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Dream Horse: 'It was like looking in a mirror seeing Toni Collette play me - it was really, really strange'

We chat to Jan and Brian Vokes, the real-life couple behind the film Dream Horse.

Source: Warner Bros. UK & Ireland/YouTube

WITH THE RETURN to cinemas finally happening this month, you might be looking for a feelgood film to usher you back to the big screen.

Dream Horse is just the kind of film you want if you’re looking for an underdog drama – the kind of movie that makes you want to laugh, cry and smile at all the right moments. ”It’s heartwarming, heart-wrenching and funny all at the same time,” said Jan Vokes, the woman whose story it is based on.

The film, directed by Welsh director Euros Lyn (Happy Valley, Dr Who), is based on the true story of Cefn Fforest native Jan, a Welsh bartender who – without much experience – started a syndicate and raced a racing horse, Dream Alliance, who went on to win the Welsh Grand National.

We’re shown how Jan, who works in the local supermarket by day and at a workingmen’s club at night (as well as caring for her elderly parents and husband, Brian) is inspired to enter the racing world after overhearing a conversation one night.  

The film is the follow-up to a documentary (Dark Horse) about Vokes and her husband Brian, which also looked at how they turned Dream Alliance into a racing winner. 

One of the interesting elements to Dream Horse is that, though it retains a very down-to-earth feel (it’s not only directed by a Welshman, but the soundtrack only features Welsh bands too), it stars Toni Collette as Jan Vokes. Other big names include Damian Lewis as tax advisor Howard Davies, who helped Jan start the syndicate, and Owen Teale (Line of Duty) as Brian Vokes. 

Collette is wonderful as Jan – totally unstarry, depicting her as warm and dedicated. When The Journal speaks to the real Jan and Brian, they’re just as they are in the film – bubbly and friendly. You get the impression that the film and documentary haven’t changed them one bit.

The film was a few years in the making, but its release was delayed due to Covid-19 (in fact, it was the last preview film I saw before the pandemic hit). “We were excited – we bought the frocks and everything to go to the premiere and then bang, shut down,” said Jan. 

PastedImage-27488 A still from Dark Horse, the documentary that inspired Dream Horse.

The idea of a feature film being made about them was far from the Vokes’ minds. “We had the documentary made first, Dark Horse, and the ladies who made the documentary said that they wouldn’t be surprised if after the documentary we were approached,” said Jan. “But in your wildest dreams you don’t imagine, you know, something like this is gonna happen because we didn’t really see a story, because everything happened over such a long period of time. It was mind boggling.”  

It took six weeks to make the film, but Jan and Brian only met their on-screen counterparts a handful of times. Still, they were extremely impressed with how they were depicted. 

“It was like looking in a mirror, watching somebody else play out your life story, it was really, really strange,” said Jan.

Toni Collette when she was with the horse – because she made a bond with the horse that played Dream – so, all those scenes, I could see myself. But I suppose it was me in a way that, you know I look and I think ‘gosh I’m not like that am I, do I really do that?’ But you don’t see yourself, you don’t notice the things that you say or do yourself as a habit, but watching it on the screen, somebody else doing it, is weird.

Brian also felt that Owen Teale “had me to a T”.

“I’m exactly like that. I’m up for anything,” he laughed. 

“I can’t get around it. [Owen and I] met filming at a racecourse. We went down and he was walking across the front where we was, he was up on the balcony thing, and he was walking across and I could have swore blind he was me.”

Teale also had what was truly essential for the role. “I always said if they make a film about this… whoever plays me has got to have his teeth out,” said Brian. Indeed, Teale sports impressive fake gnashers, though most of them are missing. 

But there’s one big thing that the film got wrong: the Vokes didn’t have ducks in the house. At the beginning of the film, Jan is seen waking up in a small, poky house. She has a huge dog sleeping on the bottom of the bed, and a duck in a box in the kitchen.  

“Parts of the film were just put in for effect, you know,” explained Jan. “Where we were living in the film is nothing like the house that we really live in. Yeah, we are working class. And we’ve gradually done our house up over the years. But, you know, we’ve never had ducks in boxes in the kitchen. We have got dogs and one little dog does sleep at the bottom of the bed, but he’s a little whippet – he’s not a great big dog.”

Rather than be annoyed at the fictionalisations in the film (which are common in a film like this, in order to add to the action or drama), Jan and Brian seem to enjoy the new additions.  

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Dream Horse shows how Jan managed to form a syndicate of locals from her small town to help fundraising and racing Dream. Though the characters in the film are a little bit of an amalgamation of real people, with added comedic effect, we do get to see what’s involved in trying to get a project like this off the ground. 

Dream Alliance had 23 owners. “I mean when you have 23 people, obviously we’ve got different ideas of where we should race him, and what we should be doing with him and one thing and another, but as owners everyone of them only has the welfare of the horse [in mind] – we all loved him,” said Jan.

“And the community, where our stables are, they are in a football field.. So people would come up. Even now we’ve got two horses there now. They come up, they have a look, they bring a carrot or an apple. We always share the horse with the village.”

Dream Alliance is retired, but Jan described how “the [local] bookies were full” during some of his big races like the Welsh Grand National. ”And it shows how much money was put on him because it took the local bookies three days to pay everybody out, they had to keep getting more money in,” she laughed.

And people still talk about him now.  You know, they still ask how is he doing, and you know, to be fair and people are still interested in the horses that we have now on the allotment, because we’re just about going with another one. We’ve got a youngster still in the wings. People are really interested, and we made some wonderful friends that we’ve stayed in contact with you know, through racing Dream.”

The film also shows the snobbery faced by the South Wales locals as they entered into the upper class world of horse racing, with the Vokes sneered at while at race meetings. Still, overall the film is an overwhelmingly positive one, getting across the sheer love the couple have for the horse – and the persistence they put into racing.

“We have three horses in the allotment, one is retired and two for racing,” said Jan.

“I work seven days a week in two jobs, and one of the jobs pays for the horses.

“It’s all we do – we don’t smoke, we don’t go out drinking, the horses are our passion. We like to think we give them a good life. We spend as much as we can afford on them anyway.”

Dream Horse is in cinemas now. 

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