliance because it represented what we were and it had a regal ring to it. Jan loved it so in advance of the naming ballot, we agreed she would propose Dream Alliance and I would nominate, Lost Youth.. This was because if it came down to our two names (which it did) the syndicate would support Jan’s nomination over ‘bloody Davies’s’.. Again, the rest is history!
Phew, need a drink now!
There was a special premiere for the syndicate in Blackwood (not Hollywood!) before the London premiere. How was the premiere, and more importantly, how was the reunion?
It is is still very fresh in the memory and yes it was special. It was a typical Welsh spring Sunday afternoon, the rain was relentless! I’m fairly sure the fact that we were, at last, allowed to gather as a group inside a cafe bar was almost as exciting as the anticipation of seeing the film on the big screen. Reunions can sometimes be an anti climax but not this one as we were all there to honour our horse. There was little talk about ‘what are you doing now?’ But more ‘Do you remember that time at…’ we couldn’t have asked for a better build up for the Premiere even if it was Blackwood and not Hollywood or Bollywood.
Bringing a little #DreamHorse joy back to the valleys with tonight's special screening to the Blackwood/Cefn Fforest community including the real Jan, Brian, Howard and Angela whose story we tell 🏇🏴🏇🏴 pic.twitter.com/qJr6GeY2lC
— Katherine Butler (@KathfromCam) May 23, 2021
The Maxine Cinema is an old fashioned picture house which has helped revive Blackwood’s commercial High Street and it was a privilege to be in there with people who had actually lived the dream. When the opening credits appeared, particularly the famous WB blurry logo the reality of having a major movie made about us hit home. Thankfully, we were sat in the back row so no one could see an old ‘Valleys’ Boy’ using his sleeve as a handkerchief! The film got a deserved standing ovation and no one moved until the final outtakes had finished leaving everyone buzzing – I won’t spoil the surprise!
Dream Horse is based on Dream’s and the syndicate’s story but it is naturally dramatized. Could you talk about a scene (or two) in the movie that is as close as it gets to reality?
We first saw a draft (no music) version of the film in the autumn of 2019. By we, I mean me, Angela, and Jan along with Katherine, Neil and Euros. When the lights went up, we were all speechless for a moment as we absorbed what dramatisation actually entailed. It’s fair to say all three of us needed time to adjust to seeing the story unfold in a way we hadn’t envisaged. It wasn’t because we were being played by famous individuals (which was strange enough post Dark Horse) but because the way the main events had been played out for dramatic effect.
Time to adjust simply meant we had to look at the film in the round. When we did, it was easy to conclude that the story remained true to the project mission of celebrating Dream’s life and that was all that really mattered. The human element had to be taken with a dose of salt as most of the pivotal moments were covered but not necessarily in the order or manner they occurred. Detaching ourselves from the exactness was the key as we agreed that people who didn’t know the story would love the rollercoaster events that constituted the life of our unique and beloved horse.
Probably, the closest to the actual event was when the four of us were summoned to our trainer’s yard, Sandhill, near Minehead, Somerset. Dream had been recovering from major leg surgery for almost fifteen months and we were totally unaware that he was back in serious gallop work. We were absolutely gobsmacked as he sauntered pass us on the uphill climb of Philip’s all weather gallops and took a long, lingering look at us, particularly at Brian. It was nice that Neil included my spontaneous comment from my book, “I swear he winked at us” even though they gave the line to Owen instead of Damian!
The other event that was very close to the actual occurrence was the final scene when we all celebrated in the social club. After Dream’s stupendously brave win in the Welsh National we made the snap decision to head for a local pub where almost the entire syndicate, family and friends took over. The landlord must have thought it was Xmas (as it was three days after) as the pub was virtually empty before we descended and we quickly wiped out his food supplies – not to mention wet sales!
It would be remiss not to include the day Dream incurred his near fatal injury at Aintree as it was probably the most emotional scene in the film. Our horse’s life did literally hang in the balance that day but it didn’t play out in the way it was portrayed in the film but you’ll need to read Miracle Racehorse – Dream Alliance to find out what actually occurred. And don’t forget, as Dream gave so much to us we are giving back all sales to the NHS.
How do you feel about having Damian Lewis play you in Dream Horse?
Ironically, Angela ‘discovered’ Damian way before me via The Forsyte Saga. She found Soames an easy to hate character that left a lasting impression, which had nothing to do with him being a solicitor but entirely to do with Damian’s compelling portrayal.
More than Band Of Brothers, it was US Marine Sergeant, Nicholas Brody in Homeland that first blew me away. I still can’t believe they killed the character off!
When Damian appeared as Bobby Axelrod in Billions I was immediately hooked. The core subject, hedge funding may have been different to my own tax specialism but I could easily relate to the career/money chasing characters that could be found in all of the ‘Big-4’ global accountancy firms I’d worked in. Indeed, when I tongue in cheek complained that I preferred Damian’s dress code in Billions to Dream Horse, I was informed they wanted to avoid that comparison and so they dressed him in the archetypal uniform of English gentlemen ‘at the races’!
Since retiring early I’ve had minimal contact with my past working life but the number of my former colleagues /friends who have felt compelled to text me ‘Damian Lewis!’ sums up exactly how I felt when they told me. I was honestly expecting a British actor with a proven track record for the envisaged style of movie. Although I had nothing against that the news that Damian wanted to do it was nothing short of awesome, even if he wore a wax jacket with binoculars draped in racing members’ badges!
We met Damian on two film shoots, at Chepstow Racecourse and then on the day of the film’s outtakes. On both occasions he was clearly pleased to see us and made a point of spending time in our company (which included not only me and Angela but also our children, Andrew and Hannah and their partners, Dawn and Dean). Given the personal situation he was in it was remarkable how he managed to be genuinely interested in our story/lives. When we heard of Helen’s passing we were truly saddened and remain so. So very very sad.
I never for one moment imagined one of the most high profile actors on the world would want to be involved in a small Welsh story but then again I hadn’t met the ‘ordinary’ man who is Damian Lewis. Top man on all counts.
Don’t tell anyone but @lewis_damian was kind enough to bend/lean forward while I stood on an upturned beer crate during shooting at the infamous Social Club. We wanted to dispel the notion that Danny DeVito was a better fit! pic.twitter.com/5n6V5aNdZR
— Dream Alliance – Miracle Racehorse (Book) (@Howie_the_Horse) May 25, 2021
Damian said on the podcast with James King: “Howard has a fabulous twinkle about him, he’s smart.” What is the impression he made on you?
Our first encounter with Damian set the standard. We were stood in the balcony of an owner’s box at Chepstow Racecourse and he spotted us from the work set below. Within minutes he had joined us and the warmth of his greeting was totally genuine. He had seen the documentary but we had not met prior to filming as the strategy was to play his role as per the screenplay. There was no hint of aloofness, he was inquisitive and wanted to know a load of stuff about racing and Dream that wasn’t covered in the movie.
I had researched his background and the fact that he was big into charities suggested he cared about more than stardom and that proved to be the case in lockdown with his mega support for the NHS. In fact, my decision to donate half of any book sales to the NHS was taken from his lead. He just seemed a regular guy who felt he had got lucky. He spoke about his children and his love of Liverpool FC and there was never a moment of uneasiness in his company. When we shot the outtakes, he threw himself into the singing and his enthusiasm was contagious. Audience reaction suggests this came across in bucket fulls.
He embraced Dream Horse and I’m still pinching myself.
Finally – a question about the real star of the movie: How is Dream spending his retirement?
— Dream Alliance – Miracle Racehorse (Book) (@Howie_the_Horse) May 21, 2021
Dream retired in 2012 and lives in the heart of Somerset. He was adopted by his stable lass who looked after him while in the care of Philip Hobbs. It was a formal adoption process overseen by the British Horseracing Authority which meant we received no monetary reward and Dream would have a home free from racing where he could simply enjoy his retirement with other horses. The syndicate made the decision to allow his adoption as the facilities he was offered were way ahead of anything we could provide locally. I don’t think I can sum up my feelings about him any better than the short piece I wrote for his fan club back in 2010, long before he became an equine star of the big screen.
Huge thanks go to Howard for taking the time to answer my questions. You can follow him at @Howie_The_Horse on Twitter and buy his book on Amazon. Dream Horse is now open at movie theaters across the US, the UK, Ireland, and Australia. It is also available for streaming on several online platforms in the US. Listen to the guy who plays Howard in the movie and see it!
@DreamHorseMovie does exactly what it says on the tin. It’ll make you laugh make you cry and you’ll leave the cinema with a big fat smile on your face. Just what the doctor ordered , no? Opened this weekend. Go see it, take the family.
— Damian Lewis (@lewis_damian) June 6, 2021