First Dates Ireland: ‘You had to feel for cheery Bríain-Óg, his date was a no-show’
With cameras zooming in on every flirtation and following you to the toilet, why would anyone do it?
Awkward laughing, cold sweats, blind panic, earth-shattering nerves and bad jokes – who’d want to go on a first date? We all have to at one time or another, and while you may now be settled in cosy coupledom or embracing a date-free single life, the opportunity to play voyeur to some other unfortunates’ dating disasters is irresistible.
Yes, RTÉ’s First Dates is back, with more willing love-seekers heading for potential public humiliation in the hope of a free meal and the kind of immortality that can only be achieved through 15 minutes of close-ups as you chew some pappardelle.
Dating is a funny old thing, turning up to pubs and restaurants to spend a few hours with someone you barely know. We go out of our way to avoid talking to strangers on buses or in shops, but add the exhilarating threat of romance and suddenly we’re leaning back in our chairs and are all ears, pretending this total random is the most fascinating person we’ve ever met. And what better way to take the edge of this weirdness than introduce an even crazier element – do it on TV.
The First Dates restaurant, with cameras zooming in on every clumsy flirtation and even following you to the toilet, may not be the most natural setting, all the common first-date heroics and horror-shows are present and correct.
Take jocular Susan (51), back in Ireland after decades in Toronto, finding her way as a nearly new lesbian and seemingly incapable of going five minutes without mentioning the fact her date, Anne, has recently turned 50.
Anne seemed to take it in her stride the first couple of hundred times, but the cameras may well have saved Susan from a bruised shin – at times, Anne looked seconds away from giving her a swift, if good-natured, boot under the table.
Some first dates suffer the ultimate humiliation of not happening at all. You had to feel for cheery Bríain Óg, who arrived rose in hand and polishing off his best puns – and I use “best” with my tongue firmly wedged in my cheek – only for his ladyfriend to be a no-show.
In real life, Bríain Óg would’ve spent a panicked 30 minutes checking his watch and firing off a couple of breezy “Are you on your way?” texts to his invisible date. But because this is TV, the news was broken by handsome maitre d’ Mateo with typical tact, before Bríain Óg handed his by now wilted bloom to the barman and was gently escorted out into the brutal night the same way he came in – alone.
Almost all flirting on a first date is terrible. You’re the equivalent of a standup comic at an open mic night, trying out your best moves, and getting instant feedback, usually in the form of frown lines, withering eye rolls or, in extreme cases, a sudden exit.
On the receiving end, you can either go with it and laugh at their blundering patter or sit in silent mortification praying for a hippo to fall out of the sky and crush you. But when there’s a camera trained on you, what are you supposed to do? Well, you have to think of the viewers. React react react.
Not that Ciaran seemed to be thinking of anything at all when, after what looked like ten cocktails too many, he told the gorgeous 23-year-old Bami that she seemed “much older”.
Tumbleweed drifted across the Gibson Hotel’s vista, moss grew up the walls, everyone turned to stone and began to crumble, while Bami’s face froze… until Ciaran clarified. He was trying to say she was sophisticated.
The poor guy had to take off to the toilet for a few harsh words with himself, while Bami reached for the phone to give her pals a breakdown of… well, how the whole thing was breaking down.
While there were no huge disasters in Thursday’s First Dates, you may well be wondering why anyone would want to put themselves through it. What’s the obsession with making our search for love public?
You might think it’s the next natural step in our role as micro-celebrities, having our lives play out on social media, which you could say is the acceptable face of exhibitionism.
It exists in a bubble where it’s totally fine to tell strangers about your breakfast, or your haircut, or share your pithy takes on world events with people who don’t even know what you look like.
On social media, however, we tend to gloss over our mistakes - it’s real life, but carefully curated to show us in a better light. First Dates may not do a hatchet job on its participants like other reality shows - it’s charmingly upbeat and sympathetically edited - there’s nowhere to hide if you’re someone who, well, let’s say, needs to work on their social skills a little more.
We all remember what it was like, or know only too well how it can go. They are all of us. We’re not voyeurs, we’re supporters cheering them on.
Perhaps the lovelorn diners in the First Dates restaurant think having the audience there with them will make their date behave better – as Ciaran himself said, after an hour telling Bami his favourite drink was Buckfast, “I was absolutely steaming so trying not to make a dick of myself”.
What would he have been like off-camera? Stripped to the waist and doing the macarena atop the table, perhaps.
But the real reason we want to date in the public glare isn’t the free steak, being set up with a stranger or even the chance of fame. No. It’s the hope that our mythical, marvellous soulmate will spot us on the TV, or in the glossy pages of a mag, and think, “Wow, they’re gorgeous, and they sound just like my kind of person – I simply have to meet them!” and we’ll get the happy-ever-after we’re convinced we deserve.
How do I know? Because I did it, appearing in a column in a Sunday supplement way back when I was footloose, fancy-free and having Bombay mix and a pack of Heineken for dinner. Does it work?
Well, if you want your Facebook inbox to be crammed with messages from men old enough to have bullied your grandad at school asking for a picture of you in your underwear then, yes, it works a charm.
Best to thank your lucky stars someone else is picking up the tab for dinner and consider everything else a bonus.