Reality show is surprise hit, sells to 16 territories

LONDON — While audiences worldwide were transfixed by the British royal wedding last month, in Blighty another marriage also drew a sizable crowd.

A special edition of the reality series “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding,” in which a documentary crew follows preparations for nuptials among the community of traveling folk, aired April 28, the day before Prince William and Kate Middleton’s big day, and attracted 5 million viewers.

Some episodes in the series, produced by Firecracker Films, had drawn audiences of more than 8 million for Channel 4, a web whose top shows usually get less than half that figure.

The series’ international distrib, Zodiak Rights, has licensed it in 16 territories, including TLC in the U.S., which plans to produce its own series with Firecracker about gypsies and travelers Stateside. The U.K. series airs on TLC starting May 29; the U.S. edition bows early next year.

One of the show’s attractions has been the fact that gypsy weddings are such ostentatious, Cinderella-style affairs — a surprise for Brits, many of whom look down on the gypsy way of life and go to great lengths to keep them moving when their convoys of caravans turn up in their neighborhoods.

Tens of thousands of dollars are lavished on crystal-encrusted dresses — some weighing 250 pounds with 25-foot trails, carriages drawn by teams of white horses and huge receptions. These are wildly joyous events, drawing hundreds of gypsies from all parts of the country.

As well as being compulsive viewing for the public, the show also has proved catnip for the media, which helped turn it into a phenomena.

“It really tickled the curiosity of the press — the visual imagery of the show was so jaw-dropping,” says exec producer Jes Wilkins.

Another selling point was the fact that the traveling community in the U.K. tends to keep itself away from prying eyes, and yet is subject to a high level of animosity and suspicion among many house-dwelling folk.

“It uncovered a world that is on people’s doorsteps, and that they didn’t really know about. Lots of people have prejudices, preconceptions and assumptions about that community, and we’ve been able to challenge some of those,” Wilkins says.

Channel 4 commissioning editor Tina Flintoff says that one of the shows strengths was the level of access it secured, and the insights it provided to a hidden world.

“Viewers were surprised that these people, who they previously thought were pariahs of society, were fun, nice, normal people who celebrate weddings and other events in such extraordinary ways,” she says.

The show was perfect material for water-cooler conversations, and its audience built week after week.

“Every office in the country seemed to be talking about it the next day,” Wilkins says.

However, some within the gypsy community feel that the series fuels the discrimination they suffer and reinforces stereotypes.

That, in turn, has generated even more press, especially in the upscale end of the market.

Flintoff says that the reason the gypsy community granted the production team access was that it liked what it saw.

“I think that the travelers and gypsies featured were bracing themselves for yet another bashing, but they really enjoyed it; it was often fun and lighthearted, yet didn’t ridicule them. None of the people involved felt like they had been misrepresented.”

However, the show didn’t sugar-coat its portrayal of the community, revealing some of its uglier aspects. Wilkins says the editorial rigor of the production set it apart from other, more contrived reality shows.

“One of the things we were most proud of is that we were able to have such huge audiences watching films about quite difficult subjects — illiteracy, domestic abuse and the discrimination travelers face,” he says.

That approach, Wilkins says, and the fact that each episode featured such different and compelling characters, and that the team simply observed, rather than orchestrated events, kept viewers coming back for more.

“People are crying out for fresh, original content,” he says.

Channel 4 and Firecracker are now talking about a second season. Flintoff says she wants the show to increase the level of access and go deeper into the life of community.

“This time we want to spend more time at home with them, to go to school with them, to go to work with them, and travel with them. … We would like to spend more time with them away from the wedding ceremonies,” she says.

A second season focusing more of the same won’t do, Flintoff says.

“We don’t want to commission series two just for the sake of it; just because it did well. We want it make sure that we are moving the brand forward.”

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