Big Fat Gypsy goldmine: How one TV company has exploited travellers to make it very rich indeedNewly rich company behind TV series now has swanky offices in Chelsea and LABut 'exploited' bypsies could stage boycott – despite claims of secret cash paymentsIs that why TV bosses are planning a new show… My Big Fat CRIMINAL Wedding
It has been impossible to miss them over the past few weeks. Three words emblazoned across vast billboards, printed over images of teenage girls in tiaras and extravagantly frothy wedding dresses.
Three words that reveal everything about the subtlety of the programme they are advertising: Bigger, Fatter, Gypsier. The arrival of the second series of the Channel 4 documentary Big Fat Gypsy Weddings has been accompanied by the sort of fanfare reserved for guaranteed smash-hits.
The confidence is well-placed. The reality show exploring the lavish nuptials of young gypsy couples – in particular, the enormous, glitter-encrusted gowns worn by the brides – has become an unexpected phenomenon.
Extravagant: Sam, a barmaid, marries traveller Pat in the first series
The first series, broadcast early in 2011, became the channel’s highest rating documentary of all time, peaking at 9.7 million viewers – equivalent to the last episode of Friends.
But the programme isn’t such a hit with many of the travellers, who feel it only fuels prejudice against them. ‘The production company has shamelessly cashed in on the success of the show – and having seen it happen, many of the gypsies have become angry that they are opening their lives to ridicule without seeing any of the rewards,’ says a source.
There are also disturbing allegations about what really goes on behind the scenes. According to sources close to the production, the company behind it, Firecracker Films, has made secret cash payments to gypsies to persuade them to appear. There has also been speculation as to why some of the male gypsies in recent programmes have had their faces pixelated. And it is claimed the producers have rehearsed and reshot scenes and have egged on teenage girls to wear provocative clothing in a process described by insiders as ‘nurtured reality’.
Young bride Dolores will be seen in a pineapple dress in series two
But Firecracker is unabashed and determined to cash in on the phenomenon it has created. The company is lining up a series of specials to follow on from its festive money-spinner, My Big Fat Gypsy Christmas.
One will focus on Thelma Madine, the woman who makes the extraordinary wedding dresses. A second will be a My Big Fat Moonie Wedding version, which will follow British members of the cult as they prepare for a mass wedding ceremony. And there will be a series about American gypsies.
Remarkably, Firecracker is even trying to produce a version focusing on the weddings of criminals, entitled, predictably, Big Fat Criminal Weddings.
Big Fat Gypsy Weddings began life as just a one-off Cutting Edge programme in 2010. Unexpectedly, it was a massive hit for Channel 4, attracting 5.3 million viewers, five times the normal total for Cutting Edge.
A full five-part series followed, ordered by Channel 4 commissioning editor Alistair Pegg, who claimed it would ‘answer some of the more probing questions raised by the first film’.
It was made by Firecracker, which was established by Mark Soldinger in one room in London’s Soho in 2003. The company had previously been known for so-called ‘shock docs’ with titles such as The Man Whose Arms Exploded!, The World’s Strongest Boy and Mermaid Girl.
Billed as a fascinating insight into the secretive world of the traveller community, the programme revealed the eye-popping extravagance of gypsy nuptials, in which the brides – average age 17 – don dresses so vast and bedecked with ornaments that they are often left with scars around their waists from the boning.
It also highlighted the dichotomy between the strict moral code obeyed by young traveller girls – no dating, premarital sex or drinking – and their provocative way of dressing up.
But according to a source, finding enough gypsies to fill a series in just ten months of production was very difficult for its makers, led by Jes Wilkins, Firecracker’s head of programmes and the executive producer of the series.
‘It is well known that payments were made to the gypsies who appeared in the first series,’ claims the source. ‘It’s understood Firecracker paid cash for photographs and other expenses.’
But the series failed to answer many pertinent questions, such as where the gypsies found the six-figure sums often spent on the weddings.
And while it claimed to show the traveller way of life without judgment, members of the community were unhappy about the portrayal of gypsy girls as uneducated drudges, obsessed with outlandish clothing.
Wedded to fantasy: Thelma Madine puts the finishing touches to bride Bridget's lavish dress
All dressed up: Critics say the girls' clothing is far too provocative
They also argued that the use of circus music and subtitles for gypsies speaking English exploited the participants and invited viewers to mock them. Nonetheless, the programme made stars of some of its subjects, particularly Paddy Doherty, an Irish traveller and former bare-knuckle boxer who went on to win Celebrity Big Brother last month.
The show also transformed the fortunes of Firecracker. The once tiny outfit is now 60-strong and operates from smart offices in Chelsea Harbour, with a second branch in Santa Monica, California, where Soldinger is based. Its turnover last year was 11 million and it is thought new figures will be much higher.
Shortly after Big Fat Gypsy Weddings was shown in Britain, the company secured a deal with American cable network TLC worth 2.6 million. The original British series was a surprise ratings hit in the US, and TLC commissioned Firecracker to produce an eight-part series called My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding. It will be aired later this year and will explore the lives of travellers – mostly Roma – living in the US. Although the US broadcasters were eager to own the rights to the programme, Firecracker has held on to them.
The first British series of BFGW has also been bought by other broadcasters around the world. To date, it has generated sales revenues of 3.5 million from deals in 81 territories, including countries in Africa, Central Europe and Latin America.
Firecracker is thrilled with its success. ‘Jes Wilkins has become known as the Gypsy King of TV since he hit the jackpot with the show,’ says a source. ‘They’re making a fortune, but they’re incredibly tight when it comes to production budgets.
The extravagant lifestyles of the community has meant it has a keen following
Members of the community have been unhappy with the way hey have been portrayed
‘They’ve become known in the industry as being very ruthless.’
Firecracker is now experiencing a backlash from the gypsies who, despite the payments for the first series, do not feel they have made their fair share of the profits.
A source says the gypsies are aware of the way they were portrayed in the first series and the money it made. For the second series, the gypsies demanded more money, but it was then decided not to pay any of them. The argument was that fame should be enough – but it meant Firecracker struggled to get enough gypsies to co-operate.
‘Some of the people shown in the new series had their faces obscured – they are the ones who refused to sign the consent forms because of disagreements with the programme’s makers,’ a source says. It is also claimed some scenes in the latest series are rehearsed prior to filming to ensure they meet the makers’ requirements.
For instance, last week’s show featured a 15-year-old girl planning her wedding, which will take place when she turns 16. She and her teenage friends were seen clad in provocative outfits – but the show source says: ‘They were encouraged by the producers to wear those skimpy outfits.’
Firecracker’s latest and most audacious idea, My Big Fat Criminal Wedding, is intended to give an insight into another secretive section of society – this time, people known and feared for their illegal activities. It is perhaps unsurprising that the project has proved more difficult than the company anticipated.
It has been suggested that some of scenes were recreated so that they met the requirements of the programme-makers
Piled up: The travellers take over the road during one of the shows
Many infamous criminals have been approached by the production company, but it is understood to be struggling to convince them to appear and has been reduced to trawling lapdancing clubs in London and Essex to find potential subjects.
Firecracker cannot pay contributors due to Ofcom rules stating criminals cannot benefit financially from their crimes. One of those approached was Freddie Foreman, who served 16 years in prison for his involvement in the disposal of the body of Jack ‘the Hat’ McVitie, one of Reggie Kray’s victims. He declined to take part.
He told The Mail on Sunday: ‘Weddings are a very personal thing and I turned Firecracker down because I thought they were really pushing their luck with a series about criminals’ weddings. The gypsy series was bad enough. I mean, why would any self-respecting “face” want to allow cameras into such an event’
Speaking on behalf of Channel 4 and Firecracker Films, a spokesman said: ‘The programme is an observational documentary series and we absolutely refute any allegations that any elements are staged. Everything featured is a fair and accurate reflection of what we experienced during filming. The producers of the show do not pay for the weddings and contributors are not paid.
‘In a few instances, a small facilitation fee may be given to cover any arrangements the participants have had to make to fit in with the filming schedule – for example covering loss of earnings or childcare arrangements, which is common practice in the industry.’