Make A Date For My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding

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My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding (Channel 4, Tuesdays 9pm) is an astonishing, total-access documentary series that reveals how travellers and gypsies--traditionally an intensely private community--run their lives in 21st century Britain. An extension of last year’s one off nuptial-based film, the first episode (of five) acts as a catch up. We’re reintroduced to Thelma Madine, the Liverpool-based dress designer who constructs traveller brides’ (usually wide-eyed teenagers) dream frocks. Often weighing more than their owners, Madine’s dresses aren’t so much meringues as mountainous, jewelled Pavlovas. Her creations often leave scars, which the girls wear like medals.

As with the original documentary, the outlandish clothing is the big draw, and not just the wedding garb. Despite travellers embracing a moral code so rigorous it wouldn’t look out of place in Saudi Arabia, unmarried teenage girls dress like pole dancers, ruffling their feathers at boys whenever they get the chance, which, as it happens, isn’t very often. Weddings are virtually the only opportunity for the sexes to interact without feeling a chaperone’s breath on the back of their neck. Outside the wedding party armistice, single females who have lone dealings with males risk ruining their reputation and not finding a husband, which most aim to do long before their twenties. The rule doesn’t apply to men, of course, though this contradiction is only touched on briefly and with the lightest caress.

With a series’ worth of screen hours to fill, this programme burns slower than the original. Space is given to observe the male/female dynamic, including a forced-kissing/mild molestation custom known as “grabbing”. It’s an uncomfortable revelation and most viewers won’t be able to watch without feel desperately sorry for the girls, whose lifestyles are already so prescribed. They accept, without question, that it’s their job to fend off boys’ (sometimes violent) advances. You’ll wonder why these lads, who are filmed in action, aren’t given a good verbal tackling. It seems odd, especially when in an earlier scene, one crew member goes out of his way to inform a groom that he’s just used a racial slur. But the (comparatively) small stuff is more easily dealt with.

Most of the time the filmmakers scrupulously avoid adopting a hypercritical tone, presumably to ensure they’re granted access to details like “grabbing”. The pay off for not judging or intervening is an opening instalment that’s every bit as meaty and mesmeric as last year’s offering, and not just because of the dazzling Disney princess frocks.

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