Up until last month, I had never set foot on a Traveller site or thought I ever would. Few non-Travellers tend to be allowed into this closed, tight knit community. Therefore, it was a great surprise and privilege not only to be invited onto a Traveller site, but to be given the run of the place for a whole week to record Atching Tan, a Radio 4 afternoon play.
Atching Tan, which in Romani means 'stopping place' is a drama written by Traveller (and Director of The Romany Theatre Company), Dan Allum. It focuses on Lovvie Arkley, a young Traveller faced with a difficult decision; to marry her childhood sweetheart Nelius and live a traditional Traveller life, or renounce her culture to pursue a career in the outside 'gorgia' world.
The seeds of the play first came to life three years ago as a radio drama series on BBC East, a series created by Dan to explore the Traveller community in a way it has never been done before - from the inside. Dan's authentic representation of the Traveller world is what makes this play so unique, especially as most Travellers would argue that they tend to be portrayed negatively in dramatic media - usually as dirty trouble making thieves and scroungers. Travellers themselves may privately admit to being far from perfect but would assert they are clean, law abiding, hard working people who would live in peace with their non-Traveller neighbours given the chance.
As well as creating a strong and engaging dramatic script, we wanted to challenge these traditional, negative representations and instead portray the Traveller community as they realistically are. Not just in the writing, but in the casting too, which is why all but one member of the cast are from the Traveller community. This was especially important as the Romany language is woven throughout the script and we needed people who could speak and understand the language in order to fully convey the spirit and richness of Romany speech. These real Traveller voices give the play a very distinct feel, especially combined with the colourful Romany language. And of course the setting adds extra texture. The life of our real site intermingled with our drama - dogs barked, cars and trucks came in and out and food was cooked in a pot over the open fire.
At the end of our week at the site we didn't want to leave. Our hosts had been generous, incredibly hospitable and above all supportive of what we were doing. This, in a huge part was due to the passion and drive of writer Dan, whose infectious enthusiasm really hammered home to the cast and crew that we were working on something very special indeed. This wasn't just a play about two people falling in love, or a young girl deciding what career choice to make. This was also a rare opportunity to challenge people's pre-conceptions about a marginalised community. Travellers feel a terrible wrong has been done to them throughout history in the way their culture and identity has been demonised and distorted. So we felt a great responsibility with this play and set about trying to right this wrong in the only way we knew how. By letting Travellers speak for themselves.Dan said of the experience, "It's been great to explore my culture through drama in such an exciting and authentic way. I never thought in a million years I'd hear Traveller voices speaking the Romani language on Radio 4. The commissioner Jeremy Howe took a big chance with this play and it would be a great accolade to him if this were just the beginning, that it inspired other BBC commissioners right across the networks, including TV, to have the courage and vision to take risks with new voices tackling controversial subjects. But for now my primary hope is that the Radio 4 audience enjoy the afternoon play for what it's meant to be - strong entertaining drama."
The challenges for everyone involved in the play and the BBC East series have been enormous but exciting, and the result is raw but hopefully groundbreaking. If we happen to challenge stereotypes and change people's perceptions about the Traveller community along the way, then all the better.
Charlotte Riches is producer of Atching Tan
- Atching Tan is today's Afternoon Play on BBC Radio 4 at 1415.
- The Atching Tan radio series is broadcast on BBC East and you can also listen at atchingtan.com.
- The picture was taken during recording of Atching Tan. It shows: Dan Allum (writer), Damian Le Bas (Neilus), Candis Nergaard (Lovvie) and Ali McGregor (Sound). More pictures from the production on Flickr.