Returning to the gypsy community, Richard Parry finds closeness to his subjects a plus.
Getting access to film on one of Britain’s biggest and most contentious gypsy sites was a tricky number six years ago, when I made a three-parter for BBC3. The travellers have a deep-rooted suspicion of both the media and the settled community, so it was an uphill struggle. Over time, they let down their guard and we managed to record some really intimate views of this very hidden world.
I filmed Kathleen McCarthy singing in her caravan a week before it went up in flames, killing her and her husband. The same day, her 16-year-old daughter played back her mother’s recordings from a car CD player. It was an extraordinary event to witness, and to be part of in some small way.
I found Kathleen’s brother back in Ireland; his initial frostiness soon melted as he realised that I was the one who’d made those now infamous recordings. That evening, we were downing Guinness in the bar like old friends.
For most of these events, my camera remained reluctantly in the bag. They would have made an extraordinary record, but forging trust with participants is the bigger goal. For me, documentary making is a strange hybrid of diplomacy, genuine curiosity, sometimes bullishness, and in my view, willingness to accept that we the film-makers are part of the story. We are not flies on a wall. We are here with our subjects and, in some ways, emotionally bound to them. That doesn’t mean we agree with everything they say or do; far from it. But we can engage with them compassionately.
Returning to this community, I was welcomed with hearty smiles and open arms. The young ones I’d filmed had grown up. Jimmy Fyn, once a tubby, very amenable redhead, had become a well-built, stern young man. He’d dropped out of school because of bullying and a staunch mistrust of the settled community had taken root. Such a loss of innocence saddened me. But essentially, it was heartwarming to step back into the homes of these familiar faces and share a few old stories. And it made my job of filming that much easier.
By the summer of 2010, gypsies had been all over TV thanks to Channel 4’s Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. The travellers that I know have a mixed attitude to it. Generally, the younger generation love the way it reflects the more colourful aspects of gypsy life, while the older ones pick up on its more pejorative tones. But regardless, I think it did immense good in educating the country about this poorly reported community.
If the bailiffs show up on 1 September to evict 500 travellers from this site, all hell may break loose. It’ll be a magnet for TV crews and journalists across the country; no doubt a media circus. And the council will be doing its utmost to steer the press. I’ve already had run-ins with the council press department on another site where they insisted that all crews report to them, sign in and be shepherded to and from the actual eviction areas.
We were the only crew that refused their ‘hospitality’. Despite numerous threats from the council during the day, to have me arrested for operating outside their net, no action was taken.
If the bulldozers roll in in late summer, I can well envisage more conflict than the one we’ll be reporting.
➤ Richard Parry is the producer/director of Gypsy Eviction, which airs on 21 July at 10.35pm on BBC1