Tackling the poor portrayal of traveller communities

Storyteller Richard O’Neill comes from a traditional, nomadic Romani Gypsy family. He believes his community should be better represented in TV, film and theatre

My journey to becoming a professional performer, storyteller and writer started by being brought up in a large, traditional, nomadic Romani Gypsy family, where stories and performing them were an important part of our culture and a strong reminder of our history and the need to keep it alive. I learned my skills from some of the best Travelling storytellers in the UK and – even from an early age – realised the power of stories to entertain. When I started to write my stories down and reach a worldwide audience, I realised the power of the written word too.

As an adult I was content to act as the story keeper and tell my stories at community events, until I was asked to perform professionally at an event in Manchester in 2005. Following that event, the requests kept coming and were soon followed by the inclusion in the Pentabus ‘White Open Spaces’ Theatre Project leading to the play I wrote being performed in theatres and on BBC Radio 4. I still love to write, drawing on my Romani upbringing, which continues to inspire me. I have since penned a collection of award-winning, internationally published children’s books and I’m currently working on a play about the England football team’s first Romani footballer; a Romani crime fiction novel; and a TV programme based on my childhood.

I’m very proud of my heritage; growing up I had a number of famous performers I could identify with and be inspired by, including the singer and actor David Essex (former president of the Gypsy Council). I also knew that Yul Brynner was a Romani person, as was Charlie Chaplin - one of the most famous entertainers this country has ever produced. Charlie was born in a horse-drawn wagon in Birmingham (there’s now a plaque commemorating the fact) and in terms of comedy we had the TV programme Steptoe and Son based on some of our family in London. One of the leading figures in light entertainment, the late Joe Longthorne was also of Traveller heritage. I’m sure there were many more but back then, as nowadays, many people would not come out as Romani or Traveller people for fear they would become a target of racial abuse or that it might damage their career. It’s been termed the ‘last acceptable form of racism’.

One of the biggest problems we Romani Gypsy and Traveller communities face is that we are rarely seen on TV, film and in the theatre. When we are it’s often either a very confused representation, where writers and productions are mixing up the different Travelling groups as if they were completely interchangeable – an English Romani Gypsy with an Irish Traveller accent, or vice versa. There is the very negative representation of Travelling groups being a social and economic problem (or all being rich and flamboyant as depicted on the various Gypsy Wedding programmes). Then there’s the regular depiction of a violent and very much a social lower-class people as depicted in the film Snatch, or the standard murder mystery Gypsy in the Woods character. Even in the seminal and influential 1980 TV play The Blackstuff the unscrupulous characters were the Travellers.

There are three main Traveller groups in the UK: Romani Gypsies (here since the 1500s hence the connection to Shakespeare); Irish Travellers, who have been coming into England for a similar time; and Roma people, who are mainly from Eastern Europe and share the same language and culture as the Romani here. The word Gypsy came from the mistaken belief that the Romani people who came into England during the reign of King Henry the Eighth were from Egypt, hence the use of Egyptian (see Othello) as well as Gypsy. We also have ethnic Scottish and Welsh Travelling people who have their own languages. There is much diversity within ethnic Travelling groups, which is exactly why it would be great for those seeking to represent us on screen or in the theatre to do their homework first.

The industry can help us by educating themselves on the different groups, the heritage, culture and language. They can make sure that, if they are creating work about Gypsy Roma and Traveller (GRT) groups, they try to get people from the communities involved as professionals and/or advisers. They can help by showing they value and respect the communities enough to take the time and trouble to do proper research and to be aware of cultural appropriation. Whilst there are wonderful theatre and film productions being made with casts and crew from GRT backgrounds telling stories from GRT viewpoints, these pale into insignificance with the number of productions on screen and in theatre about Gypsies and Travelling people who have never cast a Gypsy or Traveller person, or used a Gypsy writer, director or crew. It seems acceptable to borrow from GRT people’s stories without including them in the creative process. This wouldn’t happen with other groups in the 21st century and shouldn’t happen with GRT people so I believe we need people in the industry to make a pledge on this.

The multi-award-winning Independent Theater in Hungary is an excellent example of how this can work. I have been fortunate enough to have two plays commissioned by them in 2017 and 2018 and to work with acclaimed Roma director Rodrigo Balogh in Budapest. While in Hungary I was also able to experience and take part in their outreach and mentoring work with communities and universities.

Equity is my union and I’m very proud to belong to it. I want it to continue doing all it can to promote equality of opportunity – including for GRT members. Equity can help by positively promoting the work of current GRT members in order that younger GRT people who are thinking of going into the industry can see that it is possible to not only work in it, but to succeed in it too; and that this Union will be there to protect them. Through their many links in the industry and particularly with education, colleges, universities and drama schools, we must ensure that those places are not only aware of GRT communities but actively reach out to young GRT people - making it clear that they are welcome in our industry and will be supported within it.

The one thing I want to come from this article is for everyone to have a better awareness of the GRT communities and what they have to offer to the industry and how working together we can make new and exciting work together.

Young Vic and Equity combine to celebrate GRT culture
In a unique partnership with the Young Vic Theatre, Equity is hosting a panel event focused on improving the representation of Gypsy, Romany, Traveller (GRT) people and communities. On 21 January at the Young Vic, the panel will bring together a range of expertise, including Richard O’Neill, to explore areas of good practice from writing and casting to performance. The panel event features as part of the Young Vic’s Autumn season of activity celebrating GRT culture and identity. Part of this season includes opportunities for young Travellers to develop their skills in writing for performance, and for this work to be showcased in March. For more information contact Ian Manborde on imanborde@equity.org.uk

Main photo: Phil Adams