by Jeremy Sandford
A Drama Documentary
But what did they fight for and why did they die?
For freedom to wander around.
But where can we wander; there’s no place to go
For they’re closing our camping grounds down.
From ‘The Hawker’s Lament’ by Duncan Williamson.
Jeremy Sandford combined drama and documentary in his screenplays for ‘Cathy Come Home’, probably the most successful one-shot television drama ever transmitted by the BBC, and the award winning ‘Edna, the Inebriate Woman’ (director Ted Kotcheff), the most successful one-shot television drama of its year.
Now he plans to combine drama and documentary in a film shot on location, using a mixture of actors and ‘real people’.
His subject - the vivid and poignant lives lived by the thousands of traditional tinkers and Gypsies whose home is Britain and Ireland. Numbering some eleven million world wide, and one million in the European Community, they have no country that they can really call their own.
Incorrigible rascal, generous father, breaker of hearts and second-hand motors, restless, caravan-dweller, spendthrift with his fivers yet a shrewd driver of bargains - that’s Jim, who inherits from his Romani Gypsy ancestry his happy-go-lucky ways, his need always to be on the move.
But, though his life lies in the tough world of scrap dealers in the English industrial Midlands, he is still able to draw on a wealth of country lore from the day when, long ago in Ireland, with his father and family, he travelled the countryside in a horse-drawn varda. When his child falls sick, it is to the countryside he goes to find a remedy.
And he is proud of his ability to survive anywhere. ‘Put me on the moors with an old pram and I’ll bring you back a fiver where another man will get nothing.’
His girlfriend, Maggie, is not a Gypsy. They met on the Herefordshire hopfields where Jim and his family had gone to work from West Bromwich. Maggie, a small-time builder’s daughter from County Cork, was on the last lap home from a hitchhiking holiday round Europe, including a romance with a German in a squat in Hamburg that she’d felt like taking a break from. It wasn’t till she was involved with him that Jim told her he was a Gypsy.
At one point the idea was that they would rent a flat in Birmingham and he would take up the house dweller’s life. But Maggie got involved in the ways of the Gypsies ... and she realised that Jim could never live in a house - as he says; ‘I get sick as a trout when I’m in a house.’
Extravagant, deep drinking, the life of Jim and his family is a constant tightrope walk above an abyss of insolvency - and Jim walks the rope with style and a reckless enthusiasm - despising nine-to-fivers for the sedentary ways - pulling off a successful coup only to destroy it next moment by some improvident act. ‘The free life is the best life.’
We see him first on a totting expedition with friends - three lorries moving into a residential district to pick up old washing machines, etc. They go to a genteel pub where they crack jokes, swap stories, and are given the freeze by the genteel management. At the scrapyard to which they take their day’s booty, Jim’s little brother (7), who has been travelling with them, surprises them all by producing a large statue of semi-precious metal he’s been given by an old lady - a present worth all the adult takings put together.
There is hostility towards Maggie shown by the Gypsy girls. And talk about the new laws which are making the old wandering life harder and harder for Gypsies.
‘The Prince’, Jim’s uncle, lectures them on fortune-telling and spells. Jim doesn’t take these all that seriously.
Times are hard. Maggie seems thoughtful. She explains that she was taken, as a schoolgirl, to a pile of hundreds of rusty cars in a remote part of County Cork. Might they be of interest? She’s been told no-one knows who owns them.
Without a second thought, Jim suggests they go on a reccy, and then, well, why don’t they go there anyway? The extended family (two or three caravan loads, plus lorries) head towards Ireland.
They arrive and pull on to the place with the hundreds of cars. A complication follows - the ‘owner’ arrives, demanding £1,000. Jim knows that, broken up, the cars will be worth a lot of money. A visit to a local Gypsy Traveller Site, he sells his caravan and he returns to explain to Maggie that they will now be living in the cars. A rusty snowmobile is the master bedroom.
Maggie throws herself into the new life but it gets to be hard for her. She’s pregnant and now finds Jim’s Gypsy and unpredictable ways too much for her, especially his arrangements for her having the baby.
She runs away. We see her back home. Life in suburban Clonakilty seems claustrophobic after the Gypsy life.
Jim has broken up and sold the final car. Now his life seems pointless and lonely and, living in a pickup van, Jim pays a visit to the great Gypsy meeting place of Appleby Fair in Westmorland, north England. There is more talk of harassment of the Gypsies, and an attempt by the Gypsies to set up their own organisation.
Not so long after the Fair, the Gypsies find themselves involved in a major eviction. Jim and the others are constantly hounded. Caravans from many parts end up on one vast piece of waste land. Jim’s family are there and they welcome him back. ‘There’s somebody here to see you, by the way,’ says his father, and there stands Maggie with his baby son. She has been waiting with his Dad, knowing that he would turn up sooner or later. Immediate acceptance by all the Gypsy women follows, once they see the new baby.
Further harassment of the Gypsies here now follows. They are in despair as they are driven from pillar to post. Through her knowledge of how to relate to Gorjios, Maggie is able to jump the queue and get them a place on an official site. They travel to take up their pitch on the site.
But Jim decides not to go on the site. Despite the fact that harassment of Gypsies is making life on the road intolerable, he reckons that freedom is still preferable to life on a barbed-wire site. Maggie remonstrates with him and then realises she would be wrong to stand in his way over this. With a breakdown of reason, Jim delivers one of his uncle’s curses.
And then, once again, Maggie and Jim are out there driving the roads.
This film may strike the reader as expensive to make. The following notes are designed to show how it could be done fairly economically.
The basic production strategy is to hire an equipped caravan plus lorry, stock of scrap metal, dogs, etc. from a Gypsy stopped in a fairly urban stopping place. (Our ‘basic’ stopping place.) The fee would include retention of that Gypsy and his family to play small parts, control the dogs, do the actual moving of the caravan, light fires, cook, etc.
Through my contacts with the Gypsy Community it will be possible to locate the best Gypsy for this role, and I foresee no problems in this area.
This ‘basic Gypsy’ will also act as technical advisor and, for example, lend Jim his gun and advise on the shooting expedition.
The best stopping place for our purposes will, I think, be one with about four caravans on it; one extended family. On a stopping place with more Gypsies, the sheer numbers of Gypsies crowding round to watch could create problems.
At a ‘one extended family’ stopping place we will get the involvement of all those people, especially as our actual contract will be with the most respected Gypsy there.
For the scenes where Jim is stopped with his caravan in a variety of solitary locations we will, of course, just take the caravan plus lorry plus Gypsy advisor to a suitable place.
For the Local Authority site we will use one of the many actual Local Authority sites.
There remain two sequences which at first sight may seem expensive and here is how I’d propose to deal with them.
A. The Appleby Fair / Stow Fair Sequence
Best of all would be to make the film over a period which included Appleby Fair, in June. We would go up there for a couple of days and shoot in a semi documentary manner, and also shoot there the sequences involving Jim.
B. The Eviction Sequence
A large number of vehicles and police/security seems to me to be unnecessary. Evictions can be expressed very well with shots of wheels turning in mud, one council lorry, a few security men, or whatever. Another way might be to use existing stock footage which could be cut in as part of a supposed news coverage of the event, seen on one of the Gypsies battery driven televisions.
(from the author’s book ‘Gypsies’)
To arrive at a Gypsy camp-site in the evening. To pick across the rubble or mud towards the caravans where they stand so snug and inviting, lit through their pink vinyl curtains by yellow Calor gas; to see the pretty Gypsy girls returning home with their gleaming jugs full of the evening’s supply of water; to see the men come back in their huge lorries piled high with scrap, lurching back towards their home; to see smoke begin to rise from the chimneys ... How often have those of us who have become involved with Britain’s Gypsies felt our heart turn over at this moment, turn over perhaps with some stirring from inherited memories of the time when we were all nomadic, or perhaps with the realisation that ultimately in this life nothing is fixed; there are as many lifestyles possible as there are people around to live them. That is one side of the picture ...
To be with a group of Gypsies squatting and sitting by an open fire where a huge tureen of stew is brewing, drinking bottled beer, passing the evening in conversation and song, watching where, propped against the embers, a battery-powered portable television is transmitting the Hughie Green Show. That is another side of the picture ...
The child needlessly crushed to death during an eviction at Dudley; the three children who unnecessarily died during an eviction at Walsall; the two children burned to death in a tent in Lanarkshire on the same day that their grandfather was killed by a car; the many other Gypsy children who died not through anything as simple as an eviction but because the Gypsy life is hard - they died of exposure or malnutrition. That is another side of the picture ...
There are many Gypsy people who die unnecessarily. Proportionately, for every seven of us who live over the age of sixty-five, there is only one Gypsy.
Extermination has been suggested as a solution to the Gypsy problem by a Midlands councillor, and as a solution to various problems by a chief of police. In this we can see a tragic echo of that German policy which resulted in the extermination of 300,000 Gypsies.
It is my desire that this work may help change the public’s attitude towards Gypsies so that the law will be changed before it is too late. I hope it will not be just a record of another priceless part of the British heritage which it was in our power to have preserved and profited from, but which instead we chose to sacrifice on the plastic altars of standardisation and expediency.
Against the odds, I still hope that time will bring a climate more favourable to our Gypsy citizens, and they will be accepted for those valuable things they have to give us, and that their suffering will approach its end.
There is little time to lose. Before our eyes the fabric of this entire and unique culture is in the process of being dismantled. It is a crime to which every one of us non-Gypsies in this country are accomplices.
Now, as the new powers given to councils and police in the Criminal Justice Act begins to grip, a new type of suffering is being added even to that suffering which already exists. It is a suffering whose extent is hard even to conceive, let alone describe in words, since it authorises the seizing, impounding, and ultimate destruction of vehicle homes. Let us make change soon.
All the incidents in this script are based on real events that have occurred over the past few years in Britain.
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