What’s it like to be on Channel Four’s #FirstDates programme?

Almost five years ago, my wife of 35 years left me and, after some time, my mind turned to online dating. I dated quite a number of women but did not manage to establish a lasting relationship.

My young friend Spence told me about a programme on Channel Four television called “First Dates”. I had never heard of it , but I checked it out and enjoyed it. When my online dating did not work, he suggested that I apply to “First Dates”.

Two things appealed to me about the programme.

First, it was clear that they do a lot of research on applicants selected for the programme and make a genuine effort to match people who are likely to get along. Second, participants represent diverse groups in terms of age, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability.

So I filled in an online application – and waited.

The programme is produced for the broadcaster Channel Four by a largely female-led company called Twenty Twenty Productions. In mid January 2020, I was telephoned by Tim from the company. We chatted for 30 minutes and he liked my story. Two days later, I did a Skype interview with Tim which he recorded for his colleagues. We talked for 45 minutes and he seemed to like how I came across.

Two weeks later, I was called to a central London studio to film the pre-programme interview which viewers see. The woman interviewed before me was clearly shorter than me and so, as I first sat in the interview chair, I hit my head on the overhead microphone. For some reason, this odd incident was included in the broadcast version of the interview.

Amazingly – given that only a few minutes were used in the end – the filming lasted a good hour and a half. I had a very skilled interviewer called George who left silences to be filled and asked probing questions. The programme makers want to know where participants are coming from and what they would like in a relationship. The task now was to find my “perfect match”.

All previous series of “First Dates” have been filmed in the Paternoster Chop House (then) opposite St Paul’s Cathedral. Since I live in central London, I know the area well. However, the dating venue has now switched to a restaurant called The Refinery in the Spinningfields part of central Manchester. As it happens, I am from Manchester, although I left it when I graduated.

The meal with my date was filmed at the beginning of March 2020. Just two days before, the first coronavirus death had occurred in Britain and – although we did not know it at the time – just two weeks later the nation would go into its first lockdown. So there were no covid restrictions for the exercise. I was merely asked to compete a declaration that I had no covid symptoms and had not recently travelled aboard.

Before participants enter the restaurant, they have to be wired up. So a power pack was fitted into the small of my back and a microphone was located in hidden position.

I was first into the restaurant before my date. I was greeted warmly by Fred on the door and questioned gently by Merlin on the bar. Then my date Jean arrived looking glamorous but feeling a bit nervous. We were soon ushered to our table for a late lunch. Although all the cameras are small and unobtrusive, I spotted them immediately, especially the ones at eye level in the wall by our side. Now, whenever I watch the programme, I can often see those cameras. The cameras are everywhere – even in the washrooms – but participants forget that they are there.

Shortly after we sat down at our table, there was a minor technical problem. The patterning on my jacket was making the pictures look fuzzy, so I was asked to take off the jacket and put it over the back of my chair. Jean was a very congenial companion for lunch and all was going well. Then she told me that she’d knitted me a gift and handed over a package. When I opened it and found a willy warmer, I knew immediately that we’d now lost the narrative. The guys filming the encounter loved this turn of events.

First, our waitress CiCi came over to see my gift. Then Fred wanted a look. When we had our post-meal interviews, again they wanted to talk about the willy warmer. As we were filmed leaving the restaurant and walking to a taxi, they shot the scene three times and three times urged us to mention the willy warmer. We thought that the knitting had been aired enough and refused. But, when the programme was broadcast, the end piece of text announced that “we’re pleased to reveal his willy warmer fits like a glove”. I guess that’s entertainment, folks.

Jean and I had got along well and I was keen to meet with her off-camera, so that evening I went round to her hotel for a drink and a chat. We thought that we might see each other again but, on reflection, we both felt that we really didn’t have enough in common. However, we became Facebook friends and have stayed in touch.

Then we waited …

Of course, as soon as lockdown came along, the world changed and it took many months before TwentyTwenty could film new matches and complete a new series. But Channel Four liked our segment and it was decided to include it in the 2021 Valentine special edition of the programme. This meant that the company wanted another interview with me to tailor the material to the Valentine theme.

I had to wear the same clothes as for my first filmed interview almost a year ago (I was sent a picture showing what I wore at the time) and I had to look as I did then (so I had to remove a beard that I’d grown in what was now our third national lockdown). My interviewer was Jenny and we recorded about 30 minutes of further material, of which of course only a couple of minutes was actually used.

At the time of the actual meal, the sense of ‘star for a day’ was accentuated by the taking of post-lunch promotional photographs. This seemed a bit ‘over the top’ but, on the week that the programme went out, the “TV Times” featured photos of Jean and me to highlight the broadcast.

All the promotional material for the Valentine episode – and a voiceover introducing me on the programme itself – described me as a “retired politician”. In fact, only the first six years of my professional life were in politics and I never held elective office. Most of my career was spent as a nation trade union official – but I suppose that didn’t sound so exciting.

Obviously, once the programme went out, I was intrigued to see how all the extensive filmed material was cut and stitched together. Understandably, so little of the material is actually used, but I think that the team do a really good job to produce stories that are moving and entertaining and honest. So I found the process fascinating and fun.

The story has a happy ending. People seem to like the programme. And, although Jean and I did not see each other again, I went back to online dating and I’ve now found someone special.

Footnote: If you haven’t seen the programme and would like to do so, you can see the full episode (series 16, episode 4) by signing up to All4 or you can find a clip on YouTube (search for: First Dates + Roger).


8 Comments

  • Adrian Askew

    A fascinating insight Roger. Very sorry to hear about the reason for your single status but pleased that you have found happiness at the end of it all. By the way, I have had forty years of happiness with a Jean (and she’s a Mancunian). Best wishes for the future

  • Chris Darlington

    You came across very well. The Daily Star clearly agrees and has assigned you the moniker “Silver Fox”

  • Guusje

    Hi Roger,
    It’s been a while.☺️
    Thank you for your Thought For The Week and your link to this post.
    Although we are not able to receive Channel Four in the Netherlands, I managed (thanks to a technical genius) to watch the program. It certainly was entertaining, wasn’t it? Just in time, because a was nog needed yet.
    I am happy for you that you found your Valentine, although it was nog through First Dates.
    Much happiness for the future and I hope you Will be able to visit your 78th country soon.

  • Guusje

    The emojis did n’t work. I meant a facemask was nog necessary yet.

  • Kevin McLaughlin

    Hi Roger

    I watched the programme, and you came across as the natural gentleman I remember from the many meetings we attended. I am pleased you have met someone, and wish you good health and happiness.

    Kind Regards

    Kevin

  • Roger Darlington

    Hi, Kevin.

    Many thanks.

    I hope that you’re keeping well.

  • Emma

    Hi Roger, I am the technical genius (ie her daughter) Guusje was referring to in her post above. We watched your episode of First Dates tonight and really enjoyed it. Also, we were both surprised by your accent as we always thought of you as the quintessential Londoner 🙂

  • Roger Darlington

    Hi, Emma.

    I was brought up in Manchester and went to school and university there. I moved to London in 1971 so I’ve been here almost 50 years. I now live on the South Bank – which is as central as you can get – and I love this city!

 




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