Sophie Heawood: Traveller TV - one part cringe, one part inspiration

  • @heawood

We are in the middle of a craze for gypsies. My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding is about to return for another series, having apparently given Channel 4 its highest viewing figures in years. Then there's Gypsy Blood, Channel 4's documentary last month about the bare-knuckle fighting culture. Paddy Doherty, a boxer, went on to win Celebrity Big Brother and get a spin-off programme of his own, shacking up with Sally Bercow, wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons. Meanwhile, the supermodel Kate Moss says she loves the gypsy weddings so much that they inspired her own. Then, in the news, we've seen the drawn-out evictions at the traveller site at Dale Farm, near Basildon. There are question marks over a traveller site near the Olympic area in east London. Disturbing reports are coming from Hungary of militias rounding up members of the Roma community.

Travellers are not new, but this sudden wave of interest in them is. In the British media, they have become a meme. Hence, yet another series showing us weddings where 17-year-olds wear dresses that weigh twice as much as they do, with miles of fabric ruched into a fairytale train that they can barely get inside their fairytale carriage. Weddings where nobody is actually invited, everybody just turns up, with word going round at the last minute where the reception will be held. Venues tend to cancel if they get wind of the booked wedding being a gypsy one, so the guests hang around in their cars waiting for the tip-off, like glowstick ravers waiting for directions to the right field.

I finally gave in to the big fat show, having presumed, from its showy title, that I would be watching it through my fingers, uncomfortable with the programme-making itself, cringing as we sat and passed judgement on a marginalised culture. And if all you've seen this time around are the adverts that say, somewhat unbelievably, "Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier", then you're probably deeply uncomfortable already.

But I didn't find it icky in the end. For every bit that challenges you – the girls who have left school and got engaged by the age of 15, planning a marriage they must stay in for the rest of their lives – you then see how close they are to their kids, how much support they get in raising children by living on a site, and how little chance there is to be lonely.

Little chance to be lonely is at the other end of the cultural wedge that leaves you little chance to be gay, to go to university, to live away from all violence. "We don't take each other to court. We don't sue each other," said one man in Gypsy Blood. "We go and fight." Ultimately, you see so many nuances and traditions and traps that the judgement has to end. We're not watching it to make a decision – we simply want to know what's going on inside these communities that are so close to us geographically, and yet, socially, so closed.

Is it a guilty pleasure? I don't think so. We're just dying to know how each other live – it's anthropology.

Next up, I'd like to see a similar show about Hasidic Jews in Britain. Europe's biggest community of such live just down the road from me in north-east London, and I know next to nothing about them. There was a great BBC documentary last year, (which, as it happens, also showed a lot of drunken gaiety at weddings) but I'd love to see a whole series.

Getting a closed culture to open up is the greatest thing that television can ever do.