Northern Ireland

Belfast Blitz elephant story hits the big screen

A scene from Zoo Image copyright Wee Buns films
Image caption Zoo is based on one of Northern Ireland's most famous wartime stories

Two teenage acting stars from Northern Ireland have said they want to continue in the business after starring in a film about a Belfast elephant.

Emily Flain and James Stockdale appear in Zoo, which tells the story of a young boy's friendship with a baby elephant during World War Two.

It is based on one of NI's most famous wartime stories and most of the film was shot in Belfast.

It stars veteran actors Penelope Wilton, Toby Jones and Ian McElhinney.

The film, which premieres in Belfast on Tuesday, was inspired by the real life story of Belfast woman Denise Austin.

She took a baby elephant named Sheila home everyday from Belfast Zoo to keep it from being destroyed during the Belfast Blitz, when German bombers devastated the city.

Image caption Zoo stars Emily Flain and James Stockdale say Nellie the elephant was the real star

The authorities feared that bomb damage could allow the zoo's dangerous creatures to go on the rampage and ordered them put down, but Sheila was spared and went on to become a symbol of hope.

Sheila becomes Buster in the film, who was in turn played by Canadian elephant Nellie.

All of her scenes where filmed in Ontario in Canada as she is not a great flyer.

The Belfast Blitz

The Belfast Blitz devastated a city that up until 1941 had remained unscathed during World War Two.

About 1,000 people were killed and bombs hit half of the houses in the city, leaving 100,000 people homeless.

Belfast was largely unprepared for an attack on such a scale, as 200 German bombers shelled the city on 15 April 1941.

Many in Northern Ireland thought that Belfast was outside the range of the Luftwaffe.

The Germans, however, saw Belfast as a legitimate target due to the shipyards in the city that were contributing to Britain's war efforts.

Poor visibility on the night meant the accuracy of the bombers was hampered and the explosives were dropped on densely-populated areas of Belfast.

It was the worst wartime raid outside of London in the UK.

In the film version of events a young boy, Tom, forms a bond with the elephant after his father, the zoo's vet, has to go to fight in the war.

Tom and his young friends secretly "liberate" Buster and try to avoid detection from the authorities, all the while learning invaluable life lessons and strengthening their friendships.

An old lady who lives nearby, a fictionalised Denise Austin played by Penelope Wilton, helps the friends hide the elephant.

One of the characters, a streetwise but shy loner called Jane, is played by 15-year-old Emily Flain from Lisburn in County Antrim.

Image caption The real life Belfast Blitz elephant was called Sheila

She said she could not believe she was part of a "once in a lifetime experience" and in spite of the big-name actors in the film, Nellie the elephant was the real star.

"She was wonderful to film with," Emily said.

"We only had her for about 20 minutes at a time because obviously it is important not to stress her out.

"It was scary at first but I got over it and really enjoyed it".


Another of the main characters in the film is Mickey, played by James Stockdale, from Moy, County Tyrone.

"I think friendship is the most important theme in the movie because the gang really come together and try to save the elephant," he said.

"I think that it is important that they work together so that they can overcome the obstacles that they are faced with."

Image copyright Wee Buns films
Image caption The cast and crew of Zoo travelled to Canada for filming with a real baby elephant named Nellie

James, 16, said he could not wait to see the film, which neither he nor Emily has seen prior to the premiere.

"I can't wait for the lights and the glamour of it all," he said.

"I'll feel like a superstar really whenever I see myself."

Both Emily and James said they would like to continue in acting.

Image copyright Belfast Zoo
Image caption Denise Austin took Sheila from the zoo each night to keep her safe at home

Filming took place in various other locations across Belfast including Belfast Zoo, the grounds of Belfast Castle and the docks beside HMS Caroline with a further week of shooting in Canada.

Zoo was written and directed by Belfast born Colin McIvor.

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