Production Focus - My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding PDF Print


Published: 7 April 2011

Country: UK

"You should be ashamed of yourself", a man screamed from the audience at Jes Wilkins, Executive Producer of the popular television show My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.

Recently, the Royal Television Society (RTS) organised a “Production Focus” on ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’, a reality TV series based around elaborate traditional Gypsy weddings.  The series was a great success with viewers, attracting more than 9 million per week in the UK. But it was controversial, drawing criticism from within the Gypsy community and outside for alleged exploitation and implicit racism.

The RTS describes a Production Focus thus: “… A team from the production talk about and discuss ‘how it was done’ from idea through to viewers’ reaction”.  In this case, the independent production house, Firecracker Film, fielded a team including the producers Jes Wilkins, Jenny Popplewell and Vicky Hamburger, and producer director Sam Emmery. The audience combined travellers and non-travellers, some of whom liked the show and some who disliked it.

The production team explained how they took the idea of making a documentary about weddings in the Gypsy community to Channel 4, which was immediately interested and aired the eventual film. From the outset, the producers realised it would not be easy to gain the trust of travellers, who live in very isolated communities, and contacted Thelma Madine, one of the most popular dressmakers for the Gypsy weddings.

Travellers usually have very specific ideas about their wedding outfits. They come from all over the country to see Thelma and, for Thelma nothing is impossible. She has made dresses with 20 foot long trains, completely covered in Swarovski crystals or with moving butterflies, and she has been doing it for years.

Through Thelma, the production team found a way to gain the trust of the community. They filmed the young brides-to-be coming to see their dresses, then followed them right the way through the wedding preparations to the ceremony.

After the overwhelming success of the first film, Firecracker and Channel 4 decided to extend the idea into a series of documentaries, each with a strong journalistic theme portraying one element of Gypsy communities.

There was time for questions scheduled at the end of the RTS event, but people could not wait to make their opinions known. The travellers in the audience felt that the Gypsies filmed fortvbansky the programmes were a very small minority and not representative of the community as a whole. Wild applause greeted every critical audience comment or question and the atmosphere became chaotic and almost aggressive.

The Gypsies also felt that the production company was responsible for encouraging ridicule of the gypsy community and thereby bullying of their children. The feeling was that the producers should have offered help on the issue, but that they were only interested in profit.

The Firecracker team denied this, predictably enough, and claimed that their films were neutral observations. More than this, they said they had asked the Gypsies exactly what they wanted filmed and what not. According to Firecracker, all the travellers they worked with on the series were very happy with the end results.

It became clear that there are very different opinions about the programmes, both from the traveller and the non-traveller communities. Despite the criticisms that the programmes have drawn, Firecracker Film and Channel 4 are currently in talks about a follow-up to the series.

Marloes Viet, Media Diversity Institute, London