Channel 4’s big fat TV ratings winner

Big Fat Gypsy Weddings is a hit, not because it mocks travellers, but because it is camp and tacky fun.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

They seek it here, they seek it there, those TV producers seek it everywhere. But it’s not the Scarlet Pimpernel the dedicated followers of fashion have been seeking, but that quaint water cooler TV moment.

After all, when was the last time a non-news related TV programme seemed like it was being talked about everywhere? Not a programme that the broadsheets claimed everyone was talking about, like The Wire or Question Time, or a programme that was the talk of BBC White City, like Strictly Come Dancing or Doctor Who. I mean the kind of programme that you could walk into any pub or café or hairdressers anywhere in the country and ask a stranger about, certain that they would either have seen it or heard others discuss it.

There’s The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, of course – although both have now become ubiquitous enough fixtures to have divided the public into those who are fans of the shows and those who couldn’t care less. It used to be Big Brother, although the excitement about it had long fizzled out by the time it was shelved last year, its last big hurrah in public consciousness being Jade Goody’s infamous ‘Shilpa Poppadom’ moment on the Celebrity Big Brother spin-off way back in 2008.

But now, seemingly out of nowhere, Channel 4 has created a massive hit almost entirely off the radar. So is it, like Big Brother was, a novel reality format built on enormous hype and exploiting new audience markets? Or is it a mammoth co-ordinated fusion of the entire UK entertainment industry, like The X-Factor? Not quite. It’s, err, a documentary series about weddings. Gypsy weddings, to be precise.

If you’re not one of the 8.2million people who watched it on Tuesday or somebody who studiously ignores popular culture, then you have almost certainly heard of it. It’s the one with the dresses. Enormous dresses. Dresses that glow in the dark. Dresses that leave the bride dripping with blood. Dresses that require fire extinguishers to be kept close by in case the sparks fly.

Big Fat Gypsy Weddings is probably the oddest programme yet to garner major-league ratings. It started life as a one-off in Channel 4’s Cutting Edge flagship documentary strand, and offered a rare in-depth look inside the secretive and insular world of Irish travellers. Knowing that gypsies are something of a flashpoint for Middle England, and that media representations of such communities have rarely gone beyond a FHM-style blokey obsession with bare-knuckle fighting and criminality (cf Brad Pitt in Snatch), the documentary chose to take a light-hearted tone in lifting the lid on the reality. It was all very Channel 4 and multicultural in spirit, emphasising the travellers’ strict codes around family values, pre-marital sex and the routine discrimination they face in contrast to the apparently hyper-sexualised treatment of young girls and hostile attitude towards outsiders. In its focus on property, community and marriage, it could not have been more carefully aimed at embracing Daily Mail readers in a warmly enlightening gypsy hug.

Such was the response to the documentary when it was screened early last year that Channel 4 took the unusual step of commissioning a series. To put that 8.2million figure into perspective, it is double the audience figures for the second most-watched show on C4 (Shameless, which coincidentally follows BFGW on Tuesdays) and the channel’s highest since that episode of Celebrity Big Brother. Even more significantly, viewing figures for Big Fat Gypsy Weddings are soaring week-on-week rather than spiking in the first episode (as happens with much-publicised flagship shows), suggesting that it has that crucial word-of-mouth factor.

Yet the success is not without controversy. It has upset Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir, although given that Channel 4’s primary purpose seems to be to upset Jan Moir and Jan Moir’s primary purpose is to be upset by the kind of thing shown on Channel 4, this can hardly be classed as significant for a programme about gypsies. Knowing a popular showbiz trend when it sees one, the Mail has committed almost as many column inches and colour-page spreads to Channel 4’s new celebrity gypsies as it has to Wills’n’Kate.

Naturally, the combination of something being popular and not completely hated by the Daily Mail has led a section of the commentariat to conclude that something must be wrong with it. An Observer reviewer decried it as ‘a platform for bigotry and hate’ as they discovered a few people said a few nasty things about gypsies on the internet while it was on. Perhaps more understandably, in the backdrop to ongoing anti-traveller sentiment across Europe, the likes of the London Gypsy and Traveller Unit are not pleased that they’ve missed an opportunity to make a serious film about this much-maligned community.

Of course, it would be better if there were more serious documentaries on mainstream TV dedicated to taking a serious look at the issues around us. A good start would be looking at the UK’s extraordinarily excessive planning restrictions that seem to generate much of the resentment between travellers and local residents, and that generate so much scarcity around housing stock and local resources. But I suspect that’s not what this criticism refers to. What it implies is that people should work harder to understand gypsies, which implies that people are ignorant, which is why they are racist and hate gypsies. Therefore, if a programme about gypsies is not serious, then clearly people like it for the wrong reasons. This train of thought invariably will end with a call for an awareness campaign of some kind.

While Big Fat Gypsy Weddings is unlikely to provide much of a serious counterpoint to problems confronting travellers today, you can’t help but feel a large part of its appeal is that it’s, well, fun. It does involve laughing at the tackiness and high camp of gypsy weddings, but it seemed from most of the contributors that being tacky, camp and decadent is kinda the point. If anything, the programme-makers are clearly too sensitive, since they’re mostly filming young people going out, engaging in racy sexual practices, drinking heavily and enjoying extravagant displays of consumerist excess without once passing moral judgement on any of them or lecturing them on their unhealthy lifestyle choices.

Perhaps that yearning for a bit of carefree excess, rather than latent racism, might explain why Britain’s viewers are flocking to it in droves. If there’s any understanding to be done of the traveller community, then the fact that its youngsters don’t seem too concerned about being seen as oppressed victims seems like a good place to start.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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Topics Culture


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