How Big Fat Gypsy Weddings changed the face of Channel 4

We trace C4's current crop of documentaries back to the returning traveller-focused fly-on-the-wall strand

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Big Fat Gypsy Weddings is set to explode back onto Channel 4 tonight in a blaze of sequins and taffeta for its second series. Packed with oversized dresses, curious rituals and seesawing morality, the second run of the channel’s observational documentary juggernaut promises viewers a “bigger, fatter and gypsier” experience than ever before.

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But it’s not just the traveller community that Channel 4 is probing at the moment. Indeed, it’s airing more documentary strands than you can shake a hidden camera at these days, its schedules abounding with such fly-on-the-wall delights as Bouncers, Coppers, The Hotel, Party Paramedics, MotherTruckers, One Born Every Minute and 15 Kids and Counting, all of which share a common style and structure with Gypsy Weddings.

So what’s behind C4’s penchant for this type of ob-doc?

Well, firstly these programmes are very popular. While none of the other strands are quite up there with Big Fat Gypsy Weddings yet, Gypsy became the channel’s eighth highest-rated programme ever during its first series early last year, racking up a total of 8.7m consolidated viewers, and boasted a finale that attracted a larger TV audience than the Brit Awards over on ITV1.

And secondly, Channel 4 has a lot more time and money to spend on documentaries nowadays.

“Documentaries have always been at the heart of Channel 4, and since Big Brother ended we’ve had renewed budget and a renewed volume of hours to fill for factual, generally. This uplift of time and budget has meant that we’ve been able to commission these fantastic long documentary strands,” said a Channel 4 spokeswoman.

Yes, Big Brother ran on Channel 4 for ten years from 2000, it cost a fortune (allegedly as much as £70m per series) and took up masses of airtime with live feeds, spin-off shows, highlights packages and more besides. And while it galvanised viewers at first, the fact of the matter is that BB peaked as early as its third series, which averaged 5.8m viewers, and afterwards went into perpetual decline.

However C4 got a hint of what might replace Big Brother in the public’s affections in February 2010 when Cutting Edge: My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding was broadcast to six million viewers. Its striking visuals and controversial subject matter caused a sensation, and suddenly this was the cool new show that everyone was talking about instead of stale old Big Brother.

So when BB came to an end in 2010, Channel 4 was at something of a crossroads. With its premier reality series having fizzled out (down to an average 3.2m viewers for the final series) and this new, interesting documentary earning far more viewers and media attention than anyone had imagined, C4’s bosses faced a difficult decision: whether to try their luck with a new, innovative reality format or to make more Gypsy-style documentaries.

In the end they tried both, commissioning the first series of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings and the reality show Seven Days, which followed the lives of a bunch of colourful Notting Hill-based characters and claimed to be “interactive” by allowing viewers to shape the show via its website.

However, Seven Days, which went out at the end of 2010, pulled in a dismal 1.1m viewers, while Gypsy, which began broadcasting in January 2011, drew 6.4m for its first episode and added a million more for its second. The viewers had evidently made their decision.

If further proof were needed, the second episode of Gypsy earned C4 its highest rating since the Big Brother final in 2002, pulling in 7.4m viewers and symbolically confirming its status as BB’s successor. In light of that fact, Big Fat Gypsy’s Paddy Doherty winning the reborn Celebrity Big Brother on Channel 5 seems both arch and ironic.

“I would say these docs are popular because they reflect modern Britain,” says C4’s spokeswoman. They “reveal intimate insights into modern life and put personalities and faces to public institutions”, or – in the case of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings – minority groups.

After a decade of “reality TV” meaning social experiments in artificial settings, like Big Brother, Shipwrecked and I’m a Celebrity…, we viewers have evidently woken up to the realisation that, to paraphrase dear old Shakespeare, there are more things in everyday life than are dreamt of in megabucks TV formats.

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Never mind the year of the dragon – now that Gypsy Weddings is back on C4 alongside the channel’s seemingly endless range of documentaries, in TV it’s shaping up to be the year of the ob-doc…