First Dates looks simple, right?
Get a restaurant, find some singletons, screw a couple of cameras into the wall and off you go.
Well, apparently not. With the help of First Dates producer Molly Sayers and casting producer Alex Gray at a recent RTS Futures event, we delved behind Merlin’s bar to find out exactly how the show is put together. And it’s far, far more lengthy, in-depth and complicated than we ever thought…
1. The First Dates restaurant is real
Well, sort of. The show is filmed at actual eatery Paternoster Chop House near St Paul’s in central London, but the whole establishment is taken over when First Dates are filming.
“We go in about a week before and we zhush it,” explains Sayers. “We put lights in, lots of candles and flowers and no-one is allowed in other than us. It’s quite funny when you see people strolling up – especially on a Friday or Saturday night. They’ve been out for dinner and they try and come in for a drink and our big security guys are like ‘Not today!’”
2. They film a whopping 14 dates per day
“For each episode there are five dates that you’ll see, and per episode we have filmed seven,” explains Sayers. “So there’s seven dates filmed for five, and on a filming day we essentially film two episodes a day. So we film 14 dates per day in order to get two episodes with ten dates in them each.” Phew!
“It’s a juggernaut of a production and because of the amount of dates that we film and the way that we look for people,” she adds. “So every single weekend there are auditions. There are up to 80 people that we see per week.”
3. There are 42 cameras covering every inch of the restaurant
“And then we’ve got GoPros in the loos as well!” exclaims Sayers. “And all of the cameras are remotely operated. They’re all at different heights – you have to when people are sitting and when they’re standing, that’s why we can only have three dates in at any one time because we’ve only got a certain amount of cameras that can cover the dates.
“We might have 42 cameras but we’ve only ever got ten streams, so we can only record on ten at a time. Which means if there are three featured dates in, you’ve got a close-up of one person, another close-up of their date and a two shot – then times that by three. So that’s nine of your streams taken up, and then you might have a camera on Fred or on Cici and Laura having a chat in the bar. It’s all quite choreographed.”
4. The producers are underneath the restaurant!
“Our restaurant is on the ground level and just because of the logistics of that location, our truck is beneath,” says Sayers. “So you have to go down via the kitchen, down the fire escape into this basement. Sometimes it’s hot, sometimes it’s cold, sometimes there are bins there. But that’s where we live!”
5. The producers have their pick from 150,000 people
“We were lucky enough to have access to an online casting database of over 150,000 people which has been running for the last few series,” says Gray. “But we always say with that comes its own problems, because where do you start?
“So we try and start each new series with a wish list of the stories that we want to tell. Obviously we’re on our sixth series now so we have seen a lot of stories before, but there’s always new ones.”
6. Cici was working in an actual restaurant before First Dates
For series one and two, the show had just focused on the dates and viewers didn’t see any staff in the restaurant. So, as Sayers explains, a team of researchers went out into “trendy bars that were likely to have cool people in them” across London in places like Old Street, Soho and Brixton to cast waiters, barmen and a maître d’ for the third series of First Dates.
“Cici was cast in that way,” explains Sayers. “Laura was a friend of a friend in the end. Fred and Merlin were a little bit more forensic. Certainly Fred – he gave me the runaround and I had to work quite hard to get him interested in the premise. But we had an idea of what people we were looking for and then we knew when we found it, basically.”
7. That little chat in front of the camera isn’t quite that little after all
The whole First Dates casting process is something of a marathon.
“There’s the phone call first, then you’re invited for an audition and then there might be several follow-up phone calls,” explains Sayers. “And then the big master interview as we call it – or the pre-date chat – which is the one you see in the programme, that is 90 minutes.
“It’s with a really senior producer/director and those interviews are forensic and journalistic. A lot of people leave that room and are like ‘I feel like I’ve had a therapy session.'”
8. The producers take match-making really seriously
“It’s hard to explain the match-making process in detail,” says Sayers. “There are so many factors involved – we take everything into account, and then there’s personal opinion…”
It’s these discussions that Gray says “can get quite heated”.
“We hold these match meetings every week where we have boards and boards of people that we’ve found. We all get together and fight over our favourites and who they’d go for,” he says. “We’re all screaming ‘No! He’s too ugly for her!’”
9. They’re only in that taxi for five minutes
“We have what we call ‘one taxi or two’,” says Sawyers. “And that is a moment where at the end of their date they’ve had their interview and you see whether or not they make their own way home or if they get in a cab together.
“And that’s not us implying that they’re going to bed together,” she adds. “But basically when it’s a yes they get in one taxi because that finishes off their story. And then they get out of the taxi…and they get in their Addison Lee around the corner!”
10. Celebrities have to go through all of this palaver too…
The first celebrity special of First Dates was for Stand Up to Cancer and starred the likes of Anthea Turner and Alexandra Burke, plus there’s also been a standalone four-part celebrity series featuring Scarlett Moffatt, Esther Rantzen and Richard Blackwood amongst others.
“It’s not that celebrities have applied the normal way – although some have actually, now!” reveals Sayers. “And we’re getting relatives of famous people as well as famous people that are like ‘Please just hook me up with someone that I’m going to get on with!’
“Matching the celebs is really tricky and fun – they go through exactly the same process as everyone else we do it in the same way. You forensically interview the celebrity in the same way – ask them about their preferences, their previous relationships. It’s so interesting – and so juicy!”
First Dates airs Mondays at 10pm on Channel 4