Beneath its obnoxious title, 'The Undateables' has a heart


TV REVIEW:AS AN EXAMPLE of a title that appears to be created just to get your back up – or attract publicity – The Undateables (Channel 4, Tuesday) is hard to beat. The new series follows people with disabilities, either intellectual or physical, as they try, with the help of a dating agency, to “find love”.

Billboards in London publicising the series featured half a dozen of the participants, some clearly disabled, and the title in large letters, suggesting a definitive labelling: that these people were “undateable”. Inevitably, it was as controversial as it was obnoxious. The series is neither of those things. As the participants went on first dates, some disastrous, some lovely – the usual: everyone has been there – the title became more about reflecting common notions, challenging those perceptions and revealing an aspect of living with disability rarely openly talked about or maybe even acknowledged.

“In the world of matchmaking, people with disabilities are a hard sell,” went the voiceover, although, curiously, the dating agency, when interviewing the people for their profiles, never asked about their disability, which was strange, and there was no explanation about why half the matches were with people who themselves had a disability.

The first episode featured 37-year-old Richard, who has Asperger’s syndrome. His last and only date was 20 years ago. The agency arranged two dates, one with a woman with a mild intellectual disability – Richard kept eating off her plate: it ended abruptly – the other with a French woman who was keen for a second date, but he wasn’t.

Lucy, a trainee teacher and acrobat, has a genetic condition that has left her 3ft tall and a wheelchair user. She was paired for her first-ever date not with a 6ft policeman, as was her fantasy, but with a wheelchair-using man with spina bifida. Their trip to Blackpool wasn’t a success. Next time, she told her parents, who had waited up to find out how it went, she’d prefer someone who didn’t have a disability, “because they’d be livelier”.

The match that worked was between Luke, a 23-year-old stand-up comedian with a form of Tourette’s that makes him shout obscenities, and Lucy, a cheerful, accepting 21-year-old who hadn’t met anyone with the condition before and was mildly disappointed on the first date because “he didn’t called me a slag”.

It was sensitively filmed – well, as sensitively as any of these types of programme are – focusing on the date, not the disability. The only problem was the title.

THE OPENING SCENES of Unsettled: From Tinker to Traveller (RTÉ1, Monday) had a dispiriting air of familiarity, and if anyone switched off then, they missed an intriguing, engaging documentary. Two Californian anthropologists, George and Sharon Gmelch, back in Ireland to find the Travellers they first photographically documented 40 years ago, arrived at the Connors’ house in the middle of wedding preparations – and, yes, it was a big fat gypsy wedding, complete with enormous dresses, a clutch of preteens in belly tops and a horse-drawn princess carriage.

Just as you thought “here we go again” the Gmelches turned their focus from the bride and on to her granny, who they lived alongside for a year, they in a traditional gypsy barrel-top wagon, she in a corrugated metal shack in a Travellers’ encampment in Dublin.

They showed their photos and talked about what had become of the people in them, the beautiful black-and-white shots revealing what life was like on site: cooking on campfires, children running free, lads on horses, and signs everywhere of dreadful poverty. In a scene that was repeated throughout the film as the Gmelches travelled around, tracking down the people in the pictures, there were reminiscences but not much questioning from the academics, whose style is to observe and listen rather than speak.

George, sitting in a hotel room at the end of the trip, said the thing that astonished him most was the regularly voiced nostalgia for the old days. “That’s common for old-timers, but to have so many young people say how much better life must have been?” he wondered, clearly puzzled. Most of the children they photographed are now parents themselves, materially significantly better off, living in houses. “We’ve lost our culture,” the Gmelches heard time and again, but what didn’t square up for the anthropologists was that, “after two generations in a house, I would have said no one would have identified themselves as Travellers”.

BY THE END of next week we’ll have seen enough about Titanic to last us another 100 years, but Muintir Mhaigh Eo ar an Titanic (TG4, Friday), a low-budget docudrama, deserves a mention for finding a different angle, or at least one that’s not so well known. Gillian Marsh’s docudrama told simply and movingly the story of 14 young people who left the tiny village of Lahardane, in Co Mayo, to emigrate to the United States on Titanic. Only three survived to make it to New York, and a Titanic historian talked of the loss as being the biggest one suffered by a single party in the tragedy. The three survivors, all young women, made lives for themselves in the US; their grandchildren there and distant relatives in Co Mayo talked about the impact of the tragedy; how the three women didn’t speak about it but how it was a shadow in their lives. A good story, well told.

THE CHANGES ANNOUNCED to RTÉ’s current-affairs output and personnel on Tuesday should have produced a good, informed discussion on its rival station TV3 and on that station’s flagship current-affairs programme, Tonight with Vincent Browne. You’d think, anyway. But while the panel of experienced journalists, including Helen Shaw, Nóirín Hegarty and Brendan O’Brien, was strong and tried to put a coherent shape on the debate, their voices were lost as Vincent Browne and their fellow panellist Ger Colleran hopped on their hobby horses – mostly scattergun anti-RTÉ sniping – and loudly trampled all over the debate.

Browne did, at least, unknowingly provide the only laugh in all the coverage of the sorry mess. RTÉ, he ranted, “has done appalling stuff on crime, exaggerating the phenomena of crime again and again, inferring that crime is on the rise”.

And this on TV3, the station that boasts Lawless Ireland, Ireland’s Missing Mums, Behind Bars, Ireland’s Crime Capitals and countless other scaremongering programmes thinly disguised as investigations. Less of the ill-informed pot-kettle stuff. It’s too serious for that.

Get stuck into . . .Saving the Titanic (RTÉ1, Monday), an oddly named though lavish-looking docudrama with David Wilmot, focusing on what happened in the engine and boiler rooms after the collision, and following nine central characters.