TV Review: Big Fat Gypsy Weddings
The return of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, the series exploring the lives of modern British and Irish travellers.
"It’s important to look good for God," said the girl earnestly. "God wants to see you looking good." It was the eve of her first Holy Communion, and in preparation she was having inch-long artificial fingernails glued on in a beauty salon called Sin City.
She was nine years old. A female cousin, also nine, was to be confirmed the same day. Her own preparations were under way at a shop called The Tanning Zone. What was she most excited about? “My dress!” Proud beam. Nudge from chaperone. “And receiving Jesus Christ.”
When the first series of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings aired last January, it became one of Channel 4’s most successful programmes ever. Viewing figures peaked at nearly nine million. This may be because it gives an insight into a community about which mainstream society knows little, but it can’t just be that, otherwise documentaries about Benedictine monks or Muslim housewives would get huge ratings as well. Gypsies clearly hold some special fascination for us. Is it that, out of fear and ignorance, we project on to them a sort of wicked glamour, as if they were villains from Grimm come to life? Is it that we privately allow ourselves to believe stereotypes about them (thieves, con artists), in the way people once believed stereotypes about Jews? Or is it that we just like sniggering at their spray tans?
Tonight Big Fat Gypsy Weddings returned for a second series. As ever, an inner voice nagged at me about how exploitative the programme is. In the end, though, I’m not sure that that inner voice is right. If the programme really were exploitative, I don’t think it would allow its subjects to come out of it so well.
That’s not to say it presents them as angels – the teenage courtship ritual of “grabbing”, shown in series one, would be viewed in any other part of Western society as assault. But, however strange we may find their norms, as individuals the show’s subjects are in general chatty, open, amusing. The star of last night’s edition, which focused on gypsy children, was Gussie, a 13-year-old boy with blond highlights who boasted of having “a hundred-and-something” female admirers. “This is to all the girls out there,” he said, addressing the camera with the confidence of an old hand. “If you’re ever in Coventry, and you want to ask me out or anything, feel free.”
The programme’s younger subjects are obsessed with clothes, fake tan, hair dye. In this they’re scarcely different from those their age in mainstream society. What sets them apart is the contrast between looks and morality. For gypsy girls there’s no sex before marriage, and the women stay at home and do the housework. Yet their social occasions are all cleavage, thigh, jewellery and mascara. Their world appears to be a mystifying synthesis of Wag-style tartiness and Victorian virtue.