Big Fat Gypsy Weddings is Channel 4’s Big Fat Runaway Success.
Even BBC1’s ratings Polaris missile, the impeccably dreary Silent Witness, can’t withstand the corseted, spray-tanned, meringue-shaped Tuesday-night opposition from a series that does little more than film gypsy women marrying while imprisoned in gigantic dresses.
With its puffball nightmare gowns of violent pink gauze and enough cubic zirconia to pebbledash the Great Wall of China, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings has routinely attracted seven million viewers. That would be a huge figure for BBC1 and ITV1, but for C4 it’s so gigantic I bet the smiles of programme bosses can be seen from the space shuttle.
Yet the oddest aspect of mass-audience reaction to Big Fat Gypsy Wedding is its understatement. By that I mean there’s very little chatter. Yes, of course, internet message boards, those playgrounds of the reactionary and the deranged, are tipsy with loathing for an often despised group of people. And yes, there have been the odd tutting op-ed pieces in papers. But as for general, routine, workaday chitchat – not much. Why, I wonder?
Maybe it’s because nice people like you and me start to tie ourselves in knots when we examine our motives for watching Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, and it’s a moral discomfort we’re not willing to share.
Putting aside for one moment my inner Barbie, who rejoices in the sheer, stunning, gorgeous grotesquery of some of the creations (one was even festooned with pulsing fairy lights!), do I, maybe, feel just a bit guilty that BFGW allows me to gawp, point and be comfortably judgemental, all at the same time? While also despising myself for doing all of these things and not asking serious questions about the traveller lifestyle, in particular its treatment of women? Is Big Fat Gypsy Weddings the shameful viewing that dare not speak its name?
You can tell that the programme itself feels the tug of a guilty conscience just by listening to Barbara Flynn’s Watch with Mother commentary.
The script contorts itself into not poking fun at the gaudy goings-on, treating every wedding featuring a naff glass coach (thanks, Katie Price) and a bridal outfit that isn’t so much a dress as a soft-play area, as a profound sociological event, part of a tradition that goes back centuries.
Then it tries to make itself feel better by filming the trashing of an illegal gypsy camp site or showing an episode briefly looking at the drudgery of everyday life for gypsy women, to give us a Serious Message.
That’s before the cameras get back to what they, and we want to see, the ruddy enormous, barrage-balloon dresses, accompanied by jaunty plinky-plonky soundtrack music. We are tacit and we collude. We all know what we are doing, and why. We are, indeed, all in this together.
In Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, very politely, no one asks where the money comes from (and these dresses can cost thousands and thousands of pounds) and no one offers any profound insights on the place of women and girls within the gypsy community, where domestic violence is a serious problem and where courtship rituals can be brusque and painful.
These include “grabbing”, where gypsy boys grab girls they like the look of, and try to force a kiss. This can involve literal arm-twisting and worse.
Then there is the dichotomy of “traveller girls” having to be oppressively chaperoned before marriage – as they go out in eye-poppingly skimpy outfits. Women are barely schooled and don’t work after their weddings, when they are expected to keep house.
And what of the really little girls, spray-tanned then squeezed into spectacularly inappropriate first communion dresses that are so cumbersome and heavy they leave welts on chafed young skin? Not a word. The commentary – and this is the cowardly bit – remains polite and distant, leaving us to provide the reaction.