Shooting the messenger?

1 April 2011
Shooting the messenger?

In the dock: Vicky Hamburger, Jenny Popplewell and Daniel Fromm, the makers of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings

It was designed to be a celebration of their stunning success. A chance to shine in front of their own and those that wanted to be like them. But when the producers of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings turned up at a Royal Television Society event on Wednesday they were horrified to find it was they that were soon put under the spotlight.

As they trotted out onto the stage, chests filled with pride at their stunning 9 million strong viewing figures, they told how wonderful life was for them now. Jes Wilkins, Vicky Hamburger, Jenny Popplewell and Daniel Fromm could not look more pleased with themselves. They told how they as intrepid reporters had entered a fascinating world thanks to a Liverpool seamstress to reveal the “secretive” and “closed” Gypsy community.

They had gone were no others had dared and found colourful Gypsy “characters”, exposed the deep injustices they faced and even pleased the King of the Gypsies. The public loved it, Channel 4 loved it and the Gypsies couldn’t get enough of it. Life was so good they were now opening an office in Los Angeles. But as soon as the dream was weaved, some oik at the back came crashing through it.

“Rubbish” booed one person, “this is just a whitewash!” screamed another and the spell was broken. The man from the Royal Television Society, which had refused Gypsies a place on the platform, protested that such interruptions just weren’t cricket. Sadly for him, Jes, Vicky, Jenny and Daniel, this transmission was live and direct. The 20 Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers gathered weren’t content to be edited out anymore. And then the pent up wave of anger and frustration burst loose.

Romany woman and filmmaker Dee Cooper revealed how racist bullying had exploded across the country. Her own daughter who had already endured years of abuse was now forced to relive it.. Thanks to Firecracker Films, Dee’s daughter had been punched, drawn on and called pikey once again. When, she wondered, would Firecracker be donating some of their huge profits from selling this series and the next one to the kids whose live they had ruined?

Gypsy pastor, Jackie Boyd, revealed how his own family also now had to hide their identity. “What you have done,” he told them, “may be a good thing in your community and you’ve obviously made alot of money out of it. But it has brought great shame and fear to mine.”

A lawyer and filmmaker who has represented Gypsies for years asked why they considered a dressmaker more of an expert than the community themselves. They couldn’t tell her. A Roma musician and author wondered why they had used Balkan Gypsy music at an Irish Traveller wedding. They simply couldn’t answer. The poor producers attempted to justify themselves, but found they had lost control. Their stage had turned into their dock and they were crestfallen. They looked at their feet hoping for a magic trap door that might whisk them away back to LA LA land.

“Why are they filming us!” squeeled Vicky, horrified to find herself an object of curiosity. Jenny asked those of the audience with “pure eyes” (as in not dirty Gypsy eyes?), if the series had made them want to go out and bully Gypsies. In a crowd this tough, who would dare admit that.

And then it was all over. But this is England and we’re civilised really, so it was claps rather than punches that were thrown. But as a parting shot it was revealed that no longer would the Gypsies being getting mad, but even, for they had struck a deal for an 8 hour series with another broadcaster. Jes, Vicky, Jenny and Daniel sloped off back to Chelsea their Big Fat Night Out now ruined.

Feel sorry for them? Well don’t. They’ve sold their programmes to broadcasters across Eastern Europe and the world and have now got another six hours to make for Channel 4. Then there are the Big Fat Gypsy Wedding books and DVDs coming out on the day of the royal wedding.

As they sat dejected and lonely on the tube home that night, I have to admit I felt a bit sorry for Jes, Vicky, Jenny and Daniel. They must have felt that we had simply “shot the messenger”. As a journalist I’d die for their right to tell the truth about any community, including my own. But when the messenger starts lying to line their own pockets, they deserve to be shot. Not by guns, of course, but cameras. The Iphone really is mightier than the armalite. In this open season on shooting Gypsies, don’t leave home without one.