The story so far
This is a massive project.
I’m have no Gypsy blood but I have spent half my life living in tents and travelling with horses. Our family have always let Gypsies stay on our land.
I started recording the journey to Appleby Horse Fair travelling with my dad and four Fell Ponies in 1995 after I had left the city behind looking for a new life. At that point in my life I had no money, but I did have an old Russian clockwork Super 8 camera that a friend had given me. I’d managed to save enough for a few rolls of film and I was capturing images for myself with no vision of what it might become.
By the late 90’s I had moved onto a small sony mini DV cam, totally consumer - nothing at all professional about it, but it now gave me hours of footage instead of minutes. It was small enough to strap underneath the carriage-works and leave it running for whole lengths of the journey, Sometimes I might get only one good shot from an hours tape but it would be an amazing shot (remember this is 10 years before GoPros came out).
I got hold of a microphone and started to do interviews with some of the characters in whom I had gained trust after seeing them year after year.
Then along came DSLRs - my footage now had depth and a real filmic quality.
Then I got a license to fly a drone and even managed to get permission from the CAA, Air Traffic Control and the Emenrgency Services to fly it over the fair with a GoPro in 4K.
By this time, my own footage had become archive footage, but as I was doing interviews and research with Billy Welch who is the Shera Rom (Head Gypsy) at the fair, he told me about some cine footage from the 60’s that his family had taken. What it unearthed was the most mazing personal and relaxed scenes of Gypsy life at the time of them moving from horses to motor caravans. Of men play fighting, wives and sisters standing proudly next to their shiny caravans.
So this footage spans more than 50 years. It has never been seen outside my edit suite.
Along the way I had done edits, tried to get it commissioned. But the year after I did my first interviews with the key players, along came Big fat Gypsy Wedding which became THE cultural reference for Gypsies in the UK and stole both my thunder and my characters. At Sheffield Doc Fest I spoke to commissioning editors of BBC, Channel 4, RTE (Ireland) and many more, and spent 6 months in conversation with the Commissioners of Gypsy Wedding, but what I was offering was beautiful and poetic, wheres all they wanted was Trash TV.
I kept filming every year, always looking for a new angle, I started to shift the focus from the fair to the story of my dad, and through him we meet the characters and slowly uncover truths. We unearthed letters to and from Dora Yates of the Gypsy Law Society in the years immediately after the war. We recorded stories on the side of the road and at the fair. I learned about the many clans and tribes that mainstream society brands as Gypsies although there are many quite distinct groups. We sat round fires, played music and travelled hundreds of miles with our horses.
Along the way Walter mentioned George Borrows Romany Rai. I didn’t understand what the word meant, but I soon realised that Walter was in fact a real Romany Rai. He had represented Gypsies and Travellers in court, helped save more than one fair and resurrect even more. Widely respected by Travellers and as knowledgable as anyone else alive.
By chance, when visiting friends in London in 2014, I came across an exhibition by Isaac Julien at the Victoria Miro gallery. This was an ambitious video piece accross 7 large screens and I realised that this was how I could create a piece that remained beautiful and poetic, where so many camera formats would be an advantage rather than a disadvantage. Where time could slow down and the narrative unfold at its own pace. Where it doesn’t have to be a format. Because there is no format - no template.
And so this is here we are now. With a research and development grant to revisit footage I haven’t looked at for years with which to create a new language for immersive visual narrative.