My sister and I used to play Blind Date as children. And yes, I know, before you point it out just how weird that sounds. To us it was just part of emulating the things we saw on TV on a Saturday night – our favourite being “Gladiators”, wilfully disregarding the advice to not recreate anything we saw at home by balancing on the coffee table and pummelling each other with pillows in an attempt to be Duel champion.
But on our Blind Date nights, we weren’t particularly interested in pretending to be the contestants who would answer increasingly bizarre questions with carefully scripted answers. Oh, no. For us it was all about the moment the screen would be pulled back to reveal the dater to the date-e of their dreams. We would take great pleasure in recreating the looks of disappointment on contestants’ faces as they realised that the date-e that the studio audience had coerced them into choosing was hardly the smooth operator their cheeky answers had suggested. But still, there was a foreign holiday up for grabs. You could happily ignore each other whilst reclining on a sun lounger in the Canary Islands, sipping a cocktail with a mini umbrella - until it was time to head back to Blind Date HQ, that is, for a cheery-but-insinuating grilling from Cilla about whether or not you had found true love amongst the palm trees and the Cosmopolitans. Wunderbar!
Looking back on the show, all seems rather innocuous: the shimmery purple set, Cilla’s trademark curtsey to the camera, our Graham’s dulcet voiceover – if you ignore the implications of having to go on holiday with a perfect stranger whilst a nation, eating their Saturday night takeaways, wills you to “get it on.” This was the nineties; a decade that embraced the game show like no other. Even the seventies, though it could boast the birth of The Generation Game, didn’t have Big Break. It wouldn’t be until ’93 that viewers would be treated to Dale’s Supermarket Sweep. Even though Blind Date had been on the air since ’85 this was still quite late in the world of the dating game show format – The Dating Game had been running in the States since the sixties. And it didn’t take long for us Brits to embrace the genre.
Nowadays, although an attempted resuscitation of Blind Date failed, there are other shows following the 'boy(or girl) meets boy(or girl) and judges boy(or girl) to be deemed acceptable to take on an all-expenses paid trip to somewhere or other' (catchy, huh?) In the case of Sky’s Love Machine, a holiday is still up for grabs – so long as you’re willing to go through the ordeal of being judged in front of a live studio audience while Chris Moyles (of former Radio 1 complaining-about-being-paid-his-enormous-salary-rant fame) and Stacey Soloman (interchangeable bubbly blonde former X Factor contestant) make innuendos, wiggle their eyebrows at camera and encourage the catty comments from contestants and catcalls from the audience.
It’s pretty obvious from the format that this is all about looks; they're making no pretensions here. Potential dates are cast aside for such reasons as “appearing too camp” or simply being “ginge”. There’s even a section on the Love Machine website that gives women tips on how to dress like the contestants, so they too can aim to appear in an illuminated Mysteron ring whilst a stranger rips them to shreds on national TV. Come on ladies, this is the stuff of Jane Austen’s dreams! Instead of their eyes meeting across the room at a public assembly, Miss Elizabeth Bennett could have been deemed “tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me” by Darcy as she stood in a giant gun barrel of temptation, ready to be taken on or taken down on the basis of physical looks alone. This is the stuff of romance. This is aspirational TV at its ugliest.
I suppose that in the interests of providing an alternative, Sky Living surpassed itself when coming up with a concept for a dating show that challenges people to ask themselves just how important looks actually are in finding another person attractive. Enter the most bizarre dating show of our age: Dating in the Dark. And despite its apparently honourable - if strange - premise, something about it has really got my goat.
How important are looks for attraction? Well, pretty important, is the sensible answer. But Dating in the Dark isn’t interested in what’s sensible. This is the dating show that forces a group of guys and girls into a pitch black room in order to find a soulmate. I’m sure most tweens have played something similar involving airing cupboards and a friend standing outside timing how long you have got left before coming out again. And just like this game - where you often hope to cop off with the boy of your dreams but end up being shut up with the boy who smells enticingly of Dairylea Lunchables - Dating in the Dark predictably descends into a similar pattern. Although the friend outside the cupboard has been replaced with Sarah Harding.
The tween approach to dating continues when couples are “scientifically” matched according to their compatible traits such as intellect, vanity and humour. At no point is this scientific process explained, and so it’s really rather hard to see how it can be any different to any number of compatibility tests you might read in Cosmo Girl. But hey, I’m sure these are based on science-facts! Potential matches are then encouraged to invite each other to sit in a dark room for a date that often has an imaginative subtext (cake decorating in the dark, anyone?) but really is just an excuse for contestants to come up with excuses to feel each other up. Bafta-award winning stuff, I know.
And then comes the snogging; the copping off. Because it’s this, ladies and gentleman, that viewers of Dating in the Dark are really waiting to see. It’s the money shot that Dating in the Dark delivers with more success than any of its dating game shows counterparts. Because - and I don’t know if you know this but it is very obviously science-fact - that a man and a woman can’t be alone in a darkened room together for more than ten minutes before smooching takes place. They’re looking for love, after all. This is what they want to happen. It may be ever so slightly voyeuristic and has more than a whiff of coercion about it, but this is the 21st century we're talking about.
Whether or not the contestants on these shows are entirely genuine is another discussion entirely. The reality game show genre has now mutated beyond all recognition so it is more than possible that woman you saw on Come Dine With Me was also on The Great British Bake Off. And repeat contestants can’t seem to keep away from the The X-Factor. I suppose if you wanted you could make a career out of appearing on these sorts of programmes, just on the off chance that someone might stop you in Somerfield one day and ask “Hey. Weren’t you the one on Coach Trip who pushed Brendon off a unicycle in Munich?”
But I digress.
It is with depressing regularity that the couples who were scientifically compatible find horrible ways to reject each other once the lights are on. But it’s not entirely ruthless. To spare the blushes of some contestants, the reveal takes place in such a way that only one half of the couple is illuminated at a time, leaving the nervous and sweaty-looking other contestant oblivious to the grimaces of the person who is judging them in the dark. What they are treated to, however, is the opportunity to watch as the person who feels they’re clearly not attractive enough walk away - rejecting everything they may have learnt about the person in the dark because of eyebrows that are too bushy, or arms that are too wibbly. There's something depressing about this as the apotheosis of our consumer-driven world, where such judgment and ritual humiliation has become so commonplace that it now definitely qualifies as light entertainment. Just like the ever popular and infamous side-bar of shame on the Daily Fail’s webpage we, the audience, are invited in turn to judge those in the spotlight too.
I get why people who watch romantic comedies. I do. There is a time and place for even the most silly, frothy nonsense. I can still be a feminist and enjoy The Notebook because I know there’s a difference between fact and fiction. I know that as nice as it would be for Ryan Gosling to build me my dream house, I’m not going to wait around pining until it happen because I’m a woman who knows how to get shit done. And hey, if I did end up building my own house I could make it exactly how I wanted it - without any reinforced patriarchal ideas of what my ideal house should be. And I would build it away from all those swans and geese because they can be fucking vicious and everything would get covered in shit.
But what I don’t get is the masochistic joy that can be had from watching ‘real’ people flirt, snog and viciously disregard other vacuous individuals on the basis of what they look like. This is any club in any city anywhere in the UK on a Friday or Saturday night. These programmes promote ideas about relationships between men and women that seemed kitsch in Blind Date; now they seem positively Neanderthal. And hey, so what if you’re queer? Or bi? Or trans? There’s nothing for you here. So what if you’re too short, too tall, too skinny, too fat, too blonde, too brunette, too dumb, too clever? Do you deserve to be rejected publicly for the entertainment of the masses, having been talked into this train wreck of a programme?
Woe betide anyone who doesn’t conform to an extremely specific and narrow stereotype that gets more and more vicious as time goes on; you’ll be on the first train to Dumpsville. I guess I'll see you there. And I'm taking Cilla with me.