OK, slightly embarrassing question: have you ever watched My Super Sweet Sixteen? You know, that MTV show? The one about the spoiled kids? Who have birthday parties so grand they put the Oscars to shame? No? Ah. Must just be me then.
Well, anyway, it's not as bad as it sounds. In fact, it's actually kind of interesting, following around these pampered little creatures as they set about getting everything absolutely perfect for their big night. My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding was similar, though with weddings instead of birthdays and without the spoiled teens. These teens were anything but, battling as they do against what may be one of the least acknowledged forms of discrimination: that which exists against Travellers.
Weddings, see, are very important in Gypsy culture, not to mention very, very different from any I've ever been to. Until last night, I hadn't realised how different. For starters, the brides are young. Incredibly so: the average age is 17, and the average age for engagement dresses is 14. Speaking of which: the clothes are, well, incredible. The wedding gowns are white, though that's pretty much where the similarity with mainstream culture ends. When Bridget, 16, put on the dress she was wearing, it was so huge, so billowing, and so bedecked with ornaments that she had to be lifted out of her carriage by four family members. Her bridesmaids were even more ostentatiously clad: not for them the drab peaches and lavenders that plague most bridesmaids. Instead, they donned cocktail get-up in tropical colours: metallic blue and green or Easter-egg yellow, complete with cancan-girl skirts and boned bodices.
It's not all dress design and colour schemes, though. One of the brides, Sammy-Jo, had her wedding reception cancelled the day before, once the venue was tipped off on the fact that they were hosting "a Gypsy wedding". For the next 24 hours, her parents sat tense and anxious, fretting that their substitute venue might do the same thing. "If it happened to anyone else because of who they were it would be all over the papers," observed one of the party. She's probably right.
But it was the third bride we met, Joan, who proved the most interesting. Aged 22, she's much older than the average Gypsy bride. Unlike her contemporaries, she lived outside of a Traveller camp, stayed in school until 16 and worked part-time in a call centre. She follows other Gypsy conventions to the letter but has an outsider's perspective on things, too. She knows that the peacock outfits she and her friends wear, all cut-away lace and micro-miniskirts, appear tacky to the outsider's eye. "They think with our little skimpy outfits that we're gammy," she observed. "But it's not true. We behave more morally that most."
Certainly, they appeared to obey stricter social rules: no dating, no nightclubs, no premarital sex and few opportunities to mix with boys (making wedding receptions all the more central a social occasion). The whole thing creates a curious dichotomy: on the one hand, displays of sexuality are frowned upon; on the other, the young girls we saw were clad, almost uniformly, in clothes that wouldn't be considered out of place in a red-light district. How long Travellers can retain their peculiar identity will depend, very much, on how willing the younger generation are to go along with tradition. Judging from last night's displays of nuptial grandeur, it would seem they are more than prepared to do so.
In The Great Offices of State, we got a behind-the-scenes look at the mechanics of that grand temple of the Civil Service, the Foreign Office, and a very well-done one at that. We were given an impressive selection of interviewees: David Miliband, Jack Straw, Margaret Beckett, Charles Powell, Lord Howe. I particularly enjoyed watching Straw's moment of panic after confessing that he had uttered not the "F-word" but the "C-word" on hearing that he was to take over the role of Foreign Secretary. After a moment's pause, his eyed widened: "No, not the one you're thinking of," he spluttered. "I mean 'Christ'... I said Christ, or Cripes or something!"
Most of the programme was spent dissecting the tension that exists between the Service's mandarins and the Government ministers plonked in charge (nominally at any rate). It's remarkable, really, how strong the animosity continues to be."If you're not up to snuff, you're spat out," admitted Jack Straw. "Not that I didn't get on with them very well indeed," he added, hastily. "It's just some of my predecessors..." Some of his successors, too. Margaret Beckett became visibly angry when the negative briefings that went on behind her back were brought up. The old boys' club, she claimed, never got used to having a woman in charge, "which seems remarkable in this day an age". Indeed, it does. For all David Miliband's video blogs and staff stickers, it seems the Foreign Office still has a long way to go.