I must have lost my mind. Agreeing to a blind date is one thing. But a blind date on Channel 4’s latest reality show? That’s a real step off the cliff edge. But this is no Blind Date or Take Me Out.
First Dates holds the promise of finding true love for those who wine and dine in a restaurant rigged up with cameras like the Big Brother house. As part of the Channel 4 Mating Season, it hopes to reveal the realities of modern romance while maybe even creating some lasting couples. And with online dating booming, it’s a surprise this programme hasn’t happened sooner.
Now, I’ve had my fair share of catastrophic first dates, and so the butterflies are in full flutter. But I choose to arm myself with several inches of make-up and a ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ attitude (my sister kindly reminds me that the worst that can happen is ‘national humiliation’. Thanks, Sis!).
I arrive to meet First Dates’ assistant producer who explains to me that modern dating is tough (as if I don’t already know? – I’m going on a blind telly date, for crying out loud!). With hectic everyday life, there’s less time to get out and actually meet people, so online dating is fast becoming the norm. The programme hopes to reveal the realities of such first dates with a stranger.
Before I know it, I’m being frogmarched round the corner and thrust into the First Dates restaurant where I’m told to ask for my match, Steve. I’m shown to a table but there’s no sign of this mystery man. Nervously sitting down I notice how comfortable, at ease and, in some cases, flirtatious the couples around the restaurant seem, who are already well into their dates. None of them look as self-conscious as I feel (but I’ve just clocked all the cameras mounted in every last corner of the room). Perhaps there’s really nothing shocking about blind dates in this day and age.
Steve arrives, and we share an awkward exchange; he goes for a kiss on each cheek, whereas I had settled for just the one. I’m already cringing and we’ve only just begun. But Steve is warm, friendly and as smiley as I am, which instantly puts me at ease. I quickly discover he’s a fellow journalist on a similar fact-finding mission, and as true journos we fast resolve to order a carafe of wine.
I plump for the roast chicken leg with garden peas (surely a savvy choice; nothing to get stuck in my teeth?). Little do I know the peas will arrive at the table still cosy in their pods. As I try to prise them from their shells in a sea of gravy, the worst thing imaginable happens. One of the slippery little suckers jumps from my knife and fork grip and flies across the table, plopping down in front of my date. That’s right, I just pea-ed across the table on national TV. There’s no going back now. We order another carafe of wine.
Also resorting to the booze is a couple next to us who seem to have settled in for a session. The chemistry is fizzing until she leaves for a bathroom break that lasts just a little too long, and the young bachelor looks worried that his date has done a runner. Toilet breaks are fascinating to observe. Those left at the table whip out their mobile phones to fill in their friends on the gory details of their hot date, or maybe to update their online dating profiles – this is modern romance, after all. In one case, a precocious lady uses the absence of her date as an opportunity to flirt with the stranger at the table next to her. These blind daters are ballsy, if nothing else.
Back to my date, and – unlike a couple behind us, who share one of the longest awkward pauses I’ve ever had the pain of eavesdropping in on outside of Made in Chelsea – Steve and I have plenty to talk about. Mostly about how crazy we both are for putting our dating prowess under the scrutiny of a film crew. But Steve has also brought with him a back catalogue of first date questions to rattle through. We talk about music, London life and the joys of online dating, and the conversation flows like the wine.
We spend a large proportion of the date glued to the blossoming romance of one couple in particular. First Dates follows the frisson between the typical young couples found on reality TV, but it feels more gripping to watch a pair who must be in their 70s retiring to a corner of the restaurant for afternoon tea and a chance to really get to know one another. Perhaps blind dates aren’t just for the Take Me Out crowd.
Far less endearing is the young gentleman who pulls an ‘I’m in there’ grimace and winks at the other men in the room as he escorts his date out of the restaurant.
Steve and I finish up and hit the road, contemplating skipping arm in arm to generate some controversy for the camera crew. We exchange details and vow to stay in touch, over Twitter if nothing else – how thoroughly modern!
I’m not sure it’s time to rush out and buy that wedding hat. But First Dates did prove that although dating has changed, it’s certainly a whole lot of fun once you let go of your inhibitions like these brave blind daters. And after all, don’t they say love is blind?
First Dates is part of Channel 4’s Mating Season and starts on Thursday 20 June at 9:00pm
Fancy taking part in First Dates? Visit Channel4.com/FirstDates