A Community Play with Songs and Music
'Raggle Taggle' is an ebullient and poignant new community play about British Romany Gypsies. Written for ten principal characters and up to 60 others, it is a story of young love, a cry from the heart against prejudice, and a wide ranging celebration of the richness and diversity of Romany Gypsy culture.
Jeremy Sandford, author of 'Cathy Come Home' and 'Edna the Inebriate Woman', has returned to a subject with which he’s had lifelong involvement. As editor of 'Romano Drom', a Gypsy newspaper, and in his work as an executive with the Gypsy Council, he has been an unstinting and powerful advocate for their cause in Britain.
A Note from Jeremy Sandford
Rory O'Sullivan, Beaufort Community School's Head of Drama, drove over to meet me at the Royal Oak Hotel in Leominster, close to where I live. Over Guinness and a sandwich he told me that the Cheltenham Festival of Literature would like to commission a play about Britain's traditional Gypsy travellers, to be performed by the school, its teachers, and other members of the community.
One of the school staff had read my book 'Gypsies', another had heard a programme I did on the radio. The school had had Gypsy pupils, Rory explained, although there are none there at the moment. I was struck by the contrast with one of our local Herefordshire schools whose Headmaster had illegally banned Gypsy pupils from his school and for this act of prejudice been reported to the Commission for Racial Equality.
I designed 'Raggle Taggle' to be panoramic in scope and swift moving in its locations. There is a section, set in the sixteenth century, when the mere fact of being a Gypsy could be and was punished by death. But most of the play takes place in contemporary Britain and moves between the home of the Lockett family, a suburban housing estate, a large car dump, the Great Gypsy Horse Fair, shopping precincts, a local authority Gypsy site, a country fête, lay-bys and highways, and a shady hotel in Gloucester. There is also a sequence celebrating some of the world Gypsy heritage in song, dance, and circus skills. This is set in the bible lands, Pakistan, Turkey, Romania, Africa and Spain.
Early on Rory and I agreed that the play must, above all, be about our Gypsies as they are, rather than romantic notions of how they should be, or might be, or sparkly-eyed tourist Gypsies dancing Spanish flamenco, or any other of the romantic manifestations of Romany in so many different countries. A place would be found for these latter in the play as well, but its main ingredient was to be life as lived by typical British Gypsies today; those who are affluent enough to buy their own bit of land and keep out of the public eye, and above all those others parked on the public lands - the commons and lay-bys - the most immediately high profile part of our Gypsy population.
With their old fashioned and non-literate culture, our Gypsies played a major and largely unacknowledged part in preserving our folk music. It was to them that people like Vaughan Williams went when it became fashionable to write down our British folk heritage. And traditional British folk music can still be heard round our Gypsies' firesides. So we decided that our play should be a musical, or, at the least, a 'play with songs'.
A particularly pleasant part of my job was to scour my music library for Gypsy music to be used in the play; not only our own but also from other parts of the world. I volunteered to play with the band and so ensured that I would be able to play a small part in the pleasurable task of helping Rory transform my text into reality.
I soon became aware that writing a community school play is more like writing a feature film than writing an ordinary stage play. This is because of the vastness of resources on which a community school can draw. Rory responded most enthusiastically when I mentioned that a cast of 60 or 80 could be exciting and appropriate.
Multi racial Britain now has many minority groups and they are, it seems to me, a wonderful ingredient in our National Heritage, adding a rich variety of possible lifestyles and art forms, especially for those just approaching adulthood and wondering what sort of life they'd like to have. Of no group can this be more truly said than our 100,000 or so Gypsies. Arriving in England in the sixteenth century (and in Scotland some time before that) they were our first immigrants, although, of course, there had been many other racial groups who came as invaders.
It is sad to report that the situation has altered to the disadvantage of our British Gypsies since this play went into production. The bad news is that the last government, in their Criminal Justice Act, did their best to make the traditional right to park by the roadside or on commons illegal.
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