A uniquely Irish approach to First Dates

Excitement, hope and hairspray fill the air as Coco Television films Ireland’s own version of the reality TV show. Among the innovations: ‘the craic date’

Anna Nolan, head of development at Coco Television, is no stranger to reality TV. A star of the first series of Big Brother on Channel 4 and now presenter of reality cooking contest The Great Irish Bake Off on TV3, Nolan is an old hand.

She pops in to the girls' holding room at Ireland's very own version of First Dates to say hello, but the next generation of reality TV stars couldn't be less interested. They are already too excited about appearing on the show, which is about to start its final day of shooting at Dublin's Gibson Hotel.

The first daters get on with their warm chatter and cold white wine. It is 11.15am.

Day five in the First Dates house . . . No one is swearing. Well, maybe just a little, but that can be overlooked. Everyone has been looking forward to getting matched up and maybe even finding "the one", so the air is full of excitement and hope.


They all look beautiful: the girls who will enjoy background dates (the encounters you see but don’t hear); the boys who will enjoy same-sex dates (they can’t meet their dates before the event, so the men’s dates have been put in a room with the straight guys); and the girl who will be the first main date today.

Love blossoming

The restaurant at the hotel has been transformed to accommodate nine tables for two. Every day for the past five days, the two main first daters have sat down to meet each other, share stories and try to eat something. Love could be blossoming at 12.30pm, 2.30pm, 7pm, 8.30pm and 10pm. Actually, love could blossom at any time, as the background dates are going well, too, says head of Coco Television and the executive producer of the show, Linda Cullen.

It is no wonder that love is in the air. Cullen and the Coco team have been working on hooking the right people up for months. Cullen carries a red file with resumés, pictures and personal histories of all the first daters. The team have argued like proprietorial parents over who should sit down to break bread with whom. They have just loved it, says Cullen.

A star is coiffed

When I appear in the First Dates restaurant, Ger Philpott is hard at work with the hairspray on head barman Ethan Miles's long, dark locks. He laughs when we ask him hair and make-up questions. It turns out that Philpott is not a hairdresser; he is a multitasking producer of the show and he is putting the finishing touches to one of the potential new stars.

Miles is a Canadian, spotted and recruited especially for the programme by Nolan during one of her scouting sessions in the bars of Dublin’s South William Street. He was perfect, she says, as is maître d’ Mateo Saina, whom Miles describes as “the Croatian Sensation”.

The head of the First Dates restaurant – as anyone who has watched Fred Sirieix, maître d' of the London-set Channel 4 version will know – is vital. Saina has waited and hosted professionally and is general manager of Marcel's on Merrion Row in Dublin. He attended an open audition for the role and the rest is history.

The head waitress, Alice Marr, is joined on set by some of the Gibson Hotel’s own waitresses, and good service is maintained throughout. Which is just as well: there are enough distractions without any plates getting smashed.

Philpott says he is going to have a cocktail when shooting finishes later today. Miles’s mixology skills have been beckoning, he says. Until shooting is done, however, everyone will just have to get by on the fruits of love.

That isn't hard, says Philpott: the Irish First Dates, which is being watched closely today by the French company that is about to do it there, is a programme with a "big heart".

“We are genuinely in the business of finding love. Everyone applied online, then we asked people in for longer interviews. We asked them to pick 50 words to describe themselves. That gave us an idea of who they are and how they express themselves.”

Cullen says: “The first daters then went into the red file and the horsetrading began. “We genuinely want to get a match out of every date, and although that doesn’t always work out, we’re not doing too badly so far.”

The fact that they identified different categories of dates helped, says Philpott.

There were “chemistry dates”, where a couple each has an interesting backstory. “Golden dates” for more mature applicants. Lesbian dates. Gay dates. Bisexual dates, where the woman they had chosen to take a bisexual woman out was substituted by a man “as he was just much better suited to her”, says Cullen.

Ireland's First Dates will be gender- fluid and will defy stereotypes wherever they raise their head, she says.

The one concession to Irishness is the “craic date”. This is a special Irish category to take into account the first daters who are just doing it to “have a bit of craic”. Here love is secondary and fun is primary, says Philpott.

Anyone in the “saloon date” category should maybe look away now – or grab a tissue. “That’s for people who are at the end of their tether and feel it is their last chance to meet someone,” says Philpott.

First daters have been drawn from all corners of Ireland – "north, south, east and west". Philpott tells me to look out for one of today's dates, a man born in Manchester to an Irish mother and a Nigerian father, who was a medical student in Ireland. More on him later . . .

Meanwhile, in the girls' holding room, things are bubbling. Katie from Limerick came to Dublin to stay with a friend last night. She is hoping for love. And she's not at all choosy . . . "Tall, dark, handsome . . . and muscly" would be okay, she says. No pressure there, then.

Róisín from Laois got the train down to Dublin this morning. She is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. But she is not keen on tattoos, she says.

Sarah has also got the train here, a shorter journey from Balbriggan. She could do without beards, tattoos and man-buns, but, apart from that, “the weirder the better”, she says. Good luck with that, Sarah.

The production gallery is full of the same high spirits and hope as the First Dates restaurant. Team Coco are watching hundreds of camera angles, ready to swing into action when anything gets interesting.

Chewing the fat

The first first dater is in the building: Katie from Limerick. At this stage she feels like my own child. She isn’t. Katie is lovely and more socially skilled than a woman of her young age is entitled to be.

She chews the fat with Miles as he makes her a cocktail, but, at the behest of the production team, doesn’t pour it. The producers want a money shot when Katie’s date arrives. Shaken and stirred – so to speak.

He is here. And blow us down if Katie's date isn't Daniel from Manchester. When we find out that business student Katie attends Limerick IT and that Daniel studies medicine at UL, we have died and gone to loved-up heaven. They live in the same city.

Cullen suggests that the time might have come for The Irish Times to leave the building. She is right. It would only spoil the surprise – and there is no need to do that.

After all, the production team is confident that despite Ireland being a place where everyone knows everyone, or at the very least everyone’s second cousin, none of the first daters knows anything about any of the others.

It has taken work, but it has been “really thought through”, says Cullen. “We don’t interfere with the date, but we do put many hours into selecting the date.”

Katie and Daniel are adorable. They chat about her love of travelling and her trip to New Zealand, before the Limerick girl asks: "Do you like rugby?"

Daniel has lived in Munster long enough to know the right answer. He says he prefers football, but he does like rugby, and living in Munster he knows that is a must.

The date is going really well. Saina has handed Daniel the wine list.

Then Daniel asks: “What is camogie?”

Well, you can’t have everything, Katie.

  • First Dates in on RTÉ2 on Thursday, April 21st, at 9.30pm