Blind Date 2017: is dating TV still innocent enough?


Blind Date is coming back this weekend. So much has changed since the 1980s, both on TV and in society itself, that what returns to our screens may not be a straight-forward, fully-intact teleport of the format, but rather a mutant mish-mash: a half-fly Jeff Goldblum of a show just begging to be put out of its misery. The truth of this inevitable transformation can be seen in the steps already taken up the light-entertainment evolutionary ladder, most notably in the DNA of ITV’s long-running post-Blind Date offering, Take Me Out

Ah, nostalgia. When I think back to the Saturday nights I spent as a boy on the cusp of my teenage years, I can almost smell the heady scent of my mother’s perfume as she readies herself for a night out with my step-dad and a gaggle of other couples. That memory, that association, is never complete without Cilla Black – the nation’s favourite surrogate aunty, always resplendent in a series of shoulder-padded blazers, smiling down on my childhood like a ghostly Yoda at the end of Return of the Jedi. 

As my mother’s hair-dryer voomed into life in the kitchen, I was to be found in the living room watching Cilla on Blind Date, contorting myself on the couch (emphatically not a euphemism), often upside down, a combination of ever-stretching limbs and rising hormones making it impossible for me to sit properly and at peace for any significant length of time. Just before my mother left our house to enjoy a lorra lorra laughs with her friends she always came into the sitting room to give me a quick reminder of her maternal affection: a peck on the cheek.

That’s rather apposite, because Blind Date was undoubtedly the light entertainment equivalent of a peck on the cheek: nice, wholesome, earnest, comforting, and always leaving a faint but pleasant impression.

Each week on the show, three grinning imbeciles were asked fluffy and meaningless questions by a contestant who was perched behind a partition, in reply to which said imbeciles recited a series of quips so cheesy they could be garnished and served as starters in a French gastro pub. The female contestants would always deliver their quips with a saucy giggle and a Timotei-style flick of the head, while the men would deliver theirs in a spirit of such oily slickness that Greenpeace would eventually have to be called in. 

Here’s a little reminder of a typical Blind Date exchange: 

FEMALE HOT SEAT CONTESTANT: “Contestant 3: If you were a cloud… what kind of cloud would you be?”

MALE CONTESTANT NO 3: “Well, my friends would definitely tell you that I’m a very… cirrus person. In fact, I’m very interested in the weather.  In ‘weather’ or not you’re going to choose me, of course. Because if you do… I’ll take you to Cloud 9.”

At this point the audience would woop and ahhhh so loudly that time would cave in on itself, and Cilla would link hands and dance on stage with a chorus-line of dinosaurs and Mongol warriors. Once in a while, a handful of audience members would smile so enthusiastically that they actually exploded. Every few minutes a swirling vortex would appear in the air next to Cilla, and she’d shove her hand into it, grabbing out handfuls of Scouse banter and showering it over the audience like confetti. The disembodied voice of God – who in those days operated under the pseudonym of Graham – would occasionally boom out its approval, doubtless becoming increasingly nostalgic for the Old Testament days of wine, locusts and genocide (Incidentally, ‘Wine, Locusts and Genocide’ is also the title of Mel Gibson’s upcoming autobiography).

Once the three had been whittled down to one, the partition went back and the two contestants – chooser and chosen – locked eyes for the first time. At this point the chooser usually tried – and failed – to disguise a powerful wave of disgust and regret, spending the next few minutes smiling like a chimp being held at gunpoint. The couple would return the following week to recount a holiday filled with such existential angst and dread that it was almost a Jean-Paul Satre novel. “I think we’ll stay friends,” one of them would say, “but, you know, the sort of friends who don’t see or talk to each other ever again.”

The whole concept and execution of the show felt harmless and innocent despite the odd stutter-step, like the show’s American cousin The Dating Game unwittingly fielding one of the most prolific serial killers in US history, Rodney Alcala, as a contestant. 

HOT SEAT CONTESTANT: “Contestant 3: If you were a cloud… what kind of cloud would you be?”

SERIAL KILLER NO 3: “A cloud who enjoys murdering people. NEXT QUESTION!”    

If Blind Date was a peck on the cheek, then Take Me Out – its flashier, noisier, nastier offspring – is a full-blown tongue down the throat, complete with unwelcome groping. During Cilla’s reign as Queen of Saturday night light entertainment she managed to capture the essence of that bygone, buttoned-down Britain of saucy postcards and bus-trips to Blackpool. Take Me Out, with its shrieking cavalcade of bouncing boobs and barely decipherable neck tattoos, offers instead the promise of a lorra, lorra chlamydia, and a quick reminder from our God of why we don’t deserve to endure as a species.

Imagine that the stock exchange traded exclusively in the concepts of self-esteem and dignity, and that its traders were all angry monkeys on heat. You’ve just imagined Take Me Out

The game begins thusly. Thirty immaculately-coiffed nightclub banshees stand behind specially designed ‘sex lecterns’, passing judgement on a single male who descends into the studio on a small platform known as ‘The Love Lift’ (which I’m certain must be street slang for ‘Viagra’).

The man begins the game by ‘dancing’ for the ladies’ delectation. There’s a certain noble grace when peacocks engage in this sort of ritualistic mating behaviour, but when we men do it we tend to resemble a drunk uncle at a wedding.

This introductory dance marks the first point at which the assembled ladies can thump the buzzer on their podium to turn off their light and remove themselves from the ensuing sexual negotiations. The buzzer makes a horrible, heart-breaking sound, which evokes a dying robot, a comically wilting erection in a Carry On film, or Piers Morgan climaxing. 

The man’s aim is to convince the ladies – through the sheer force of his poise and charm – to keep their lights on for the duration of the game. One of three things will happen, depending upon the number of lights still in play at any given time: he will be rejected by all of the women; he will be chosen by one of the women, or, at the very end of the game, he will get the chance to choose between two or more women. If he’s chooser or chosen, then he wins, and gets to go on holiday to the Isle of Fernando (the real location was too embarrassed to use its real name) with a woman who will ultimately grow to loathe him in less time than it takes Jack Bauer to save the president from a terrorist attack.   

Sometimes a male contestant will dance off the love lift looking like a half-melted Claymation character, wearing a bowtie and braces, and giving off the unmistakable reek of a man who’s lived in his mother’s basement for three decades. All thirty women will buzz him out long before the horrifying disco moves have ceased. He’ll then be banished from the studio, stopping only to turn and wave pathetically at the women who have spurned him, as the mournful words of Celine Dion haunt the air around him. The only thing that could be more damaging to his self-esteem at this point would be if the women decided to forgo the buzzer in favour of chanting ‘YOU SEXUALLY DISGUST ME! YOU SEXUALLY DISGUST ME!’ at him until he fell to the floor, weeping himself into a tight ball. We can only think ourselves lucky that Rodney Alcala never got the chance to appear on the American version of Take Me Out.

Still, we can’t feel too much sympathy for the male contestants. The application process for Take Me Out isn’t a cross between jury duty and an all-sexual Hunger Games. These men – like those who appear on The Jeremy Kyle Show to flunk their lie detector tests in a flurry of toothlessness and swearing, or those who appear on Embarrassing Bodies brandishing an alarmingly green penis – actually volunteer to flagellate themselves in this way, for the wicked amusement of unseen millions.

There’s a certain schadenfreude in watching men being made to feel, for even a short fraction of time, how most women have been made to feel for the past 60,000 years at the hands of men, but it’s probably wrong to extrapolate the idea that Take Me Out is somehow Germaine Greer’s favourite TV show.

Striding in Cilla’s place at the helm of this pheromonal Armageddon is Paddy McGuinness, a catchphrase-spouting, pathologically winsome creature who was surely created in a special lad-boratory somewhere on the outskirts of Wigan by splicing together the DNA of a Butlins redcoat and the entire canon of Nuts Magazine. He’s basically a living, breathing Club 18-30 holiday. Even his name is redolent of an Irish theme bar in Magaluf. Paddy’s hosting duties include trading in entendres so singularly explicit that they’re basically line-readings from 1980s porn films, and teasing banter from the lairy ladies around the subject of their approval or disapproval of the plucky bachelor. 

“Ethel, love, you’ve left your light on. You liking this fella?”

“Ay oop, Paddy, I tell thee, ah wouldn’t mind ‘im rakin’ about in ma lady garden!” (Ethel proceeds to snort like a dying walrus) 

Paddy’s most famous catchphrase is ‘No likey? No lighty!’, which is almost Shakespearian in its poetic succinctness. His other catchphrase is never exactly the same twice – like a beautiful snowflake – but always follows the same structural template: ‘Let the ____, see the _____’. For example: ‘Let the foxes, see the hound’, ‘Let the honeys, see the bee’, ‘Let the reproductive organ, see its corresponding reproductive organ’ and ‘Let the host, see the pay-packet.’ I’ll never forget the time when Paddy McGuiness opened the show with ‘Let he who is without sin, see the first stone’ and then proceeded to ritually murder all of the contestants.

There is always one woman who’s lingered on the thirty-strong panel for so long that she’s more of a resident than a contestant. Invariably she’s stout, possesses a strong regional accent, and lists her hobbies, friends, and ambitions as cats. “Ooooh, a luv cats, me, they’re just like little people, aren’t they? I like t’dress them oop in fayree lights!” Wilfully describing herself as ‘a bit bonkers’ or ‘a real nutter’, she’s the sort of person who would inspire even Gandhi to repeatedly thwack himself in the skull with a claw hammer.

The next round, if the men are ‘lucky’ enough to progress that far, is the video round. Footage from the contestant’s life – of his family and friends, hobbies and job – plays on a giant screen behind the assembled horde. The segment runs like a cross between the Best-Bits montage from Big Brother, and the two-minutes-hate, also from Big Brother. Thankfully, evidence of excessive narcissism on the part of the male contestant is almost always punished by a Mexican-wave of button-jamming (some narcissism is a pre-requisite); depressingly, evidence of kindness and altruism appears to be punished just as severely.

“I’ve been Gerry’s best mate since we were kids, and in that time he’s cared for his terminally ill grandmother through to her agonising end, brought a crow back to life, rescued eighty-five puppies from a wheat-thresher, pardoned Somalia’s debt, cured malaria, and donated most of his organs to dying children.”

VOOM. VOOM. VOOM. VOOM. VOOM.       

Take it away, Celine… 

“ALL. BYYYYY. MA… SE-HE-HELLLLLFFFFFF….”

The final round gives the man a chance to show off his greatest talent: sometimes that’s flexing his muscles; sometimes that’s playing the guitar; sometimes that’s dressing up as a clown and juggling bird skulls. Most of the time the winning male is an identikit specimen constructed from shards of GQ magazine, MTV, The X-Factor and every youth-oriented reality TV show ever made: a little pinch of urban fashion here; a liberal dash of ridiculous boy-band haircut there; a soupcon of abs; enough moisturiser to drown a herd of elephants; and the conversational skills of Donald Trump struggling to make himself heard above the sounds of a La Quinceanera party.

If victorious, the man can rejoice in the glory of science, having been handed robust quantitative evidence to suggest that at least one woman out of every thirty probably won’t react with blood-curdling horror at the thought of sleeping with him.

Of course, the couple doesn’t go on a traditional romantic holiday. They go on holiday with two or three other winning couples from the show, spending a few days holed up in the same house together, scrutinised day and night by a multitude of cameras, all for the benefit of Take Me Out‘s hellish companion show, which is a cross between Paranormal Activity and Geordie Shore. At this point any scant notions of romance that may inexplicably be held by viewers at home are very quickly tied to the stake and burnt, as an orgy of drinking, fighting and partner-swapping gets underway.

But here’s the twist. I bloody love it. I love it all: the empty, preening shallowness; the gaudy clamouring for attention; the sexually amoral antics of those who are, on the whole, more physically attractive than I am, or ever was. While I may gorge myself on the novels of Siri Hustvedt, seek out worthy, ponderous TV dramas, and have long conversations with people about particularly illuminating science documentaries, there’s no denying that, at root and at heart, I’m still a 15-year-old boy:  a lascivious, tittering, car-crash-loving, love-to-hate-things, venal wretch of a man. I’m a poor candidate to be the next Mary Whitehouse, as much as my writing may sometimes suggest it. If anything, I’m just another in a long-line of vengeful, bitter old bastards, trapped in a withering body rapidly decelerating to slush, who’s deeply, furiously jealous of youth.   

So, Blind Date 2017, I’m hopelessly intrigued to see how you’re going to meet the expectations of a young, Generation-Z audience with short attention spans and high tolerances for sex and shamelessness (while also satisfying the demographic of people like me, who loudly decry these kinds of shows as ‘the end of western civilisation’ or ‘a load of old bollocks’, but secretly yearn for the promise of a giddy evening spent shouting at the television in mock-disgust).    

What will the new show look like? Will it force its contestants to have painfully awkward sex live in the studio, as Paul O’Grady’s dog looks on balefully. Will there be a row of glory holes, but one of them is electrified, in a round they’ll probably end up calling ‘Lucky Dick’? Will a naked Keith Chegwin be introduced as a wild card?  Will each show end with a Battle Royale-style fight to the death? I don’t know.

I really don’t.

But I do know this:

I’ll be watching.  

Blind Date starts on Saturday the 17th of June at 7pm on Channel 5.



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