Last Night's TV - Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, Channel 4; Natural World Special: Miracle in the Marshes of Iraq, BBC2

Brides and prejudice
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The Independent Culture

If you're selling the audience a sense of their own superiority you're never going to go out of business. That, I take it, was one of the things on offer in the Cutting Edge film My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, something of a break-out hit for Channel 4 last year. And, at some inadmissible level, it's also what's behind the follow-up series, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, which began last night. Nobody is crass enough to say so, of course. The pitch is that this is neighbourhood anthropology, an opportunity to get inside a closed community that lives among us, and observe their rituals. But what will keep quite a lot of viewers coming back is the spectacle of style so flamboyantly devoid of taste that virtually anyone watching will feel like Coco Chanel by contrast.

I'm not sure how much to worry about this. There is a freak-show element to the series that no amount of covering talk about proud communities and ancient traditions will cover up. On the other hand, I don't think any of the people on screen would give a damn what the audience think of them anyway. There are things not to like about Traveller society – its profound social conservatism and its benighted attitude to women among them – but their indifference to the done thing (as it is defined by society at large) is somehow admirable. To see a young girl teetering to her first communion – barely visible inside a ludicrous puffball of pink netting – and to sense that not a quiver of doubt crosses her mind when she sees all the other girls in trim white dresses, is to be given an image of rock-solid cultural assurance.

This first episode concentrated on two big occasions: Margarita's first communion and Josie's marriage to Swanley. And it provided ample opportunity to display the mind-bending combination (for an outside observer) of the kind of dress-sense you would associate with a Las Vegas hooker, with the sexual and social restrictions of an Afghan village girl. Traveller girls don't drink until they get married, never go out without a chaperone or a large group of friends, and don't sleep with anyone until their wedding night. Even to arouse gossip, one group of girls suggested, was to risk a name as "dirty". Did they not think this unfair, they were asked. "No. It basically is a boy's world. They earn the money and put the food on the table, so it is their world." Contentedly looking forward to a life of childbearing, cooking and cleaning, they compensate, it seems, with wedding dresses so overblown that injury quite often results: "Usually girls get scars on their hips," said Josie as she was being fitted for her dress. "They say 'the more bleeds the better the dress'."

Josie had opted for a kind of open-crotch affair, topped with a transparent bustier and constructed from so many layers of tulle that getting her sat down at the wedding reception was like docking a zeppelin in a high wind. Swanley, perhaps wisely, quickly abandoned his morning suit for something more comfortable, a crisp white wedding vest, and kicked off proceedings by starting a food fight with his new bride. One of Josie's friends, meanwhile, was experiencing the rough end of Traveller courtship, a process called "grabbing" (known to us in the non-Traveller community as low-level sexual assault). "I've had much worse than that," said Cheyenne, after she'd peeled off her grabber. "It's not nice at all... but you just have to live with it." No you don't, Cheyenne, but I expect you're too busy thinking about your wedding dress to give the alternatives much consideration.

A lot of natural history documentaries these days tag on a little "making of" extra at the end, so that you can see just how difficult it was to get the shot that had you gasping 20 minutes before. Natural World Special: Miracle in the Marshes of Iraq had little choice but to incorporate the behind-the-scenes footage into the film itself, a report on attempts to repair Saddam Hussein's deliberate destruction of the marshlands of southern Iraq. Little choice because the natural history footage they'd actually secured wouldn't have made it much past the half-way mark in an hour-long film. But also because the circumstances in which they were filming were so unusual that they were inextricably part of the story.

"This isn't about the bang-bang it's about the tweet-tweet," said Stephen Foote, who made the film along with the film-maker David Johnson. He meant that they weren't heading for Basra to contribute yet more grim footage of violence and explosions and civil chaos. In practice, though, the "tweet-tweet" proved fugitive and the "bang-bang" inescapable. They got away without being hit by IEDs or ending up in the back of a kidnapper's truck, but only because they were travelling with a security team armed to the teeth. After one filming attempt had foundered – over a tribal dispute that threatened to escalate into something much more dangerous – the two-man crew found themselves with a private army of 30 men watching them as they watched distant feathery blobs.

You sensed a certain apologetic note in Johnson's voiceover. The Iraq babbler was "a bit bland", he conceded, and the Basra reed warbler "unspectacular". But the defensive tone was unnecessary, even for those viewers who don't twitch reflexively at the mention of a marbled teal. This was a fascinating, often moving film, about an attempt to heal a once beautiful landscape... and how healing an untouched landscape can be.