Heart Searching: Blonde ambition leads to blind ally: Rolex Man left early, and several dates bottled out, but Lyndsay Russell joined the party

FOR MOST of us, a blind date means an evening of sweaty palms, bad breath and an 'urgent phone call' from your dying grandmother if things do not go well; an impression confirmed by Carlton Television's Singles series and letters from many Heart Searching readers.

But, according to the Henley Centre for Forecasting, nearly 50 per cent of the adult population is predicted to be single by the end of the decade, as a result of divorce and insular living in major cities such as London. It may seem shocking, but as the demand for introduction agencies increases, blind dates could well become the normal way to meet.

Angela Cash, a thirtysomething divorcee, has devised what is possibly a less painful approach to blind dating, by turning the trauma into a party. 'I invite equal numbers of each sex to my house, and start the event off by giving out clues to help each person discover their partner for the evening,' she explains. Then, a la Cilla, she packs them off to various restaurants, with instructions to return to her place by 11 o'clock for brandy, coffee and a communal post-mortem on their dates.

The last part may seem cold and calculating. But you may draw some comfort from the thought that if you don't like your date, you might find that you fancy someone else's.

According to experienced guests, it's also safer than some aspects of the singles scene. 'The people you meet at the party are not strangers in a bar, and the home environment helps take away any stigma.'

However, when I arrived at 7.45pm at the Victorian house in the suburbs of Hampstead, Angela opened the door with worried expression. She explained in hushed tones: 'Some of the dates haven't turned up. If they don't, the numbers are going to be uneven.' At pounds 20 a head to play the game, she was probably right to be nervous about disappointed guests.

She was expecting 18 people but, due to several last-minute cancellations, only 11 were there, waiting in the drawing room. 'It's an uncontrollable risk. What can you do when people let you down? You can't have reserves on standby.'

From the room came staccato bursts of conversation broken by long periods of uncomfortable silence. 'Oh God,' wailed Angela. 'Wait 'til they know the press are here]'

Armed with the guest list and the prepared clue cards, her assistant raced in from the kitchen. 'Toby just rang to say he's on his way - but Sara hasn't shown and he insisted on a blonde.' Glancing around with a look of panic, Angela forcefully grabbed my arm. 'You'll have to do.'

Whoa there] This was supposed to be a 'fly on the wall' assignment. And what kind of man insists on a blonde in this day and age, I wondered. 'Quite a few,' sighed Angela. 'Here's another one,' she said, as a paunchy, flashily dressed man wearing a diamond Rolex pushed past to pick up his mobile phone.

'Forget dinner. I'm out of here,' he grunted, dialling for a taxi. But what about his date? 'I've sussed out who it is,' he said. 'I met her here last time. She's not my type.' Ruthlessly frank, he added: 'Hey, I'm in the rock business. I'm used to cute groupies.'

Meanwhile, back in the drawing room an elegant woman called Beverly announced she was feeling faint, and going home. (No doubt she had clocked the talent and also decided none was for her). Noticing Rolex Man was leaving, she innocently asked him for a lift. Ah, Cupid's irony - she was the very date he was trying to dump.

As they left, my date arrived. A property developer. It was an intriguing study in diplomacy watching Angela explain that his dream date was not only a reporter, but a brunette to boot. He was not impressed. 'Er, I'll just cancel the restaurant to something less formal . . .' Oh hell. It was going to be a night at McDonald's.

By now, most guests had hunted down their partners. The eclectic gathering included an accountant, a fashion designer, an advertising salesman, a gem dealer and a computer analyst. But two young women seemed miffed that, apart from their own dates, the men were so much older. 'It was pretty easy to guess who we were matched with,' pouted one of them. Still, Angela had said in advance that most of her clientele were over 30.

Angela explained that the men usually pay, but as everyone marched off to their chosen restaurants, she quietly pointed out a man who was renowned for his meanness. 'He said he would only come if his partner paid half the restaurant bill.' Seconds later, his date sidled up to her and discreetly inquired of Angela whether he 'had money'.

At the last moment, a woman called Tania burst through the front door. All the men were taken, so I offered her Toby. He took one look at this lovely, longlegged creature and announced: 'Err . . . I'll just re-book the original restaurant.' Oh thanks.

Six guests ended up going to the same local restaurant, and two couples had decided to make their night a foursome, muttering something about safety in numbers. 'Don't photograph me,' said one divorcee. 'I want my ex-husband to think I'm at home suffering.' Judging by her date's monosyllabic speech, she was.

Meanwhile, Tania and Toby were having far more fun, dining in style at Mezzaluna's, while giggling and guzzling their way through bottles of champagne.

'I had no expectations of the evening. I came because it was one more new experience,' smiled Tania. 'Anyway, you can't expect to meet the man of your dreams by spending pounds 20.' During the appointed 11 o'clock night-cap back at Angela's the atmosphere had relaxed a little, but the only real spirit was in the brandy bottle. Sheets of paper were handed out with questions such as 'What did you think when you first saw your date?

Instead of laughing at the idea, everyone looked appalled. Poor Angela admitted that out of the 15 parties she had held, this was by far the worst. 'No one's hitting it off. Normally, the ratio of those who date again after is as high as 50 per cent.'

Suddenly Tania and Toby arrived - a mysterious 40 minutes late. The room breathed a sigh of relief as they clowned around. 'We'll fill in the questionnaire together, because we two are now one]' trilled Tania.

With brazen courage, Angela picked up the completed questionnaires. Squinting, she began to read aloud. 'On first sight, James thought Eleanor was . . . er . . . plain-speaking?' She announced the rest of his writing as illegible.

The same excuse became extremely useful for squirming her way out of sheet after sheet of wicked answers. No one was fooled.

As everyone made their leave, only Toby and Tania exited together. 'See? It was all worthwhile,' nudged Angela. One can only hope.

Still, as Toby steered Tania to his Porsche, he did whisper: 'Well, she may not be a blonde, but I've a strong feeling she could highlight my life]'

More information on the parties can be obtained by ringing: 071-435 8363

(Photograph omitted)

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