Big fat telly

Channel 4's documentary series about travellers is misleadingly simplistic.

To watch Big Fat Gypsy Weddings on Channel 4 is to be bombarded with big fat stats: wedding dresses that weigh 16 stone, leaving indelible scars on the wearer; holy communion frocks that are twice the weight of their 12-year-old occupants. At one traveller wedding, even the icing on the cake comes in at a whopping nine stone. Perhaps not surprisingly, the bridal rig that reached the greatest parodic heights belonged to a non-traveller, a "gadgi', who was marrying a gypsy and felt she had to out-travel the travellers. It was trimmed with battery-operated butterflies and fitted up with UV and fibre-optic lighting that meant a fire extinguisher had to be discreetly brought to church.

One watches these exercises in hyperbole with a mixture of fascination and alarm. The romantic notion of the rootless, horse-powered purveyor of the wild music that informed jazz and flamenco, and the snaking hips of Eastern dances, is quickly derailed by Channel 4's presentation: the soundtrack of choice booming from the party limos is electro-house by the Black Eyed Peas. The Appleby Horse Fair, a "major event in the traveller social calendar", sounds like an Arcadian pageant from a Thomas Hardy novel, but the young males who attend don't get beyond the car park. Here they size up flesh quite other than horse.

The hips are still snaking but they belong to the little girls: jet-tanned, spray-painted Lolitas, who appear to have picked up their outfit in Versace then left most of it at home, and who ape the moves of Shakira and Beyoncé; shanks and bellies bared for the consumption of others. In fact there's a whole lot of aping going on at these gypsy celebrations. Little distinction is made between factual and filmic, celebrities and cartoons (arguably quite rightly). The glass-coach is just like Jordan's; the cake is a model of the Disney fairytale castle.

The provocative show of breast and haunch sits queasily alongside a deeply conservative version of bygone Catholicism, where women cannot go out alone (or they are "scandalised", "filthy"), cannot drink or have sex until they are married, and are taken out of school and into domestic servitude at the age of 12 to swab out the trailer and rear younger siblings. It was hard not to be moved by the fear and the dread of one 13-year-old girl when confronted with her older sister's marriage, which marked the start of her own skivvying sentence.

Gypsy lads, on the other hand, are free to do as they please with their leisure, though they, too, are taken out of school in order to work. Whereas their girl-brides are so burdened by their giant dresses that they cannot walk (an evolutionary positive-feedback loop; the cost of display impeding basic biological function), the groom is free to strip to the comfort and ease of his vest. No amount of mealy-mouthed cultural relativism can talk away the Irish traveller custom of "grabs", where sexed-up swains extract a kiss from the girls by force. This assault is the courtship's opening gambit, the nail on which a lifetime's relationship hangs.

And yet some of what we experience when we watch the documentary is surely recognition: the traveller life holds up a mirror, albeit a fairground one, to the community at large. The featured Holy Communion dress was an exaggerated version of all the other creepy mini-brides of Christ; the church attendees were Lady Gaga-ed to the max, but not so very different from the show of plumage we are more accustomed to. Substance abuse with Carlsberg or Cloudy Bay -- the object of getting off one's face remains the same. The programmes concern themselves only with the major celebrations in traveller life, the times when they are at their most theatrical, as it were. Perhaps an unblinking gaze at the high days and holidays of Middle England would reveal similarly fantastical preoccupations with being a princess for one day, with price tags to match, in an otherwise unexceptional lifetime.

Not only is "them and us" a misleading binary (as the mild-mannered Romany Pat points out), but crucially the documentary fallaciously yokes Romany and Irish travellers together, neatly eliding the two with the tags "traveller" or "gypsy". This semantic amnesia conveniently ignores a complicated plurality of traditions and values, and is a mistake that "muscular liberalism" would do well to avoid. The Romany are no strangers to crude catch-alls: the very word gypsy is a misconception about their Egyptian origin. But then, more accuracy would mean less big fat telly.

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge