Essex explores roots in Traveller role

Shelley Marsden takes a look at the new film by 70s heartthrob David Essex, which  takes him back to his traveller roots…

FOR many, our knowledge of the travelling community is based on the sensationalised worlds we glimpse at through reality shows like Channel 4’s Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Thelma’s Gypsy Girls, or even the British action films like Big Fat Gypsy Gangster.

But Traveller, Benjamin Johns’ new independent feature film on the subject, is one that tries to challenge clichéd notions and give a more realistic insight into the traveller’s world.

In it newcomer Billy Cook takes on the role of Owen McBride, a young man who has his foot in both worlds, being half-Gypsy, half-Gorgio (non-Gypsy).

When Owen becomes the target of both the police and the nasty gangsters, he is forced to flee and go into hiding at his late father’s gypsy camp, where an older gypsy named Blackberry (David Essex) – not to be confused with the phone – takes him under his wing.

A scene from Traveller

It’s an interesting notion, of a young man trying to find his own way but one who doesn’t quite fit in anywhere. It also explores the real animosity that often exists between police and travellers. It’s clear the director spent a lot of time involved in that world researching his movie.

It falls back on a stereotype here or there (there are pub fights and brawls a-plenty), but for the most part Traveller is a serious portrait of a community that far too often is simply reviled or made a laughing stock of.

One of its strongest elements is Essex, 66, who as charismatic horse-dealing traveller Blackberry has little problem stealing the show.  As real-life Patron of the National Gypsy Council, it’s a fitting role for him.

Essex, whose forty year career has encompassed theatre, film and music, shot to fame (and into many girl’s hearts) in the early 80s with a trinity of successes:, the hit film That’ll Be The Day, Godspell on stage and the single Rock On.

The film’s atmospheric Celtic soundtrack was penned by Essex, who said recently that he liked “the spirituality of the project”, which prompted him to explore his own traveller roots.

Essex today

Born in Plaistow his father, Albert was an East End dock worker and his mother, Olive (née Kemp), was a self-taught pianist and Irish Traveller. He never met him, but his grandfather, Thomas Kemp was a travelling tinker in Cork known as Philly Mor – being Irish for ‘Big Philly’.

His mother Dolly’s stories of his family were, however, a huge part of his childhood. He told the Daily Mail recently: “I remember a man called Uncle Levi. He said what made you rich in life was not money or cars but the natural things of life. Seeing the sun coming up and going down. Like Mum said, “A land without gypsies is a land without freedom.”’

Dolly wasn’t allowed to stay there during the day so from 7am she walked the streets pushing little David in a pram. ‘I was shy and had these blonde ringlets. Everybody thought I was a girl so if she tried to get on a bus people would be saying, “Oh ain’t she lovely!” I’d start crying so she walked everywhere, bless her.’

In an interesting twist, Traveller protagonist Billy Cook is one of Essex’s twin sons, and his presence was one that gave his dad a fee nerves on set. “I know he’s very capable, but if he doesn’t work, the film doesn’t work. Within seconds I could tell how truthful and focused he was. And powerful. So I didn’t worry anymore.”

Essex as a pop star in the 70s

In his autobiography, Essex refers several times to having a gypsy soul, gypsy blood and gypsy curls. He and his son both felt that representing that part of his heritage is what attracted them to Traveller, as well as the fact that they would be filming in the heart of that community.

“We were given the trust of real travellers, many of whom were extras, and we filmed on their site”, he said recently. “So it wasn’t going to be Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, but a real study into their community. We earned their trust, which isn’t easy to do.”

Describing the fascinating group of people they were given access to, he said: “It’s a very insular community that we don’t – I mean I did, but most people don’t – look into, and one you can’t get to look into and be a part of unless you’re trusted.

“Trust is a big thing with the travelling community, and we were trusted and we were given access and I think we’ve given an insight into English gypsies that probably has not really been there with too many things, so that’s a big plus I think with the film.”

David Essex is currently in rehearsals for a play called The Dishwashers at Birmingham Rep.

Traveller is on DVD from January 27. The soundtrack is available now.




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