Channel 4's My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding reveals C4's descent into yellow press journalism, but also our continued misunderstanding of travelling communities, the plights they have faced, and prejudices that have endured for centuries.
I was taught at school that ‘gypsy' was a derivation of the word ‘Egyptian', used in Elizabethan England to describe the feared, misunderstood, dark-skinned nomads who lived on the outside of society. I fear the sum of our understanding, 400 years on, has not been enhanced by My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, currently airing. Despite Barbara Flynn's sonorous narration, the reaction to the programmes has been little more sophisticated than that of the Georgians paying to poke the mentally ill in Bedlam. Viewers have gawped at the vast, illuminated wedding dresses, been appalled at the subjugation of teenage girls, and speculated out loud, with a barely concealed subtext, about the source of the cash to pay for the lavish nuptials.
The programme makers are guilty of encouraging prurience on a grand scale; we are guilty of enjoying it too much. There was much harrumphing at this week's edition showing an annual celebration at the graveside of a teenage traveller, with his family and friends pouring lager, kissing, and literally dancing on the grave. It was a Daily Mail leader writer's dream come true. ‘See what they're like', they could say. ‘You see why we need stricter planning laws and powers for the police and councils to move them on.'
The missed opportunity for Channel 4 was a series of programmes on traveller life in Britain that isn't a freak show. Twenty-five years ago, this is exactly what Channel 4 would have produced (maybe it did, but none of us watched it.) My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding is a metaphor for the death of Channel 4 as a socially-progressive cutting-edge broadcaster, and its rebirth as a ratings-chasing purveyor of tabloid TV. A serious documentary might have explored the variegated ethnicities and subcultures within Britain's traveller communities, the distinct differences and rivalries between the Sinta, Romanichal, and Irish traveller groups, their ethnic origins (some say the Irish travellers, or Pavee, are the descendents of those Irish driven off their land by Cromwell), the reasons for their tragically low life expectancy and poor educational attainment, and their historic persecution. Europe's gypsies were rounded up by the Nazis in the holocaust, and sent to the death camps alongside the Jews, gays, socialists and people with disabilities. They were made to wear a brown triangle, and up to a million perished in what they call the Porajmos, comparable to the Jewish Shoah.
All this and more could have added to the sum of our knowledge, and helped to break some of the prejudice. By shining a light of some of the traveller attitudes towards women, the strict control of girls' lives, their traditional patriarchal society, and their homophobia, a decent documentary might have raised important issues of cultural relativism. I am clear that it is no more acceptable for a 16-year-old gypsy girl to be married against her will than it is for anyone from another culture or ethnicity. Some things are just wrong. It is also right that we should feel deep unease about the young girls dressed, and dancing, like lapdancers in a previous programme. This scene sparked a reaction from elements of the Roma community, who state that they would never allow their children to behave in the ways allowed by the Pavee families in the film.
In 1964 the folk singer, and father to Kirsty, Ewan MacColl recorded a ‘radio ballad' about the travelling people, broadcast on the BBC. It included three songs, Moving On Song, Freeborn Man of the Travelling People, and Thirty Foot Trailer, which romanticise gypsy life, but also rail against the injustices and oppression faced by travellers. I heard the Watersons sing Thirty Foot Trailer on the John Peel Show in the mid-1980s, and would take it onto my desert island. It's a lament to the disappearance of a way of life under the weight of modernity. Ewan MacColl received an honorary degree from the University of Salford (the ‘dirty old town' of his birth) on the same day in 1989 I got mine. He died a few months later. MacColl also recorded and broadcast the voices of gypsies, and juxtaposed them with the bigots who persecuted them. You can get it on CD. It was a brave piece of public broadcasting.
How unlike My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, which avoids any accusation of being brave by its craven acquiescence to the lowest forms of prejudice and ignorance, and will lead, sure as eggs is eggs, to an increase in murderous attacks on travellers and bullying of traveller children in schools. It is hard to think of another social group, culture or ethnicity about whom such a programme would be made without a chorus of outrage. It seems there is no-one to speak up for the gypsies.
Pic credit: Travellers being evicted from a Downpatrick car park by council officials while police (RUC officers) stand by to keep order, 1980s.
Bobbie Hanvey, photographer. Copyright: Burns Library, Boston College