Resplendent in a white gown and fur stole, with hair neatly curled and pinned, Emma Rathbone is every inch the blushing bride. But look closely under the perfectly applied make-up, and Emma is blushing more than most newlyweds as she tries to find the words to describe her new husband – a man she met for the first time just three hours ago.
“If I saw him walking down the street, would I look twice?” she asks out loud, fingers nervously twisted. “If we went for a blind date and he asked for my number, would I give it to him? Yeah, I’d give him my number. He’s made me laugh and he seems like a nice guy.”
Which is exactly as the “experts” had ordained. For 32-year-old events organiser Emma and her 33-year-old university administrator groom James Ord-Hume are part of a televised experiment to determine whether “love” can be boiled down to a set of tick-box measurements.
In the weeks before this wedding, 1,500 would-be participants answered hundreds of questions about their lifestyle and attitudes, submitted to psychological tests, had their “beauty” ranked and gave DNA samples – all in order to satisfy a panel of experts that they are compatible with each other. And, scientifically at least, likely to enjoy a long, happy marriage.
Those experts included a psychologist, an evolutionary anthropologist and, perhaps most surprisingly, a Church of England vicar. The Rev Nick Devenish, a parish priest in Cartmel in the Lake District and the show’s spiritual adviser, says that, rather than appeal to Big Brother-type wannabes, the project tended to attract introverts.
“There was a young man who said to me: ‘If you go out with a girl and you’re not trying to rip her clothes off on the third date, she’ll text her friends saying he’s a bit weird.’ He told me: ‘I don’t want to do that.’ Which is why he put himself forward to be part of our social experiment.”
In the end, three couples were matched, including Emma and James. We’re sitting in a large conference room at the top of the Royal Society of Arts in London, and the couple have brought glasses of wine with them while their guests finish their wedding breakfast. It’s the first time since the ceremony that they have had much of a breather to contemplate what has just happened: they appear flushed, nervous, excited, but most of all, a bit shell-shocked.
“I think ‘awkward’ might be the word of the day,” confesses James. “The most awkward bit was the photos, when they told us to look into each other’s eyes. That was weird.”
It’s not the usual gushing love-speak from a couple who are halfway through the happiest day of their lives. Which is exactly as you might expect, given that before arriving for the wedding ceremony they’d never clapped eyes on each other – not even in photographs – and now here they are, man and wife.
So what are their initial impressions?
Both are complimentary. Emma says, “My first thought was that he had nice eyes. I liked his suit, he looked very handsome and smart. But I was so overwhelmed by the whole thing, I couldn’t really look at him, or anyone else for that matter. I just didn’t know what to do.”
And James adds, “In all honesty, I was completely blank at first. I was mainly concentrating on not letting the beads of sweat dribble off my face and onto my shirt. Then she walked in and I was just concentrating on not staring at her and freaking her out. Suddenly, she was beside me. I did have a Mad Men moment when she walked up in her 1950s dress. I loved it. It was really nice. It’s not prissy, it’s cute.”
They give each other a quick smile, then face the front again. Lingering eye contact is something that comes with time, it seems. Emma and James both seem pretty normal. James is a genial, big bloke with a sharp sense of wit and an open, honest face. Emma talks ten to the dozen, has a band of close female friends, and is ambitious with her career as well as her hobbies. So why on earth were these regular singletons willing to marry a complete stranger on TV?