After a decade of watching shows that are part Stars in Their Eyes, part nature programme, I’ve tried to make one that gets at the truth about Gypsy life and history

Over the past decade, Gypsy documentaries have been doing something insidious. Armed with patronising, misleading voiceovers delivered in cut-glass English accents – “Tonight, we reveal what it’s really like to be a Traveller woman!” … “From as soon as she’s old enough to walk, every Traveller girl dreams of her wedding day!” – it’s a narrative that’s part Stars in Their Eyes, part nature show. These programmes conjure the feeling that you’re getting an intricate and balanced depiction of a hidden world. In fact, the reverse is true on all counts. Poorly researched and stripped of context, they can create the impression that social problems spring up out of nowhere; that Gypsies and Travellers are magically immune to common human concerns about work, money, health and their children’s education; that everyone from a certain background, or a certain gender, is the same.

You’d be forgiven for not knowing much about Gypsy history. Not just because Romany Gypsies are a small minority in modern Britain, but because most books, films and TV shows that feature them make no mention of history. In fiction and in drama, Gypsies tend to be used as a simple plot device: a mysterious world for a protagonist to escape to, or a red herring in a murder mystery. In other words, a grab-bag of weirdness and weirdos. Ahistorical and disconnected, they camp on the fringes of storylines, with whatever clothes, accents or nonsensical talents the production feels like giving them.

With the opener of A Very British History, we’ve tried to make a film that’s different in several significant ways. It harks back to the 1960s – a time of great change for Romany people, due to restrictive new laws on caravans, fewer halting sites and less work in their traditional agricultural trades – and uses footage from that time, much of which has never been seen before. We witness brutal evictions being resisted with ever more extreme tactics: one Bromley councillor, wide-eyed with alarm, warns that local people go about “in fear of molestation” when Gypsies are around. Though many hotels and inns at the time displayed signs saying “NO GYPSIES”, here we see that one Kent pub went further, actually painting the words right by its doors. Incredibly, that same pub later played host to the first ever meeting of the Gypsy Council.

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