Eaten By Lions (UK 2018)

Eaten by Lions poster

After Morecambe and The Bay, Eaten By Lions felt even closer to home. This creatively ‘Mancunian’ film was mostly shot in Blackpool and Bradford. It premiered in Edinburgh last year and also won an audience prize at the London Indian Film Festival. It’s finally got a limited release this year, including Bradford and Manchester screenings with cast members. It will also be screening more than once in the ‘Up North Film and TV Festival’ in Halifax later this month. Check other future screenings (not just in the North!) here.

Written by David Isaac and Jason Wingard and directed by Wingard, Eaten By Lions began life as an award-winning short film titled Going to Mecca. That title, like Eaten By Lions, has a certain kind of resonance when used to describe a trip to Blackpool. Blackpool’s Mecca Ballroom was a major venue for Northern Soul fans in the 1970s and the most famous lion reference for older Blackpool fans is the Stanley Holloway monologue ‘Albert and the Lion’ from the 1930s. Though neither of these references is directly relevant for the film, they aren’t wholly irrelevant either.

Omar (Aakeel Antonio) and Pete (Jack Carroll) on North Pier.

Omar (Antonio Aakeel) and Pete (Jack Carroll) are half-brothers in Bradford suddenly forced to think about their futures when their grandmother dies. She’d looked after the boys when their parents suffered the terrible fate referenced in the title. Omar has never known who is father is, only that he is South Asian. Now, with some clues, he sets off for Blackpool accompanied by Pete, a more ‘street-wise’ character, even though, or perhaps because, he needs a wheelchair or walking frame. What follows is a series of comic misadventures leading to the discovery of a reluctant father for Omar.

The film is very funny, gaining a great deal from ensemble performances by a large cast, several playing roles in an extended South Asian family and more individual turns by Johnny Vegas and Tom Binns as Blackpool characters. It’s also an interesting cultural artefact raising questions about representation. I recommend listening to the Britflicks interview with Jason Wingard. He explains the background to the film and how they approached some of the obvious questions.  For instance, he argues that rather than make jokes about Pete’s inability to walk any distance, they simply use the disability as part of a gag about something else. Pete is just a character who happens to need walking aids. (Bradford-born comedian Jack Carroll has cerebral palsy.)

Ray (Johnny Vegas) is the owner of a downmarket B&B who offers Pete a bed

A second representation question refers to the ambivalent support offered by Blackpool Council’s Tourism Office – on the grounds that Blackpool has received a bad press over the last few years. The production couldn’t use the piers so Blackpool footage sticks to the streets and the pier footage is from St. Annes (except, presumably for the shot above, unless it’s a digital composition). I’m pretty sure that the large home of Omar’s family is also in St. Annes (with interiors shot in Manchester). Ironically, Blackpool looks empty but stunningly beautiful with blue skies and golden sands and with the artworks on the re-developed sea front looking wonderful. DoP Matt North does a grand job. (It would be interesting to programme the film alongside Tony Richardson’s film adaptation of A Taste of Honey (1961) with that film’s sequence on a crowded Golden Mile.)

Another key question is how the South Asian family is represented by two white guys. David Isaac is a writer on Coronation Street and Jason Wingard has worked extensively in and around Manchester for more than twenty years. They decided to write a script, cast the film and then see how their ideas went down with the cast they’d chosen. The South Asian family casting includes Nitin Ganatra, best known for EastEnders and Asim Chaudhry, another London actor with a big following on TV and online. I’ve tried to research several of the other actors who play members of the extended South Asian families. They represent quite a mixed bunch in terms of experience and background but my feeling is that they work well as an ensemble and they do represent the kind of families that are gradually appearing in Northern cities. I was intrigued to discover that Hayley Tamaddon who plays Sara is a ‘sandgrown ‘un” (someone born and bred in Blackpool) and that Natalie Davies is a Bradford actor – both have appeared in Coronation Street.

Nitin Sawnhey, Antonio Akheel and Asim Chaudry

I tread carefully on issues of representation because the South Asian communities in Bradford and elsewhere in the North have suffered from poorly thought out film and TV representations in the past, but now the younger generations are beginning to assert themselves as actors in a variety of roles, just as they are doing in their social lives and employment. Anyone questioning the ‘authenticity’ of the casting in Eaten by Lions might start to raise questions but I think the film answers them. Part of the reason I’m pursuing this question is that Eaten by Lions has been compared to East is East (UK 1999) a strongly autobiographical ‘comedy-drama’ film written by Ayub Khan-Din. East as East was widely distributed and made a substantial killing at the UK box office. However, there were audiences (and scholars and critics) that didn’t like it and I personally found it offensive in a number of ways. The film is set in the 1970s in Salford and focuses on the family of a Pakistani migrant (played by Om Puri) and his British wife (Linda Bassett). The comedy and the drama depend on the resistance the children show towards their strict and very traditional father (and in particular the aggression they show towards the prospective brides their father finds for his sons). I thought much of the comedy was cruel, though probably ‘truthful’ in being based on the writer’s memories. The film’s sequel West is West (2011) was less commercially successful (perhaps because it took the leading characters to Pakistan) and perhaps less coherent as a narrative – but it seemed less offensive. I have no similar problems with Eaten By Lions. Jason Wingard seems to have created a rapport with his cast whose members have ‘bought in’ to the script. I also note that David Isaac wrote a couple of episodes of Citizen Khan with Adil Ray and I wonder what kind of influence that might have had? Perhaps also, despite the rise of Islamaphobia and far right racism in the UK, we are becoming more tolerant of families featuring bi-racial characters? I hope so.

But I wouldn’t want the above discussion to suggest that race is an ‘issue’ in the film. It really isn’t, except for the unconscious racism of the boys’ aunt played by Vicki Pepperdine. Instead the narrative is about class, money and status. Omar is something of a passive character, given that he is the ‘seeker’. Pete becomes the driving force of the narrative in more ways than one. There are other characters and performers I haven’t mentioned but they all pull their weight in what is a fun film which has shown it can make audiences happy. There is an interesting soundtrack too but my one gripe is that it has proved very difficult to find information about the songs used alongside Dan Baboulene’s score. Eaten by Lions joins a long list of Blackpool-set films and it reminds me of two of the most interesting, Peter Chelsom’s Funny Bones (UK/US 1995) and Gurinder Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach (UK 1993) – both films would connect with Eaten by Lions in their different ways.

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