Ever since Cilla won our hearts with her matchmaking skills on Blind Date, we’ve loved the idea of watching couples fall for each other on TV. Now, with Netflix’s Love Is Blind the hot topic of water coolers everywhere and Channel 4’s Five Guys a Week recently unveiled, Jo Macfarlane looks back on some of the finest (and funniest) moments in dating-show history.
It was October 1991 and love was in the air. Entire families – almost one third of the UK population, in fact – had gathered in their living rooms for the most hotly anticipated TV event of the year.
But this wasn’t a World Cup final or a Royal wedding. Instead, what drew an audience of 17 million was the rather more ordinary nuptials of an office worker and an accountancy student who had met on the matchmaking show Blind Date.
This was essential cult viewing on a scale not seen since the wedding of Scott and Charlene (played by Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue, amid rumours of their own real-life romance) on Australian soap Neighbours three years earlier – and the nation was transfixed.
The programme’s veteran presenter and all-round fairy godmother, Cilla Black, finally had her excuse to wear ‘a new hat’ as she watched Alex Tatham and Sue Middleton walk down the aisle. ‘They say that marriages are made in heaven,’ Cilla told enraptured viewers, a tear glinting in her eye, ‘but this one was made on Blind Date.’ It was the fairytale ending that made a nation fall hopelessly in love with the highs – and crushing lows – of dating shows.
Blind Date dominated the 80s and 90s, with contestants including a 19-year-old Amanda Holden and TV presenter Jenni Falconer before they found fame. But who could forget the moment Cilla unmasked one female contestant, Nicola Gill, as an undercover journalist from Cosmopolitan magazine? It was savage – the nation was appalled – and the audience actually booed.
But it wasn’t all pantomime: Sue and Alex are, happily, still together after celebrating their silver wedding anniversary in 2016.
Our attraction to such shows has also never faltered – although the format has been tweaked along the way. The saucy, innuendo-laden innocence of Blind Date (and ‘our Graham with a quick reminder’) has today been swapped for full-frontal nudity in Naked Attraction, the cosmetically enhanced contestants of Love Island and the female gladiatorial arena of Take Me Out. But we are still, according to relationships experts, ‘in love with the idea of love’.
Take the newest show on the block, Netflix’s Love Is Blind, described by one critic as ‘Blind Date on steroids’. It borrows from the same basic premise that motivated Cilla – that looks aren’t everything – but moves it firmly into the modern age. Contestants date each other inside separate pods, and only get to set eyes on one another once their emotional connection is so strong (after a few days) they become engaged. They are whisked off to Cancun for a romantic break, meet the in-laws and, after just four weeks, walk down the aisle to reveal whether they will say ‘I do’.
Ignoring the main stumbling block – that every contestant is gorgeous – it has become the must-see binge-watch since the Love Island couples hung up their microscopic swimwear last month. Hot on its heels, too, is Five Guys a Week – Channel 4’s new offering – which sees women road-test five potential boyfriends by moving them all in for a week.
The way these shows have evolved over the years indicates something important about
the modern search for love, says dating and relationships coach Jo Barnett. ‘On Blind Date, you’d pick from a choice of three,’ she says. ‘With shows such as Love Island, you’re constantly being thrown more and more options, and being tested on your commitment in the face of increasing numbers of possibilities.
‘That reflects the dating world we now live in. Back when Blind Date was popular, you’d meet someone and go out with them. Now, it’s a far more disposable culture – if your date isn’t quite right, there are another 500 people on the app.
‘That actually means it’s harder to find a real connection with someone. That’s why we still love dating shows so much. We enjoy watching people fall in love, but we also think we can learn something. It gives us hope. It’s also pure escapist voyeurism – you’re being let into people’s innermost worlds, which we only have access to in these shows. Your relationship is where you’re at your most vulnerable, so we’re seeing people opening up and breaking down. It’s all very raw.’
At least Blind Date was entirely democratic. Men and women were given equal opportunity to choose their date from three possibilities behind a sliding screen. But in the 90s the balance shifted – in favour of women calling the shots.
Man O Man was a prime example, turning beauty pageants on their head. Hosted by Chris Tarrant, a string of hapless men were paraded in front of a tipsy female audience and rejected by being pushed into a pool by the show’s glamorous hostesses, who included Nell McAndrew. The audience knocked back the sangria, danced on tables and screeched ‘get them off’ at the hunks in trunks who attempted to impress. Even Tarrant described it as ‘the hen party from hell’.
But our addiction for raucous dating shows held strong, and when ITV’s Take Me Out came along in 2010, the nation was once again transfixed. It was hosted for 11 seasons by Paddy McGuinness – until ITV called time on the programme earlier this year. Every episode,
a succession of bachelors were dispatched in a ‘love lift’ to appear before 30 single ladies (‘the death knell for feminism’, one critic noted).
The men aimed to impress by revealing their talents in a series of tasks, while the women demonstrated their interest by keeping a light in front of them switched on or off – coining the show’s catchphrase, ‘no likey, no lighty’.
It has provided many water-cooler moments. In one episode, Brighton musician Whyte Richardson’s unusual long-haired look caused 25 out of the 30 girls to turn off their lights instantly; in another, contestant Looci Sohma recognised the male suitor as her ex-boyfriend Nick Knight.
The eventual dates, on the Isle of Fernando’s (it’s actually Tenerife) – and the debrief after they returned – were often the show’s highlight.
Other shows have tested the dating format by going for a different approach. Beauty and the Geek and The Undateables pushed the notion that beauty remains in the eye of the beholder. The latter was branded ‘offensive and exploitative’ but there is a touching intimacy about the stories that play out – the 2015 wedding of Brent Zillwood, who has Tourette’s Syndrome, and Challis Orme, and the baby boy born to Carolyne, who is paralysed from the waist down, and Dean.
First Dates also uses fly-on-the-wall techniques to show burgeoning relationships with a new kind of frankness and intimacy. Here there’s no selection process – no ‘swiping left’ – since the production team do the matchmaking. What results is a warm and often surprising show, in which couples get to know each other in a more considered way.
The show’s executive producer, Nicola Lloyd, explains: ‘As a viewer, there’s no point investing in this series if you don’t believe these people have a chance of finding love. That’s why it’s so addictive. We’d never put anyone together for a car-crash moment.’
Not every show feels the same. Some have gone directly for controversy as the selling point. Naked Attraction titillates audiences by offering the most superficial take on a dating programme – choosing a partner based on physical attraction alone. Contestants stand naked in an opaque glass box, and reveal chunks of flesh and genitalia as the show progresses. It caused outrage and made headlines around the world. Presenter Anna Richardson deflected controversy by telling critics to ‘get a life’ and comparing the show to a TV version of Tinder.
‘People are getting hysterical about objectification and yet we all go through our daily lives looking at people and making judgments,’ she said. ‘It is ludicrous to assume we don’t sit in judgment on everyone else. We do it every day.’
Love Island is perhaps little different, with (only marginally) more left to the imagination. Scantily clad men and women ‘couple up’ with partners in a Majorcan villa, sharing beds and swapping dates until finding their perfect match.
It has even spawned its own lexicon: spurned contestants feel ‘mugged off’, while amorous partners have their ‘heads turned’ by new arrivals who they’re desperate to ‘crack on’ with.
There was scandal, too, when 2016 contestant Zara Holland was stripped of her title as Miss Great Britain after she enjoyed a steamy romp with Alex Bowen. Sometimes there was genuine love: Jon Clark proposed to Hannah Elizabeth in 2015 (although they split shortly after the show ended), while Luke Trotman turned Disney prince and set up a fairytale treasure hunt to persuade Siânnise Fudge to become his girlfriend during the last season (answer: yes).
But more often, according to former contestant Montana Brown, couples feel under pressure to stay together outside the villa to make more money. Certainly the friendships forged are often stronger and longer-lasting than the romantic pairings.
But despite the lack of lasting success stories, our love affair with dating shows is unlikely to fizzle out soon. Anything less would leave us heartbroken.
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Five times dating shows worked
1. Sue Middleton and Alex Tatham, Blind Date
Alex was working part-time as a Tarzan-O-Gram when he picked ‘Sue, contestant two, from the West Midlands’ in 1988. Theirs was the first dating show wedding in 1991 and now – still married with two children – they consider the late Cilla Black as their ‘fairy godmother’.
2. Beckie Finch and Adam Ryan, Take Me Out
Adam initially chose another girl when he appeared on the show in 2016 – rejecting Beckie by turning off her light, a moment she described as ‘heartbreaking’. But the couple are now married with a child after Adam tracked her down on Facebook.
3. Olivia Buckland and Alex Bowen, Love Island
Alex cheated on Olivia during the show in 2016, but they survived to come second and became engaged months later. After marrying in September 2018, the couple navigated their lives as newlyweds in TLC’s Olivia & Alex: Happily Ever After.
4. Cara De La Hoyde and Nathan Massey, Love Island
As the only winning couple of the show to have stayed together, Nathan brought Cara back to the villa where they met in 2016 to pop the question before tying the knot last summer. They share a two-year-old son named Freddie and recently announced that they are expecting their second child.
5. Gemma Warren and James North, Naked Attraction
For Gemma and James, being completely naked – rather than in revealing swimwear – became their recipe for romance. The couple later revealed they had sex just hours after appearing on the show in 2017, and while they are yet to marry, they still look very much in love in their recent holiday snaps.