Channel 4’s recent documentary series, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, was billed to give a unique insight into the secretive world of travellers. However within weeks the series began to generate controversy and it was accused by the traveller community of inaccurately portraying their lifestyle and customs.
My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding drew a massive 7.8-8.2 million viewers per episode, and a second series has been commissioned by Channel 4. There are also plans to take the series State-side in order to introduce the travelling community world to America.
However according to the traveller community they were unfairly represented in the series and they are worried that the program will have caused much more harm than good.
Jake Bowers, an editor for Travellers Times Online was in Coventry’s Herbert Art Gallery yesterday as part of the University’s ‘Coventry Conversation’ series. He is one of only three gypsy journalists in the UK, and as a traveller himself, he hoped to put right some of the damage that the Channel 4 documentary had done.
He started out by giving some facts and figures: 60% of travellers are Romany gypsies, 10% are Irish travellers, 15% are Roma, and 15% are new travellers and other.
My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding concentrated on only the Irish travellers, and unfortunately the very small percentage of Irish travellers they focused on in no way represented the larger community.
Jake Bowers was approached by Channel 4 before they made the series in order to ask him if he would be involved in the project and put them in contact with other travellers.
Knowing that this was a possible opportunity to portray the travelling community in a good light and dispel some of the long standing myths, Jake agreed to get involved help them out and provide them with the contact information they wanted. Worryingly however Channel 4 failed to contact him again and therefore he was not involved in the project.
Channel 4 could have easily afforded to have Jake work on the project with them as they had a budget of between £500,000 and £700,000 to make the series. And as Jake said “I may be expensive, but I’m not THAT expensive!”
When My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding finally aired in January 2011, it was a sneering mockumentary that portrayed the travellers as ‘trailer trash Flintstones’.
According to Jake, the custom of ‘grabbing’, whereby a young man will grab a girl, drag her away and force her to kiss him, has never been heard of by the traveller community.
Jake has a huge extended family and he has been to many weddings and Holy Communions, but he has never seen any of the massively extravagant dresses that were shown in the series. He felt that this really didn’t help the traveller’s image.
Another point that Jake made was that if a documentary was being made, they would involve either an academic on the subject, or someone that was directly involved in the subject matter. On My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding the closest they had was the dress maker Thelma Madine. While she may have known a lot about the dress making business, she knew very little about the traveller community.
The series could have exposed the untold stories of the travelling community: The fact that gypsies are an ethnic minority with no rights. The fact that in certain parts of the world gypsy women are forcibly sterilised. The fact that the government has cut gypsy site grants by 100%.
The series turned a blind eye to all of this, choosing instead to focus on the miniscule minority that fulfilled the gypsy stereotype.
While the series has generally given the travellers a bad press, it has sparked debates and creative conflicts. It has given travellers the chance to come out and have their say, and it has exposed the Channel 4 documentary team as a sham.
When asked at the start of the lecture who thought My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding was an accurate representation of the travellers community, two thirds of the audience raised their hands.
When asked at the end of the lecture who thought My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding was an accurate representation of the travellers community, no one raised their hand.
As the Coventry Conversation drew to a close, Jake Bowers summed up the series almost perfectly, saying; “the series says more about your community than ours.”
And do you know what? I think he’s right.