Last night's viewing - Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, Channel 4; Prisoners' Wives, BBC1


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The Independent Culture

According to its makers, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings is an anthropological study of an isolated and traditional group of people, which can only work to improve public attitudes to this misunderstood community. You could see exactly how this operates in last night's episode. According to several of those taking part, Travellers have to struggle against prejudice wherever they go, including the assumption that they are associated with crime and social disorder. "You're painted with that brush, yeah," as one woman put it. So to counter this misapprehension, Channel 4 had focused its film on one man who was actually in prison, another who was waiting to find out whether he'd be sent back to prison on a charge of receiving stolen goods, and a large crowd of men who spent the episode evading the police so they could stage an illegal horse race on a public highway. That should put the bigots right, I would have thought. Anyone anxious that this episode would not feature Thelma Madine and industrial quantities of tulle needn't have worried, though, because in between its valiant attempt to broaden our perception of Traveller life the episode also had time for Chloe's first Communion, in a dress that required her to be compressed into the back of her mum's car like wadding being pushed into the mouth of a cannon.

The truth of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings – as the advertising campaign that promised that this series would be "Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier" – is that it knowingly toys with feeding a social prejudice while taking care to keep its toes just this side of the line. Logically and legally, you can argue, "Gypsier" is no more racist than "more French" or "Dutcher" would be. But all the same Channel 4's marketing department knows perfectly well that the series' main audience will get the message. More to gawp at, more to tut at, more to consolidate that pleasing sense that you are on the right side of respectability and you're free to look down. And if you still maintain that everyone watching is tuning in for a sympathetic explanation of a life lived at an angle to convention, then I'd suggest that you follow a Twitter feed or comment board when the programme is on. One warning, though – it isn't pretty.

It's true that you'd have to watch with a lot of prejudice never to feel sympathy at all. When Chloe went straight from her Holy Communion to visit her father in jail and was turned away from the visitors' centre because they'd been delayed in traffic, you didn't see a Traveller child. You just saw a little girl weeping because her big day had crumbled. And following the scramble of eviction from one site and the race to beat the authorities to the next one, you got a sense of how harried life can be. Even then, though, for every stereotype Big Fat Gypsy Weddings disturbs, it reinforces another two. They're very clever about not crossing that line. There's not a frame that couldn't be defended as just a transcription of the facts. But you can't help wondering if the nuanced truth of Traveller life lies anywhere near the line at all. Or if nearly as many people would watch if they weren't teetering so close to falling.

Watching Prisoners' Wives, I couldn't help wondering what would have happened if Chloe had made it in time to see her dad. Searching her would have been a nightmare, given that she had enough room under her skirt for a collapsible ladder and a getaway car. The proxy humiliations of incarceration are one of the consistent themes in this series, which continues to impress. It does raise one question, though. We're invited to sympathise with all the men in prison but permitted to loathe the criminals outside it, including a memorably nasty drug dealer. If he goes inside, do we have to care about him too?