In his latest documentary for the This World series, the Romanian film-maker Liviu Tipurita could have been forgiven for treading carefully — and not just because it meant him entering the world of organised crime. After all, his previous film in the series, the uncompromisingly titled Gypsy Child Thieves, was ferociously denounced by Roma groups for showing how some Roma parents send their children into European cities with strict instructions to beg and steal — the charge being not that this was necessarily untrue, but that it might confirm ugly prejudices.
So how would Tipurita tackle the equally awkward facts behind The New Gypsy Kings (BBC2, Thursday)? The impressive answer was by investigating them as calmly as possible so as to bring us an extraordinary documentary that alternated between the eye-opening and the hair-raising. If he does get accused again of playing into the hands of illiberal types, then that wouldn’t be entirely unfair. Yet, as George Orwell once pointed out when attacked for the same thing, ‘playing into the hands of’ is a phrase too often used as ‘a sort of charm or incantation to silence uncomfortable truths’.
The programme, in fact, began comfortably enough with Tipurita in a Romanian Gypsy village where he met Fanfara Ciocarlia: a traditional band who’ve toured all over the world and whose saxophone player explained that ‘the thing that makes me happiest is that my children go to school’. But even here, there were signs that such party-line wholesomeness wouldn’t last for long. Talking of the discrimination they still faced in Romania, one band member told Tipurita that ‘we suffer because, to be honest, the Gypsies also cause problems’.
Sadly, too, Fanfara Ciocarlia’s old-school charms are increasingly out of fashion back home. Instead, the Gypsy singers now getting rich are the ones who specialise in manele, a harder form of Roma music that sounds a bit like hip-hop (with fiddles), and has the lyrics to match.