I can’t be the only one who was slightly surprised when one of Channel 4’s biggest hits in year turned out to be a documentary about a bunch of travelers, however millions of people tuned in to each instalment of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings making it a huge success. Personally I found the whole phenomenon staggering as each programme was fairly similar to the one before and I also felt that the traveller brides were being set up to be laughed at, mainly due to the ridiculous nature of the dresses that they’d chosen to wear. The one bright spot in each of the documentaries was the woman who made the dresses – Thelma Madine – who seemed like a genuinely intelligent woman who loved what she did so thankfully she’s now got her own spin-off show entitled Thelma’s Gypsy Girls.
The programme sees Madine try to turn ten traveller girls into seamstresses in order for them to get a job and not having to deal with the stigma that is attached to the gypsy lifestyle where most of the girls leave school at the age of eleven in order to take care of the house and their younger siblings. After making the majority of her fortune by selling dresses to travelling girls, she wants to give something back and had come to the realisation that not all of these girls wanted to be married at the age of 16, so decided to give ten of them a six month training course to see if any of them could cut it in the real world.
Madine went about putting out messages on Facebook and Twitter to invite girls to an interview day, while at the same time we were given the opportunity to meet a few of the potential apprentices. There was sixteen year old Roseanne who had a love of fashion and was under the impression that Lady Gaga was pedalling the devil’s music plus, she also thought that if you played Rihanna’s Umbrella backwards you could hear a satanic ritual, I’ll have to try that one day. Shannon was an interesting character who was fairly independent although she feared that Thelma’s scheme may result in a schedule clash as her Tuesdays are currently occupied by her community service after she was arrested for getting into a scrap with a girl who was insulting her lifestyle. Finally there was Margaret who was described by Thelma as a rebel and whom I sure will be the focus of most of the incidents that happen throughout the series even if some of them weren’t directly her fault.
This programme though was as much about Thelma as it was her trainees as we were given a potted life story of this woman who lost all her initial wealth in her divorce and struggled to raise her two young daughters so had to start claiming benefits. She then started working at a market stall with long-time friend Pauline, who also features in this programme, before starting the trade that she is in today as she recalls the first time a traveller girl came through her doors to ask her to create one of those ghastly tier dresses that she is now famous for. The only problem was that she was still signing on at the time so was arrested for benefit fraud and briefly imprisoned which scuppered her wedding plans to current partner Dave with the two still living in sin after eighteen years. Now living in a plush house complete with swimming pool and a room for Dave which consists of a massive TV screen, bar and pool table it seems that she is well-off enough to send their young daughter off to a private school but she is risking everything on this new scheme. This is mainly due to the fact that her current premises Nico isn’t big enough for her staff anymore so Thelma sinks all of her savings into renovating a new factory where her staff have space to work and where her new gypsy girls can be trained.
Thelma’s money woes took up a sizeable part of the documentary as we saw that she’d basically cleared out her whole bank account to pay for this new building and of course her scheme was a risky one in and of itself. We were told by her daughter/PA Tracy that Thelma likes to take on too many projects which run her into the ground as when she starts she doesn’t realise how much work she’ll actually have to put into them. Some of her non-English speaking staff were also hesitant to welcome the travellers as in the past they’ve been insulted by the gypsy families for not being able to fully understand the native language, personally I feel this is a little rich as whole segments of the Gypsy Weddings programmes have had to subtitled in the past due to the particpants speaking in incomprehensible gibberish.
The interview day itself also starts badly as only ten girls turn up on time however eventually thirty-five appear to partake in various tasks for Thelma, Pauline and Tracy to ascertain who’s got what it takes to go further in the process. The practical acitvity saw the girls given a bunch of coloured pens and asedk to design their dream dress to be fair some of the sketches were fairly impressive considering that these travellers were presented as a non-creative bunch. There was also lots of fun interviews for Thelma and Pauline to conduct where the girls basically gave the same answer to a lot of the questions about how they wanted to be independent and were interested in fashion. Thelma’s big message though was that her trainees would have to be committed, which as I’ve already mentioned will be a big ask for Shannon, however eventual recruit Veronica didn’t know what the word commitment meant. As the day wore on the girls began to get restless throwing pens and chairs at each other before excitement came in the form of Margaret’s boyfriend showing up in his white van presumably to drag her away from the world of work but she was having none of it calling him a pukey snail bastard, and they say romance is dead. After what felt like hours Thelma announced her ten girls with Bridget, Lily-Ann, Victoria, Kathleen, Samantha and Grace joining the aforementioned Shannon, Margaret, Veronica and Roseanne as the ten finalists.
I have to say I enjoyed the first episode of Thelma’s Gypsy Girls more than I thought I would but I think this was mainly down to the charms of Ms Madine herself. Unlike the previous entries into the Big Fat Gypsy franchise this wasn’t as patronising, apart from Roseanne’s devil-music speech perhaps, instead we were presented with a great woman who wanted to risk her livelihood to try and rescue girls from a life of home-making. To me it was great to see that Thelma never rested on her laurels and as a self-made woman wanted to bring women’s liberation to a community which viewed the fairer sex as second class citizens. Thelma presented herself as a woman who’d learn from some of her mistakes but was still taking risks that she hadn’t thought through all that much though in reality I don’t think she would’ve committed to a TV show if she had eventually gone bust. Of course belief had to be suspended slightly over the fact that these girls hadn’t already auditioned to be part of Thelma’s process before the interview day took place but overall this was a good-natured show in the getting people back to work genre. My only fear is that now the traveller girls are taking centre stage that their mannerisms and lack of education will be highlighted for our entertainment however I get the feeling that as this is Thelma’s show she’ll try and stop that from happening as much as she can. Overall I was really won round by what Madine was trying to do and I feel that I may have to tune in over the upcoming weeks to see if any of the girls discover the true definition of commitment.
Did you watch Thelma’s Gypsy Girls? If so what did you think? Leave Your Comments Below.