Last night's viewing - The Undateables, Channel 4


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The Independent Culture

What a mare's-nest The Undateables is. I wasn't entirely sure what I thought of Channel 4's latest provocation as I was watching it and am still not sure I know now. The show's premise is simple: a group of people with disabilities have signed up with a dating agency and we go along on their dates as voyeuristic gooseberries. Which doesn't really sound terribly complicated at all, does it? That awful title alone should settle the matter. But it turns out to be harder to hate than you might imagine. You follow a line of indignant attack and find that it has looped and curved in an unexpected way, so that you begin to wonder whether it's your own attitudes that are the problem rather than the programme. But exactly the same reversals happen when you want to defend the idea. With a sudden flip, you realise that what you experience as empathetic sympathy might simply be a kind of condescension. Or perhaps I'm just disabled by liberal anxiety.

Luke's problem is different. "His condition makes it very hard for him to make a good impression on girls," explained the voiceover. This was putting it mildly. Luke has Tourette's and his small talk can be startling. "Suck my dick!" he shouted at one point, apropos of nothing, "She's a squirter! Anal fisting!" Quite tricky to move on from that to your favourite taste in music. And here was the first moral tangle. Some of Luke's remarks were unavoidably funny. Of the first candidate his dating agency turned up he said this: "She seems like a really nice girl... Fucking slag!" You felt bad for laughing. But then Luke is a stand-up comedian himself, trading on just such awkwardnesses. And what's more it seemed to be one of his attractions for the girl herself: "I haven't heard him swear yet... which is disappointing... because I think that's funny".

Richard, who has Asperger's, raised similar issues. He prepared for his first date in years by spraying deodorant directly on to his clothes, in quantities copious enough to induce a coughing fit in the cameraman. But then Richard also turned out to have a sly wit of his own: "I live in the Eighties now more than I did in the Eighties," he said when he discovered that he shared a taste for retro pop music with Dawn, the woman he'd been paired with. Dawn, we were told, had a "slight learning difficulty" of her own, which raised the question of how much everyone knew in advance. Had the agency themselves decided that disability itself could count as a common interest? If so, Penny was going to get tetchy. A circus performer with a genetic condition that has left her just three-feet tall and in a wheelchair, Penny would rather like to meet a six-foot policeman. "I think I'd like to date someone without a disability," she said, after an unpromising day out on Brighton Pier with Max, who has mild cerebral palsy, "I think they'd be a bit livelier."

Penny's reaction at least had the virtue of candour, which couldn't be relied on elsewhere. Was Richard's second date, for example, really prepared to overlook his somewhat unconventional chat-up technique – which included a display of rhythmic muscle-clenching – or did she just not want to be filmed on camera giving him the brush-off? We'll never know because Richard himself decided that there wasn't any future in it. And will Luke's promising early dates really lead to anything more durable... or was it necessary to make us feel better about the way in which he'd had his feelings exploited for a viewing audience? I'm not sure. I know that by the end of the episode, you see those involved as more than their labels. But you're also left with an uncomfortable feeling that there must be a better way to achieve that end.