'We struggled to find older men to take part in First Dates Ireland'

More episodes, more matches, and there’s a gap in the market for over 70s...

Prepare for the return of First Dates with a look back at a classic moment from series one. Video: RTÉ

 

Splash on the aftershave, iron the dress and get out the fake tan: Ireland is doing First Dates a second time around – and there’s not a rebound in sight.

There are a few subtle changes. Couples are more embedded into the heart of the restaurant in Dublin’s Gibson Hotel, so expect things to get even cosier. The menu has been revamped too, so there’s no danger of anyone getting the same “dish” twice.

Hopes are high. Very high. And not just among the daters. “It’s all bigger and better,” says executive producer Linda Cullen.

Although it is not size that matters – of course – there will be 12 episodes of the new series. It is literally twice as long. Putting bums on seats has been quite an undertaking, but the men and women of Ireland have risen to the challenge. Well, not all the men ....

It was a case of men, your country needs you, when First Dates casting producer Ger Philpott ventured onto Facebook to try to encourage more to apply to be on the show. Why don’t as many men as women apply, we ask.

“We generally get some really good women across all ages,” says Philpott, giving all the single ladies a shout out. “We got some really good older women, who we couldn’t use because we couldn’t find older men for them, so then we started looking for the older men.”

Did you find them?

“In some cases yes, but not in every case. We had this place called the ‘sad wall’ where we had people who were really, really good, but we couldn’t find matches for them. So then we were sad for them. That is why we called it the sad wall.”

Cullen concurs. “We struggled to find older men. I haven’t a clue what that’s about – maybe women are just generally a bit more open.”

When Philpott talks about older women, we ask (for a friend) where does the category of “older” sit on his speed dial? “Well, we had women in their mid-60s down to their 40s. We would have had each decade up to the people in their 60s represented. Some 70-year-old women did apply, but they are not on the programme.” Anyone over the age of 70 might think about getting their dating outfit ready for the next series. There may well be a gap in the market.

Hammer and tongues

It is Monday when the Irish Times visits. The First Dates people have been going at it hammer and tongues every day since the previous Thursday. They will wrap up tomorrow. Luckily, the staff still seem loved up in spite of the 14-hour days they have been putting in.

Mateo Saina, the First Dates maitre d’ is on the balcony getting some sun (remember that?). The show’s absence has made the heart grow fonder and the “Croatian sensation” as he has become known, is really enjoying this series. When he is not putting young (and not-so-young) potential matches at their ease, Saina still togs out for his other job at Marcel’s in Dublin city centre, though, so if you are not lucky enough to gratuitously squeeze yourself on to a balcony with him, you know where to go to find him.

Viewers will notice that Ireland’s unique take on love, the “craic date”, looms even larger this series and Cullen is enjoying Ireland’s unique contribution to the franchise.

“The ‘craic date’ is so apparent this time around,” she says. Cullen is still reeling from a recent date when the two lesbians on the date were “hilarious”. The smile is still on her face. “That date is so good that it will probably get longer on the show.” Just a bit longer, though, she says. “If we wanted we could do a whole episode with just one date, but the people who came up with the format think three or four dates a show works best and they are the experts.”

Philpott confirms that there have been a good few craic dates already. “We had one really good craic date last year, which was Darryl and Amy, [he even remembers the daters’ names, which is a good signifier of the care the producers take]. But we’ve had even more craic dates this year. There have been several, but obviously we can’t tell you their names yet.”

He is such a tease. Patience will have to be a virtue.

But what exactly is a craic date, we ask, trying to get everything straight. “Just the fun and the banter. They just kind of bounce off each other and it is brilliant when you see it happening,” he says. The producers have put a lot of time into putting people together. “When you see it coming together that is brilliant and then it goes to another level.”

Top secret

The late Eamon Andrews was famous for his big, red file on This is Your Life, and Cullen has a similar one. She will show, but she will not tell. It is top secret and The Irish Times is not getting a peak. All she will say is the red file contains the crew’s meticulous research on each person which will result in their coupling for their first date, but that will have to do.

The passion is still there. “We have stand-up rows about who would be the best date for who. We want to find every person another person they can have a future,” says Cullen.

Part of Philpott’s job, a part he takes very seriously First Daters will be pleased to hear, is to do all the legwork that goes into matching two people up. “We do a lot of arguing among the production staff because you might come across somebody who floats your boat and then because there is a limited pool of people who make it through to the next stage, you will fight for that person. But at the end of the day, the idea is to produce the best possible programme, so you might have to relinquish one of your favourites to another person because it makes a better date.”

Who would you put together and who wouldn’t you, we ask?

“Well someone might apply and you might think she sounds a bit of craic or she has a few air miles under her arm...”

“There might be a bit of horse trading between all the producers, too. We designed the application process so that the first thing people do after putting their name down is to choose 50 words that they feel describe them. And actually that’s a really good and failsafe way of finding people because if they can’t sell themselves in 50 words, they don’t make it.”

The first Irish series of First Dates seemed to reassure the dating public that it was indeed a show motivated by a desire to match not mock. There were pluses and minuses to this added public interest in being on the show. “It attracted a lot of good people, but also a lot of people who maybe weren’t that good. Our job was to sift through that. We would be chatting about the people who had applied – did you see the great guy? Look at this women, she is really interesting. So we are constantly bouncing ideas for people and dates off each other.”

And it looks like the process is working.

“People ask if anyone has got together yet and I tell them ‘It’s called First Dates’. We have hopes for people to takes things on and we’ve had lots of successes so far this series.”

Successes? Our ears prick up.

“We’re really high on the match front this year,” Philpott confirms. “We have had 23 dates which were matches so far. Obviously, when anyone comes in we follow up the next day and find out what has happened.”

Things seems to be hotting up already.

“We had a couple who went on a date early on Saturday, but then they went out together afterwards and they are going out again later this week. And we have had one couple who have been out on two dates already. Since last Friday. It is quite encouraging.”

It certainly is encouraging.

Culinary coup

Just to whet our appetite further for the new series we ask to get a copy of the First Dates menu. We have often seen couples breaking bread together but have only been about to guess about the actual dishes and the actual prices. This is a culinary coup.

Menu in hand, I sit down with Philpott to select our meal for our fantasy First Date.

He hands me the cocktail menu. I worry that I will be drunk by the end of the date. “Oh I get drunk easily too,” says Philpott, ever the gentleman. On paper, this match might never have happened, but we already have a bucket load in common. Unfortunately neither of us are able to handle that bucketload, particularly when it is full of spirits.

Philpott asks me to go first. I lament the fact that there isn’t a Sex on the Beach on the cocktail list, but this is Dublin 2016, not Torremolinos 1998. I settle for a Flirtini, but only because I want to say the word. Ger (we are now on fantasy First Date first-name terms) tells me that the Flirtini has been a rip-roaring success with the First Daters and Ethan Miles, the bearded barman, does them brilliantly,

What actually is a Flirtini? It’s got vodka and prosecco and some “liqueury things” in it, says Philpott. I am quite a fan of prosecco, so I’m sold. “Well if you’re having a Flirtini, I’m having a really macho Whiskey Sour,” he says.

Are we going to eat, he asks? “You can have what you want.” This date is going swimmingly. I seem to be in charge.

I let Ger choose first, because I am an egalitarian. He goes for the duck liver. I plump for the salad because I’m being coy and trying to make him think he’s out with Victoria Beckham.

Something for everyone

The whole team sat down and worked the menu out, he says. There isn’t any steak, though, which is surprising. He tells me that the rib of beef option made the kitchen and producers’ lives easier as it can only be cooked one way, unlike steak, which can cause all sorts of timing issues. There’s also a vegetarian option, so there’s something for everyone in the audience. “And we’ve had some vegan daters, too.”

I go for the chicken. “I knew you were going to go for the chicken, I can tell you are a chicken kind of girl,” says Ger. I have no idea what he means, but I’m thinking positive.

Lovely barman Ethan saunters over. We’re busy doing an interview/dating, so we can’t talk, we tell him. The fantasy Flirtinis will have to suffice.

Ger goes for the slow-cooked beef. He says Aberdeen Angus very sensually. Dessert? “I think we should share, Ger because it rhymes,” I say. We have the Eton Mess, which might be the nearest either of us ever get to Eton we agree.

Sharing a dessert is a good idea for a First Date, Ger tells me. “If you get through that, I’m sure we’d have a cracking date, Anthea.” I am blushing. Fantasy First Dates has arrived and neither of us has spent a penny. This could be a match made in heaven.

Philpott leaves to meet and greet his next First Dater, who is about to arrive. He is a natural, putting the nervous gentleman at his ease while asking questions “to get them asking questions”, he explains.

So has First Dates Ireland executive producer Cullen bought a hat yet – Cilla Black-style? We ask.

She hasn’t, but if I was Philip Treacy I’d be starting work now.

The new series of First Dates Ireland starts on RTE2 on Thursday, January 19th.

THE LOOK OF LOVE

The staff: The head of the First Dates restaurant – as anyone who has watched love god Fred Sirieix, maître d’ of the London-set Channel 4 version will know – is vital.

Mateo Saina is Ireland’s own Fred. Not French, he is Croatian, which has won him the nickname “the Croatian sensation”. Saina is a professional. He has waited and hosted 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.

Head barman Ethan Miles is a Canadian, who gives a good cocktail. The bearded one was spotted and recruited especially for the programme in Dublin’s South William Street.

DO THE MATHS

There are 12 episodes of First Dates Ireland this series. There are two teams – a red and a blue team – looking after different dates.

Each of the dates last for 90 minutes. “We thought two hours was too long for a first date and people almost come full circle,” says Cullen.

There have been 11 first dates on each of the six days of filming. “That’s 66 priority dates,” she says. “And not forgetting that we have 500 to 600 background dates too.”

All of the dates are background checked. “We have a legal and social media checker and we also have a psychologist at hand if they are needed,” says Philpott.

MATCH POINTS

By day five, the series had produced 23 dates which were matches. “Obviously when anyone comes in, we follow up the next day and find out what has happened,” Philpott tells The Irish Times.

WHICH DATE IS FOR YOU?

The producers have identified different categories of dates.

Chemistry dates are where each dater has an interesting back story that will appeal to the other.

Golden dates are for more mature applicants.

Lesbian dates. Gay dates. Bisexual dates. Gender fluid dates. The producers are listening without prejudice.

The craic date is the show’s one concession to Irishness and is a special category for first daters who are just doing it to “have a bit of craic”. Here love is secondary and fun is primary.

LOOK WHO’S TALKING

First daters were drawn from all corners of Ireland – “north, south, east and west,” according to casting producer Philpott.

MATCHES MADE IN HEAVEN?

“People ask if anyone has got together yet, but I tell them ‘It’s called FIRST DATES’. We have hopes for people to go on and we’ve had lots of successes so far this series. We’re really high on the match front.”

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