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Grace Dent on TV: First Dates, Channel 4

‘First Dates’ shows why so many people meet their partners on the internet

First Dates – the show where two single people are put at a restaurant table and filmed chatting – is such a beautifully simple, entrancing format it’s amazing it has not run for decades. I do recall a very good, touching dating show on BBC2 back in 2001 called Would Like to Meet, where a team of personal improvement gurus would take one terminally single soul a week and give them handy hints like, “women don’t shag men with shelves full of Star Wars figures” or “Brenda, perhaps don’t admit how many cats actually share your bed until date three or four”, and then film the final “starter date” with a bribed or cajoled member of the public.

Would Like to Meet was a gentle show for gentler times, which is why by 2014 the UK’s biggest dating show is ITV1’s Take Me Out, a horrific but endlessly watchable extravaganza of semi-coherent young women screaming single-entendres at a fake-tanned, wax-chested plumber from Cleethorpes named Tyrell whose party trick is, invariably, body-popping to “Jump Around” by House of Pain, or being very good at Swingball, or being able to turn his eyelids inside out and imitate a frog.

The lucky lady – or whichever woman manages to hammer home that she will deliver consensual sex without obligation to call her afterwards – wins a first date with the hunk on the Isle of Fernando’s which is, in essence, whatever bleak package-holiday destination in Cyprus or Ibiza that ITV1’s ad department can do a deal with.

Take Me Out, albeit fun, doesn’t capture the havoc, heartache and perilous path of a first date. Take brave Claire, the hairdresser, 22, who chose Mark, 23, from a photograph, and agreed to spend one night of her life sitting across a table watching him eat spaghetti. Mark, it quickly transpired, was a lovelorn but sexually excitable young man who had slept with 67 women in the course of his short life. We knew this figure for definite as he informed the researchers who conduct the pre-date interview that he wrote them on a list and kept it in a drawer at work. “And then I just, y’know, add a name, if I know it,” he said, “I mean sometimes it’s just like ‘Magaluf shag’.”

There was strong sense with Mark that he had reached a point in his life where he cried out for a back-rub and someone to eat home-delivery pizza with, but his constant brain-zapping erection was putting paid to that. Mark ordered a double vodka, lime and lemonade and a shot of sambuca to warm him up for his date, which warmed him up so much that one of his opening gambits to tiny, pretty Claire the hairdresser was: “I’m gonna be honest, I was checking you out when you came in and you’ve got a lovely arse on yer. I mean, not in a pervy way! Not like I’m gonna rape you.”

It’s quite hard to come back from a line like that. Similar was when Peter told Steve a jokey anecdote about Germans and gas chambers and Steve took huge offence and recounted his harrowing tale of a day trip to Auschwitz. Or when Ed asked Purdy how long she had been single and she was so ashamed to admit that she had never, ever, had a boyfriend, she simply stared and stared and stuttered and then turned the question on him and then slurped her drink right down to the ice and watched as Ed went – possibly for a rest – to the toilet. Or when twice-divorced Mo, who cannot stop saying whatever crosses his mind, said: “Oh baby! You hot and spicy like falafel!” or to his Medusa-featured date: “What sort of movies you into? Horror?” or, worse still: “Where do I live? London. Central. I ain’t telling you which postcode as you look like someone who might stalk me.”

First Dates demonstrates why so many people meet their partners on the internet. Sure, it lacks intimacy but at least there’s a delete key and the luxury of time to craft an appropriate response that might get you laid this side of Christmas. And for the love of Moses, will some woman please take on 32-year-old single metalhead Paul, who is kind, clever, interesting and, importantly, beautifully turned out but stammers a bit when nervous, especially on dates. Paul’s first date ended in tears. Not figurative tears, literal tears. No first date should end up with one person crying. Even Mark managed to get a second date from Claire and he told a rape joke before the starters had arrived.

The greatest part of First Dates is that the couples are filmed side by side after the final course saying whether they fancy each other and if they will meet again. “I don’t fancy Purdy,” said Ed, as Purdy plastered on the biggest, hardest, I’m-fine-with-this “smile”. There was a long, awful silence. The editing in this show is beautiful. “Um, do you want me to expand?” Purdy finally snapped, “No, I don’t”.

I could watch an entire channel running back-to-back episodes of this show without tiring. All human life is here. And when you watch this programme it makes you wonder how any of us ever get born at all.