Granada's hot new date: It started 30 years ago as one man's tentative idea. Today, as Blind Date, it is one of the most valuable properties in British television - and, like it or not, a part of our national heritage
Sunday 06 March 1994
On 5 February, at Tiverton in Devon, in the presence of 50 invited guests, Cilla Black and a London Weekend Television film crew, 71-year-old Lilian married David Fenson, 70. They were, everyone agreed, blessed with the weather: it was a dry, clear day, not too bright, and perfect for exterior videotape photography. On the pavements outside the Town Hall the crowd was several deep, as it might once have been for royalty. Despite her quasi-regal status, however, it was not so much for Cilla that people had turned out as for David and Lilian, to whose lives commercial television had brought something which - even to the most wintery eye - looked very much like happiness. For this outcome, for the couple's seizing of the day, the spectators in their parkas and windcheaters were curiously grateful. 'They thanked us,' said Mr Fenson.
The television series that brought David and Lilian together, of course, was Blind Date, one of LWT's big success stories, a jewel in its crown during the recent Granada takeover. The Fensons' was the second wedding in the eight-and-a-half years of the programme's life: Sue and Alex Tatham - married on camera to maximum media hoopla in October 1991 - are expecting a baby in July. That after some 350 introductions, Cilla has only had to buy two new hats (the hats are a BD in-joke) might seem like a poor success rate, but then Blind Date is not a marriage or a happiness agency. It is commercial television, and the function of commercial television is to deliver viewers to network advertisers. In this, the programme has proved extraordinarily efficient. From its first series in November 1985, it has attracted audiences of between 11 and 15 million.
Its demographics show unusual spread, both of age and class (in London, for example, 31 per cent of viewers fall into the AB and C1 categories), and every Saturday viewers who wouldn't dream of watching Gladiators or Barrymore check their watches as 6pm approaches. These statistics are even more remarkable given that the show's looks and values remain inflexibly mid- Eighties. The series now performs the curious trick of leading apparently 'ordinary' people through the television looking- glass and transmuting them into living, dated cliche. Week after week, as a result, we are introduced to a changing cast of disco romeos, roll-necked yuppies and randy au pairs. Their relationships are as implausibly predictable as their personae, initiated by 'take me to the moon' chat-up lines and characterised by the clash of male interests (body-building, Will Carling, lager) and girlie ones (single long-stemmed roses, Will Carling, pina colada). If Britain has undergone a change of heart in the past decade, you wouldn't know it from Blind Date. By eliminating as unsuitable all applicants but the loudest and dizziest with self, the series makes it clear wherein lie the real new virtues.
And yet it remains horribly compulsive television. Its originators describe it as a 'game-show' and its participants as 'contenders', but it is a much more potent cocktail than these terms suggest. For added like hard liquor to lolly-water are measures of real embarrassment, real sexual antagonism and, just occasionally, a shot of the stuff which makes the world go round.
Its format, which has remained unaltered since programme one, is both simple and televisually ingenious. A 'picker' (in BD-speak) asks leading questions of three 'pickees' of the opposite sex who are concealed behind a screen. On the basis (more or less) of their answers, the picker makes his or her choice of date, and, after being shown the rejected pickees, is united with the chosen one. Together, on a pick-a-card basis, the daters select a leisure destination, and within 24 hours are on their way, accompanied by the LWT crew.
In the second part of the show (the 'call-back'), usually broadcast the following week, the couple return to the studio. They are shown first the highlights of their date - sometimes kissy-kissy, but more often pie-in-face - and then a sequence (the 'bish-bash') in which they have been asked separately their opinion of each other on camera. Finally they are asked by Cilla the question to which we have already guessed the answer: are they going to see each other again?
The format works for two fairly obvious reasons. Firstly, suspense. The audience can see behind the screen; the picker has only the voice to go on. So is he/she going to choose the beauty, the beast, or the pants-on-head 'funny' one?
Secondly, voyeurism. The show deliberately scrutinises the two great British vulnerabilities, and thus obsessions, of sex and class. To call anyone but a politician ill-bred or sexually unattractive has traditionally been regarded as unsporting. Few are so sure of their standing as to be unafraid of retaliation in kind. On Blind Date, however, there are no such reservations. Blind daters operate a 'first strike' principle: slaggings-off are pre- emptive. When Natasha from Surrey states that Midlands Keith has no sex-appeal whatever - and Keith is only there because 18 years of life have convinced him he has it by the bucketful - the camera holds his desperate, annihilated grin. When Trevor from Kent dismisses Marie from Wales as 'common', you can see in her eyes her awareness of all those 14 million viewers; all her family, all her friends. That there are winners, and losers, in life is Blind Date's message. And, just as the new class of those who have made themselves in Light Entertainment's brassy image must be seen to win, so the discreet, the hesitant and the tactful must be seen to lose.
For the show to succeed televisually, and for the contrast between fantasy and reality to be witnessed at its most acute, it is essential that daters are not provided with any 'real' or intelligible information about each other before they meet. To this end, from the moment of their arrival at LWT, pickers and pickees are kept apart. They are directed to different entrances, given dressing-rooms on different sides of the
building, fed and watered separately, and led along separate corridors to the studio.
It is generally assumed that the suggestive but entirely unrevealing question and answer session between the picker and the three stooled pickees is pre-scripted. In fact, pickees are told pickers' questions half-an-hour before the show is recorded and write their own answers which are then given the once-over by the production team. The result - given the frenzy of boastfulness into which contenders have been hyped backstage - is deliberately and ritually bathetic.
Former pickers confirm that the final choice is effectively random. 'No 1 was normal, No 2 was Welsh, and No 3 was just creepy, so I chose No 1,' remembers one contestant.
'Every bone in my body aches for them,' Cilla told me. 'No 2 might look like Quasimodo but have an incredible sexy velvet voice, and you know she's going to pick him . . . Having said that, I'm in the business of making a good TV show, and the audience love it when she does pick Quasimodo.'
BLIND DATE started life in the USA as The Dating Game. The format ('Three young men vie for a date with a young bachelorette. They are given either a night on the town or an expense-paid trip to some fun locale . . .') was devised in 1964 by US gamester Chuck Barris, and was first shown on ABC daytime television in 1965.
The show was a success, went prime-time a year later, and was syndicated (in the US) in 1973. In 1984, in a royalty share deal, world rights to The Dating Game were acquired from Barris by Fremantle Corporation, a major US production and distribution company and the world's largest suppliers of game shows. (In 1989, Barris retired with dollars 80m to the South of France, where a Fremantle spokesman describes him as 'no longer active in the game world'.)
To Fremantle, the value of The Dating Game lay in the
'geographical transparency' of its format. Successful game shows are tied to dreams of love, wealth or public approval, and thus are universally adaptable, universally saleable.
'All the great games,' explains Paul Talbot, Fremantle's President, 'are 20 to 30 years old. There are no more than three
or four of them, and every successful game that's followed has been a variation of one of them.' Fremantle now has 76 local game show productions running in 25 countries, and 13 of these - earning the corporation an estimated dollars 20m ( pounds 14m) annually - are versions of The Dating Game.
For a time, it seemed unlikely that Blind Date would ever be broadcast. Early in 1985, a pilot was made, hosted by the comedian Duncan Norvelle, but both John Birt - then LWT's Director of Programming - and the IBA had reservations. There had been negative publicity, and Norvelle's camp style was felt to be 'confusing'. Did the couple have to kiss when the screen went back? Couldn't they just shake hands? And, most importantly, did they have to go away overnight?
Cilla Black, at the time, was on an international concert tour, and, as a daytime television aficionado, found herself captivated by the show. On her return to Britain she enthused about the show to Alan Boyd, LWT's Controller of Entertainment, and he told her about the pilot. Shortly afterwards, Cilla remembers, he rang her back. 'I know how we can get it past the IBA,' he said. 'Who's the most sexless person in TV? You] You'll present it]'
Cilla was already presenting Surprise, Surprise, LWT's warm hearts'n'hankies reunion show, and wasn't certain she could take it on. 'But then I did the pilots, and everyone went mental.' She made BD her own from the start. When, on the first show in November 1985, a male pickee promised: 'I'd send you flowers, shower you with presents, be ever so faithful . . .' she cut in immediately: 'He sounds like a right creep]' More recently, when a picker announced 'Question deux - that's French]', Cilla was ready with: 'Schnell] Schnell] That's German. Geddonwithit]'
Her success as BD's presenter has always lain in her ability to needle and soothe in equal measure. A negative bish-bash can bring a contender close to tears, as was the fate, recently, of Trudy. 'If I had the choice all over again,' said Jason, her date, 'I'd certainly pick Trudy's personality, but Number Two's body and Number Three's face.'
This kind of specific objectification, over the years, has served as an important leitmotif. Donna, a cleaner from Rochdale, described her breasts to Eddie as 'firm, big and very tempting'. The breasts tipped the balance for Eddie. When they met, however, Eddie's enthusiasm was visibly restrained. 'The screen went back,' he explained in the bish-bash, 'and it was a case of 'gutted from Ilford'. She thought I was a snob . . . I thought she was one of those horrible Northern girls . . .'
Although the screening process successfully eliminates the bigoted and the obviously mad, the batsqueak of xenophobia is occasionally audible. In the latest series (in a 'Euro round', in which the pickees were respectively German, French and Italian), Alastair from Surrey picked Valerie from Paris. If Valerie's grasp of English was tenuous, her beauty was startling.
'Everyone fancied Valerie,' remembers Thelma McGough, the show's present producer. 'All the boys, all the girls . . .' It looked like a good match. But when Cilla asked the couple how 'The Oooh La La' had mixed with the 'OK Yah', the bish-bash turned sour. 'I didn't actually realise until Number 3 that they were all foreign,' said monolingual Alastair, genuinely aggrieved. 'That's when I twigged I'd been . . . stitched up.'
When Valerie went to bed, Alastair - to the studio audience's incredulity - stayed up drinking in the bar. 'I thought he would come,' said Valerie wistfully, 'but no.'
'The amusement-personality thing I look for in a woman wasn't really there,' the rugby-playing salesman told Cilla as Valerie bit her lip. 'He's very selfish,' Valerie finally snapped. 'He like 'imself too much.'
Of recent Blind Dates, though, the one which sailed most compellingly close to the wind was that of Dave and Eileen, who won a date in Antigua.
'We called him Mr Thong,' remembers Cilla. 'He said he was 40, but I'm sure he was 50 if a day. On the bish-bash, he was sitting on the beach in one of those awful things that middle-aged men shouldn't wear in their wildest dreams . . .'
David and Eileen didn't get on. The film of their date opens with a furious Eileen hurling Dave's hat at him and ordering him to stick it up his bottom. 'To me he's just a dirty old man,' she tells the researcher. 'I'd be embarrassed to be seen with him.' Dave, a British Rail steward who describes his ideal partner as 'someone who's in awe of me', refers on camera to Eileen's 'obnoxious perfume'. 'I'd rather kiss a crab,' counters Eileen, and at the end of the bish-bash presents him with a baby's pacifier.
'I'm a romantic at heart,' says Cilla. 'I want them to get on. But there's devilment in me. I love it when they hate each other as well . . .'
When things are going badly on an outing, it's immediately apparent. 'The girls often come to the researchers for moral support before the plane journey's even over,' says LWT's Zoe McIntyre. 'And then we don't leave them alone together for too long. If they want to sleep together, of course, that's fine. They're over 18.'
There is something particularly British about a television show which is all about sex but which never directly refers to it. There are nudge-nudge references to 'romance' and 'things happening' and 'staying for breakfast', but there has never yet been an admission that contenders have - as the BD production staff say - 'done it'. This is partly because the show goes out at 6pm as family viewing and partly because it depends on a kind of stifled Up Pompeii-style innuendo for its 'suspense' element. Although in absolute opposition to the contemporary climate of sexual frankness, this coyness has a certain camp, end-of-the-pier appeal.
'Generally,' notes producer Thelma McGough, 'there's a lot more talking about it than doing it. Given the present restrictive climate, people are less promiscuous, more cautious. More often than not it's the men who aren't on for it, even if they fancy the woman. And if they don't like each other, people feel freer to be frank about not getting on.'
And frank they are. But in a series in which, as McIntyre admits, 'There's been a lot of vitriol, a lot of venom spat out' there has also been 'this huge romance'. For bringing us back to basics, LWT are grateful to David and Lilian, and this was reflected in the couple's lavishly mediated wedding and complimentary honeymoon. For, while antipathy makes great television, the format demands that the dream remains intact, and that once in a blue moon Cilla gets to buy a new hat.-
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