Tuesday, 10 December 2019

The Epic 40k Flea Circus

Stephen Lowe's film Flea Bites is set in his native Nottingham in the early 1990s. An unlikely friendship develops between Jason (Anthony Hill), 12-year-old boy with an absentee father and Kryst (Nigel Hawthorne) an impoverished elderly Polish veteran who lost his own son in WW2 and has made his home in England.  Kryst owns a box of tiny silver models with wheels which he used in a flea circus for children in a concentration camp, and Jason spends his afternoons shoplifiting from his local Games Workshop. The shared fascination for small things, worlds in miniature, allows a connection between the pair that transcends their differences.

There are some poignant images - Jason unexpectedly dropping a handful of 6mm scale Land Raiders - futuristic war machines - onto the topography of the Eastern Front being studied by Kryst in their local library. Kryst walking away, alone, through the mud-trampled ground of the shutting-up Goose Fair after Jasons miniature theatrical production has ended.

For lead-spotters there is a wealth of Games Workshop product on display, from Bretonnian army to Nick Bibbys Great Spined Dragon, and even a small but amusing scene of knuckle tattooed hobbyists hobbying hard in their local 3D Roleplay Hobby Game Store, and a wealth of other period detail (Rodney Mathews poster in Jasons room). It is fascinating to see Warhammer, and fantasy gaming in general (mention is also made of Dungeons & Dragons) brought into a social and narrative context beyond the excesses of 80s Satanic Panic and the business pages, and into the lives of ordinary people.

It is perhaps inevitable that coming from a playwright the story centres performance and theatre rather than gaming and interaction.  The juxtaposition of Krysts wartime experiences, grief and memory against Jasons innocent fantasy with its black and white fairy-tale morality mythical plane of pure ideology drives the learning curve of their friendship. One can almost hear an echo of the debates of serious historical and fantasy gamers down the ages. Well, from the 1970s at least.

My memories might not be quite correct, but I think I recall spotting the miniatures in the trailer and then watching the original broadcast. Flea Bites has certainly plagued my memory over the years (along with perhaps entirely false memory of an episode of Boon where Sabbats Blood for the Blood God can be heard from a car stereo of a serial killer). Epic / Space Marine, the game from which most of the models appearing in the film that Jason nicks from the shelves - came out towards the end of my interest in Games Workshop products, although our gangs weekly Warhammer 40k Rogue Trader campaign was still going on at that point, nobody else saw or remembers it.

Many of the problems faced by both protagonists - discrimination, social exclusion, seem as relevant today as they were then - all that has really changed is the quiet stories about empathy, community, hope  and the peculiar things that can connect diverse people have all but disappeared from the Thursday night television schedule.


  1. I remember this well. Looking back it was one of the few bits of media that both captured the spirit of the hobby and acutally gave it a grounding in the cultural history of fantasy and imagination (in this case flea circuses) that is everywhere and is, in part the predescors of all modern fantasy gaming.

    Looking back, it also just predayed the games devolving into tournament obsessed power gaming, with the imagination being a key to both the storyline and the link of the hobby.

    Or at least that is my modern, misremembered take on it. I haven't seen it since it's original broadcast, although it has managed to stick with me. Thank you for putting this link up, I know what I'm going to be making my other half watch tonight!

    1. Hope you enjoyed revisiting the Flea Circus. You're spot on with the narrative/tournament divide, an interesting observation.