Channel 4 has responded to mounting criticism of its documentary series Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. Nick Hornby, the channel’s commissioning editor for factual entertainment, yesterday published a long reply to the blogger Pipopotamus, whose open letter to C4 was widely shared on social networks at the weekend.
Hornby’s message defended the increasingly beleaguered series on the grounds that “the films are celebratory and I hope never derogatory”, the programme as a whole is “fair and accurate” and “all aspects of the programme are told through the eyes of the contributors themselves, talking about their own experiences in their own words”.
The Pipopotamus blog had dismissed Big Fat Gypsy Weddings as “a work of fiction”, going on to criticise it more specifically for its apparent focus on Irish, as opposed to Romany, travellers.
“It surprised me to discover that 99% of Britain’s Gypsy and Traveller population are Irish,” the blogger wrote. “Just 10% of the Gypsy and Traveller population are actually Irish. The majority, like myself, are Romany, yet your ‘documentary’ seems to ignore our existence… you seem to be unaware that we are two distinct ethnic groups.”
Hornby responded: “The programme fully acknowledges the distinctness of both communities. While it’s true to say that Episode 1 of the new series features mainly Irish Travellers, the overall series features a range of both communities with some episodes entirely Romany.”
Pipopotamus further criticised the portrayal of the traveller community’s relationship with formal education: “You correctly identified that many Gypsy and Traveller children leave school at a young age, however you failed to mention that this is not because we are all born to terrible parents, but because our communities suffer from great social exclusion. State education fails to adapt to anything but mainstream culture… we are labelled as troublemakers and bullied for being different.
“You seem to have forgotten to feature those of us that do stay in education,” the blog added.
Hornby replied to this as follows: “The series will explore this in detail a little further into the run, and feature a dedicated episode which looks at attitudes to education within different communities. Two of the contributors featured are Romany teenagers – one of whom has chosen to continue with her education, and one who has been taken out of school. The documentary explores exactly the points you make.”
On the subject of “grabbing”, a physically coercive courtship ritual shown in the series but – according to Pipopotamus – greatly exaggerated, Hornby said: “I can assure you that it is something that our production team repeatedly witnessed first-hand.”
Hornby did not respond directly to two of Pipopotamus’ criticisms. The blogger had attacked Big Fat Gypsy Weddings on the subjects of sexualising children (“Your ‘documentary’ has an unhealthy obsession with little girls… [it] appears to be suggesting that we are inappropriately sexualising our children, yet the only people who [do that] are the viewers who watch them and think they are sexy”) and the series’ trademark voluminous wedding dresses (“I’m yet to attend a wedding where the bride’s dress weighs more than my whole family… you’ve been conned”).
But Hornby did personally express sympathy for the blogger, who had reported being “subjected to physical attacks during your last series… which ultimately led to my expulsion from school (long story), whilst my 12 year old cousin was beat up on her way home from school by a gang of girls who were calling her a prostitute”.
“I’m sorry to hear that you and your cousin have experienced abuse,” Hornby said. “It is clearly unacceptable but I hope you agree that we cannot be held responsible for the actions of the public.”
Big Fat Gypsy Weddings came under fire last week after C4 ran a huge advertising campaign with the slogan: “Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier.” One billboard in Leeds found itself daubed with the simple addendum “MORE RACIST” in huge letters, and the London Gypsy & Traveller Unit wrote to C4 to ask whether it would use “similarly compromising phrases for other ethnic groups: ‘Jewisher’ or ‘more Asian’ or ‘Blacker’.”
C4 said participants in the series had approved the posters and that “gypsier” was “not being used in a negative context”.
Overnight ratings indicated that episode one of series two attracted 4.8 million viewers: high, but well below the series average of 7.3m in 2011.