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The truth about Travellers

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Charlotte Riches Charlotte Riches 12:45, Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Cast of BBC Radio 4 Afternoon Play Atching Tan on set.

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    How great to hear people rokker the romani on the radio, especially BBC Radio Four! A captivating play, highlighting many issues in both the gorgi and the traveller communities. Cant wait to hear more and know what Luvvi is going to do next!

    Well done everyone involved.

  • Comment number 2.

    I really enjoyed this play this afternoon - I usually turn off after the Archers. I've only ever seen/heard about the gipsy community recently, on the TV about Traveller weddings, and this play gave another look in. Thank you very much everyone.

  • Comment number 3.

    I loved the play also and its fab getting to know about the making-of process behind the scenes. The play felt a bit like a documentary at times as it sounded so real. I thought the actress playing Luvvi was simply outstanding.

  • Comment number 4.

    When I was a child the 'gipsy' traveller was well known and accepted - they mende our pots and pans, carved our artificial flower and pegs from wood gathered near where they camped. The women folk would 'tell your fortune'and give you a bunch of 'lucky' white heather if you crossed her hand with silver (usually a 3penny piece in those days)or gave some good clothing - especially for the children.
    They were mostly quiet, happy semming people who loved their life style and took a pride in themselves. Their children were not illiterate and wouls enjoy our old books. The only sign of their camp when they left was some scorched earth where their cooking fire had been.
    We accepted them, liked to see their lovely caravans and stroke their ponies and horses. They often spoke their own patios in front of us and even told some stories about their lives. One of my favourite books as a teenager was George Borrow's 'Lavengro' which expanded other facets of their lives and showed how disliked they could be as well as their own codes of conduct about such things as cleanliness, behaviour and crime.

    How different to those I now find camping in my locality during the summer months! The racket is dreadful the mess is awfull and they do not clean it up before they leave. The place they pull their up to date campers/caravans/four wheel drives on to are those which local people would be moved off should they attempt to stay overnight. Washing lines are strung between vans and the car parks are so crowded by them that we find it difficult to find spaces. Local gardens have been invaded and damage done while any attempt to speak to them can be met with abuse.

    Perhaps you might point out the differences between the people we knew as 'Gypsies'? and those we now call 'travelers'

  • Comment number 5.

    YnysMon93 :

    I'd like to respond to your comment.
    You say that Gypsies/Travellers camp on sites that where local people would not be allowed to stay overnight. Although Gypsies and non-Gypsies need to be treated equally by the law, these two groups do have different needs. Unfortunately, in Scotland for example, the number of all-year council-owned pitches for Gypsy Travellers declined from 560 to 480 between 2003 and 2006. Also, some are crossed by electricity pylons; others are within 300 metres of a motorway; on land liable to flooding; close to a large electricity substation or close to active landfill sites. This means that there is a shortage in suitable sites for them to camp. This is the context in which Gypsy Travellers may be camped on unauthorised sites.
    There is also still institutionalised discrimination against Gypsy Travellers. More than half (58%) of councils charge higher rents for Gypsy Traveller pitches than they do for council houses. In England over 90% of planning applications by Gypsy Travellers are refused compared to only 20% of planning applications by the settled community, hindering them in solving these issues by establishing their own sites. This, and a long history of discrimination could understandably create a feeling of resentment among Gypsies/Travellers. Although this may not excuse behaviour you have experienced, it again gives some important context.

  • Comment number 6.

    It seems I am in the minority but I really didn'y enjoy the play. I am delighted with the idea of using 'real' travellers for the actors but their delivery of the script was stilted in places and lacked conviction. It reminded me of some of the child actors in the Archers who find it impossible to be convincing. The script was cliched - do travellers really spend their time saying "Cushty" at every opportunity? It was also rather predictable and turgid.

    In my view it was a worthy experimant which failed to live up to the usually excellent standards of Radio 4 drama productions.

  • Comment number 7.

    Thank you for all your messages about Atching Tan. It’s great to get so much feedback. It feels like we have the beginning of a debate here on the representation of Travellers in drama. It’s really important that we hear your views on the subject and take them into account for future productions. I’m going to be on the Radio 4 Feedback programme tomorrow at 1.30pm to address/answer some of the issues/comments which listeners have raised, so do tune in if you want to hear more about the process involved in making Atching Tan and the rationale for some of the decisions on representation which we made.

    Also, if you do want to hear what happens next to Lovvie and Neilus then the follow on series to Atching Tan is available on line through the Atching Tan BBC webpage.

    Charlotte Riches, Producer, Atching Tan

  • Comment number 8.

    Feedback is Radio 4's weekly accountability programme. Listen here. The Atching Tan site is here.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog


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