C4's Big Fat Gypsy bust-up: complaints keep pouring in
Channel 4 series under fire for exploiting children and misrepresenting the gypsy community
A COMPLAINT about an advertising poster for the Channel 4 series My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding has snowballed in a matter of days to the point where the station's most popular show is fighting multiple accusations of exploitation and stereotyping.
Politicians and members of the gypsy community alike complained about the offensive advertising last week; now a flood of complainants are questioning the morality of the show.
Top of the pile of 'open letters' to Channel 4 is one from a 17-year-old Romany gypsy called Pip who says the show is ruining his life.
Pip used his Pipopotamus blog to say he was subjected to physical attacks during the last series of the show, which led to his expulsion from school, and that his 12-year-old cousin was beaten up on her way home from school by a gang of girls calling her a prostitute.
Pip writes: "It surprised me to discover that 99 per cent of Britain's Gypsy and Traveller population are Irish. Correct me if I'm wrong, as I am sure you have done lots and lots of research on this topic, but just ten per cent of the Gypsy and Traveller population are actually Irish Travellers. The majority, like myself, are in fact Romany, yet your 'documentary' seems to ignore our existence.
"While I have nothing but respect for the Irish Traveller community, you seem to be unaware that we are two distinct ethnic groups and thus there are many differences between our cultures."
Programme-makers claim that they are throwing "an overdue light on a secretive, marginalised and little-understood segment of our society". But Joe Cottrell-Boyce, the traveller policy officer for the Irish Chaplaincy, writes on the Liberal Conspiracy website that nothing could be further from the truth.
He points out that many travellers live below the poverty line, 20 per cent of Britain's caravan-dwelling travellers are statutorily homeless and 62 per cent of adult gypsies and travellers are illiterate. "These statistics paint a grim picture of the traveller experience in Britain," he says. "One that is a million miles from the high jinks of MBFGW."
Fleet Street's television columnists are also finding fault with the series made by independent producers Firecracker Films.
Ian Hyland of the Daily Mail notes C4's "Jekyll and Hyde" schedule. At 8pm last Tuesday, Gok's Teens: The Naked Truth featured the heartbreaking stories of children who have been bullied online. Then at 9pm the name 'Nan Girl' was trending on Twitter as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding inspired hundreds of people to go online to ridicule the nine-year-old gypsy's name, parents and community.
Hyland imagines only one reaction at C4 headquarters - "executives high-fiving for England as they passed each other on their skateboards". Hyland concludes: "Well done Channel 4. You're really taking this stand against cyberbullying to the next level."
The Independent's TV critic Hugh Montgomery says you only have to gauge the Twitter reaction to see how the makers' professed goal to challenge prejudices is working out. "Omfg they're bright orange & look tacky as fook!! Pmsl [see glossary]," said one tweeter.
This prejudice is not showing itself only online. Christine Crawley, an Irish traveller living in London, writes for The Guardian that the screening of the last series led to many gypsy and traveller children being bullied at school. This included her daughter who was called a prostitute and eventually left school because of the way girls were portrayed in the series.
To use children like the young girls featured in the much-criticised advertising poster is "shocking", she says.
Is all the criticism enough to deter viewers? After 5.7 million people tuned in last week, making it Channel 4's most watched show this year, the answer will come with Tuesday's ratings.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for C4 told The Week: “Big Fat Gypsy Weddings is an observational documentary series that features a mix of Irish travellers, English and Romany gypsies and makes a clear distinction between those different communities. All the issues touched on in the series were meticulously researched and are told through the eyes of the contributors themselves, talking about their own experiences in their own words.
“While some of the issues touched on in the series are challenging, the programme is a fair and accurate portrayal of what happened during filming and all children were filmed with parental consent.”