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TV review: Gypsy Matchmaker pretends child abuse has a romantic side

We know that children have been abused in Rotherham but what if the abuser rides a dashing white horse? That gives it an air of romance, doesn't it?

Sanko, the Gypsy Matchmaker
Sanko, the Gypsy Matchmaker

And what if you're told that child abuse is part of a majestic tradition, the fulfilment of the proud Gypsy code. Well, now you've got culture as well as romance. You'd be mad to find it abhorrent!

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The Gypsy Matchmaker (Channel 4) followed two families living in Rotherham and Oldham. They'd moved there from Eastern Europe, bringing with them the foul Gypsy tradition of buying and selling young girls and forcing them into 'marriages' when they are barely past puberty.

Sanko came to the UK from Hungary, bringing nine children and 15 grandchildren. His son, Adrian, is 14 and, therefore, in need of a wife. Sanko took charge. 'I will choose a good one for you' he tells his son. 'As my father taught me I am teaching you'. The ideal bride is, naturally, a child. 'I need one straight from the house who still goes to school,' demanded Sanko.

On the hunt for suitable children, father and son attend a party where young Gypsy girls are displayed to the local men. Adrian has his eye on a child called Esme, but Sanko is sceptical. 'Has she become fuller?' he asks, crushing any pretence that this is about culture. No, it's about lust. It's about finding a girl who will hopefully have breasts and curves on her child's body.

The repulsive Sanko meets Esme's family to negotiate a marriage. Her family are not impressed by this man who has come pawing and sniffing at their child. He offers money to secure her, £3.5k being considered sufficient, but the family remain doubtful. Esme is eventually brought into the room, like a horse being shown at market, but is so frightened she cannot speak. As ever, Sanko's concerns are lascivious. He is obsessed with her 'virtue', saying 'we should do this before you are ruined.' How disgustingly keen he is to buy a child's virginity for his horny little son.

Thankfully, Esme's family reject the offer, saying they want her to stay at school. She is saved, for now, from a life of constant child-bearing and bullying. This segment was notable in the film for showing a Gypsy family who offered hope and dignity to their daughter. The rest showed Gypsies gleefully stuck in this obscene tradition and, even though we saw men hunt young girls for sex, there was no sense of horror. The programme almost seemed to romanticise it, though I can't say whether this was for dramatic purposes or out of political correctness. For example, Adrian was filmed riding a white horse in an open field whilst speaking of his Gypsy heritage. The horse is a symbol of Gypsy freedom and culture but this smug boy should have been pulled from his horse and reminded that what he plans to do with the child his father purchases is illegal - and it's illegal for a reason.

Incredibly, Sanko was not the most repellent figure in the film. We saw Huko, a middle-aged man who chooses not to work for his keep - 'the wise never work' - but instead spends his days eyeing up the local children for a suitable 'wife' for his sons. To put an even grimmer stamp on it, he lived in Rotherham, the scene of so much appalling abuse of young girls.

One of the children in Huko's rotten household was married at 13. Another is pregnant at 14, and the adults conceal this pregnant child from the police when they try to take her into care. They defy the police and then chuckle to themselves. What proud men they must be!

'I know I'm pregnant because I feel milk coming from my breasts,' says one 14-year old. She doesn't have the education to know the typical signs of pregnancy. She was removed from her mother upon her 'marriage' and neither can she consult a doctor who will surely alert the authorities, so there is no-one from whom the child can seek advice but, with milk leaking from her chest, she assumes she has done what these men demand of her.

Finally, opressive, nasty old Britain catches up with Huko and his various children are taken into care. 'What's wrong with England?' he whines.

Again and again, this documentary tried to evoke quiet sympathy for these organised child abusers. The crew filmed Sanko's native town in Hungary where the houses were coiled with barbed wire and furious dogs barked behind every gate. One woman held a gun at her hip and spoke of shooting Gypsies. What was your point here, Channel 4, in showing us that Gypsies face discrimination and big scary dogs? What exactly is the link between that and pushing a child into bed with your teenage son? Why was the word 'rape' never used? Why was the word 'paedophile' never used? Words were carefully chosen and misappropriated - it's not 'rape' it's 'marriage'. She's not a 'child' she's a 'bride'. It's not 'illegal' it's 'cultural' - and others were carefully avoided. Even the title of the programme, with the retro word 'matchmaker', was calculated to be cute and romantic.

So why the obvious tinge of sympathy for a tradition so repellent? Perhaps Channel 4 were making amends for their infamous 'My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding' series which portrayed Gypsies as simple, foolish and flamboyant. Maybe they were offsetting that by providing a darker examination of Gypsy culture but, if so, they've failed. This documentary was about hardline, newly arrived Roma Gypsies, not the long-established Travelling community who feature in the wedding programmes. So I cannot guess at why Channel 4 made this programme with such a 'soft' approach. It served no purpose but to inflame, and it certainly offered no reasoning for this hideous tradition. The Gypsies who featured may be unwelcome at home and face terrible discrimination but that bears no relation to, and offers no excuse for, the buying, selling and abuse of children.

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