Travelling on Film – Gypsies and Other Travellers

This entry is part 12 of 15 in the series Countercultural History

Travellers and gypsies on film and TV

The word ‘Traveller’ refers to anyone who has a nomadic way of life. While there are no official statistics for Travellers in the UK, local government caravan counts estimate there are around 300,000. These can be split into two groups – ethnic Travellers (for example Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers), and those who live on the road for financial or ideological reasons (for example New Travellers and Showmen).

Whenever we discuss ‘Travellers’, it is important to remember the term is not specific to any one community, covering as it does various ethnic and social groups. In the UK alone we have the Bargees (boat people), Indigenous Highland Travellers, Irish Travellers, New (Age) Travellers, Roma Gypsies (Manush, Nachin, Romanichal, Welsh Kale), and Showmen. British law only recognises Gypsies and Irish Travellers as ethnic groups, and even then since only fairly recently.

I’ve been going through my archives and thought that I would highlight a few documentaries involving various strains of these often-maligned folk. Short appraisals follow, but if the reader has any real interest in the subject, I’d suggest watching at least some of the material reviewed here for yourselves. I also can’t recommend Jeremy Sandford’s book ‘Gypsies’ 1 highly enough – an important collection of oral histories from Britain’s Gypsy communities first published in 1973.

‘Gypsy Wars’ (? • BBC Three • 2005)
A three-part series providing an outline of the continuing conflict among various groups of Travellers, councils, and locals, paying particular attention to communities without proper/ any planning permission for their sites. The focus is chiefly on the Irish Travellers, covering the lengthy negotiations and barricades at Dale Farm and a conservationist fighting to regain control of her orchard at Cottenham, among other dramatic and depressing events.

‘Kilroy’s Week with the Gypsies’ (Finn McGough • Channel 4 • 2005)
Unpopular former talk show host, failed MP and MEP and founder of the short-lived Veritas political party, Robert Kilroy-Silk attempts to spend a week with a family of Gypsies (although at first baulks at actually sleeping in a trailer). Thus, the expected culture-clash hilarity ensues, and while Kilroy unsurprisingly does prove himself an utter cunt, to be fair the family doesn’t always present themselves in the best lights either.

‘Knuckle’ (Ian Palmer • BBC Storyville / Irish Film Board • 2011)
A film-maker spends time with an Irish Traveller family, visiting them for annual updates over 12 years. Documenting a long-running and aggressive feud between the clan and some of their relatives, he manages to provide a fascinating insight into the traditional bare-knuckle fights used to settle old scores…

‘Operation Solstice’ (Gareth Morris • Channel 4 • 1991)
Another film first shown on Channel 4, this time examining 1985’s shameful police versus peace convoy clash known as The Battle of the Beanfield 2 (for a definitive overview check Andy Worthington’s book ‘The Battle of the Beanfield’ 3). Features traumatic footage of the event – which ITN repeatedly tried to repress – mixed with talking heads interviews with some of those involved. An eye-opening and important document of a shameful episode of police brutality.

‘Scene – New Age Gypsies’ (? • BBC • 1987)
A particularly interesting BBC schools programme, aimed at 13-16 olds and surprisingly balanced, considering its demographic. We visit various New Travellers (including survivors of the Beanfield) and are even shown violent footage from the Battle. Music is by Danielle Dax (Lemon Kittens). Incidentally, if anyone reading this ever comes across a copy of the 1970s episode of this series, ‘The Travellers’, please let me know via phuq23@gmail.com.

‘Traveller Feuds’ (? • Channel 5 • 2013)
Documentary reporting on the complex and violent feuding traditional among a minority of Traveller families living in Ireland (at least one of which features in much more detail in ‘Knuckle’). While bare-knuckle boxing is traditionally used to solve conflict among some Travellers, it now more commonly seems to be an exacerbating factor in the escalation of hostilities (aggravated further by the accompanying Facebook hatred campaigns and YouTube ‘call out’ videos). Beatings, stabbings, shootings and even animal mutilation, arson, bombings and rioting have been a feature of these often multigenerational feuds, so this programme makes for dramatic viewing indeed. The film features talking head interviews with anonymous Travellers (who feel that they are both unfairly tarred by this violent minority and threatened by them too), journalists, activists, and other members of the settled community.

‘World in Action – The New Age Travellers’ (? • Granada TV • 1992)
Taking a fairly even and sympathetic approach to the subject, World in Action follows a convoy of New Travellers as they try to go about their lives, despite unfriendly farmers and repeated police harassment (in which the filth display a complete lack of rationality, consistency, and compassion). Conservative MP Paul Marland also makes a royal cunt of himself; proclaiming the travelling lifestyle as a problem in itself and suggesting the solution that travellers be tethered to their hometowns if they wish to receive state benefits!

Series Navigation<< Hobo Slang of the 1940s‘American Nomads’ (2011) >>

Notes:

  1. Jeremy Sandford – ‘Gypsies’ (Abacus Books, 1975) – Revised as ‘Rokkering to the Gorjios’ (Interface, 2000)
  2. The ‘Battle of the Beanfield’ was a violent assault on a convoy of New Travellers by Wiltshire Police that took place on 1st June 1985. After stopping the 11th Stonehenge Free Festival from going ahead, the police took it upon themselves to enter a nearby temporary site, “methodically smashing windows, beating people on the head with truncheons, and using sledgehammers to damage the interiors of their coaches”. This account was supported by all the independent witnesses and upheld by subsequent court verdicts. However, at first, the police maintained that they had simply responded to the travellers bombarding them with lumps of wood, stones, and petrol bombs (although they kept curiously quiet about this later on in court). Six years after the battle, the police were finally found guilty of wrongful arrest, assault, and criminal damage. “All of us were shocked by what we saw: police tactics which seemed to break new grounds in the scale and intensity of its violence. We saw police throw hammers, stones, and other missiles through the windscreens of advancing vehicles; a woman dragged away by her hair; young men beaten over the head with truncheons as they tried to surrender; police using sledgehammers to smash up the interiors of the hippies’ coaches.” – A witness to the Beanfield
  3. Andy Worthington – ‘The Battle of the Beanfield’ (Enabler, 2005)
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Specialist in Munkeljuck, Schpamenfrugen, and Flippy-Pip, currently learning to yodel, while teaching himself Quantum Physics, yet still finding the time to continually yearn for his lost childhood hat; not forgetting that time he donated money to an attractive 'chugger' without even being asked to...

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