First Dates: Channel 4 series will feel 'more like real life'

By Steven McIntosh
Entertainment reporter

image copyrightChannel 4
image captionThe restaurant may have changed, but maître d' Fred Sirieix is returning for the new series

If you've watched any TV whatsoever in the last 10 months, the thought of seeing another Zoom interview probably makes you want to hurl your remote at the screen.

Which is entirely understandable. Virtual guests dominate news bulletins, daytime shows and magazine programmes, which doesn't make for very enjoyable viewing when you also spend your working day and social time on video calls.

TV shows like Strictly and I'm A Celebrity deserve credit for finding ways to broadcast new series under the circumstances, but many other programmes have struggled or been taken off air completely, such as Love Island.

Channel 4's First Dates could easily have been a casualty of Covid. In September, The Guardian suggested, only half jokingly, that the new series may require "strict social distancing and a new no-kissing policy, presumably upheld by Fred in a hazmat suit, slapping strangers' genitals apart with a hockey stick".

Fortunately, it hasn't quite come to that.

The new series is going to look different, but not because of anything to do with Covid. The show has found a way to film a whole new series as normal (more on how later).

Instead, First Dates has been freshened up by its new location. After eight years in London's Paternoster Chop House, next to St Paul's Cathedral, the show is heading north to The Refinery in Spinningfields, Manchester.

image copyrightChannel 4
image captionThe latest series was filmed in The Refinery, located in Spinningfields, Manchester

"To be honest, we'd been looking for quite a while to change the restaurant because we filmed a lot there [in London], and we were keen to shake things up a little bit, create a new environment for daters which would keep their experience as real as possible," says executive producer, Jon Crisp.

"If you follow the same familiar steps, the daters know the process and procedures, and we were keen to make sure it felt more like real life."

The unfamiliar location means the daters are slightly less confident in their surroundings, and other subtle changes have been made to this series which make things feel more realistic. Instead of Fred delivering them to their waiting partner, the daters have to approach the bar on their own, and awkwardly introduce themselves to their date.

The close proximity of the bar to the dining area also means, if the conversation has dried up, the daters are able to gossip about the other budding couples they can see nearby.

Crisp notes: "Manchester is also quite fun, we've got new waiting staff who are from the area, and that gives us another flavour and different angle, and hopefully it adds a new charm."

image copyrightChannel 4
image captionChannel 4 is pushing out of London with staff based in Leeds, Glasgow and Bristol

The show's change in location coincides with Channel 4's wider push to get out of London. The network has opened a new base in Leeds, with other creative hubs in Bristol and Glasgow. It was the channel who initially asked if First Dates could be made as a regional commission, and the team were happy to oblige.

This is the first time the show has moved location, although the spin-off series First Dates Hotel has previously taken place in France and Italy.

Along with Bake Off and Gogglebox, First Dates is one of the jewels in Channel 4's crown; a series with enduring popularity and an appeal to a young demographic.

Each episode sees singletons going on a blind date with someone producers have matched them up with based on their romantic tastes. The success rate ranges from catastrophic to couples who are now married with kids.

As usual, the new series features a great deal of diversity - in the truest sense of the word. While recent events have focused attention on racial diversity in film and TV, First Dates is one of the few shows which can rightfully lay claim to embracing all kinds - including the often-neglected areas of age and social class.

image copyrightChannel 4
image captionThe new series features daters from a variety of age groups, sexualities, racial backgrounds and social classes

"That's what keeps it interesting," says Crisp. "If you parachute yourself into any given street of the UK, you'll find something new and different. And that also makes the dating world much more interesting. We also make a lot of episodes... and if we had the same handful of people from the same town in Britain, it would get dull quite quickly, so it's fascinating to see different people from different backgrounds."

Looking for love in the first episode is a 23-year-old parliamentary assistant to a Conservative MP. There's also a 32-year-old gay man from Rotherham who works in a greasy spoon, a 62-year-old neuroscientist, and a double-divorcee in his late 30s who has affectionately been nicknamed "Ross from Friends" by his mates.

The show looks just like it normally does, with the total and blissful absence of facemasks and social distancing. The production team were able to find a way to film thanks to rapid testing.

"The crucial bit for us was to test people as close as them going into the restaurant as possible, so they knew they were negative when they went in, and knew that everyone around them was also negative," explains producer Sarah Fink.

She says waiting and kitchen staff, editorial staff, crew members and daters were all tested "so that everyone could feel comfortable that they could be normal in that environment, just for that one day".

The daters were each given a room in a hotel where a testing station had been set up. After receiving a negative result, the daters were cleared to proceed with filming.

image copyrightChannel 4
image captionThe restaurant has some new local staff, although a couple of familiar faces return

There is only one snag. The great thing about First Dates is that it has always reflected dating culture, and yet this series is going to air at a time when, in real life, restaurants are closed.

As a result, the show will arguably no longer reflect the current dating experience of the vast majority of the population, as the only dates the British public have been able to go on in recent months are outdoor walks or Zoom calls.

"We actually did briefly consider doing a series that would be exactly that," says Crisp. "We considered doing Zoom dating, and we discussed it with [Channel 4]."

However, the team ultimately decided against the idea. "We didn't want to create something that people could get fed up of quite quickly," Crisp says. "I completely understand what you're saying, and it's quite interesting to think how on earth people find love in lockdown, but it just didn't feel like necessarily the right way to go.

"It felt like it could produce something that could be quite interesting, to see how people are doing it. But while we're a documentary at heart, we are there to entertain viewers and give an insight into the world of dating, and they also want a bit of escapism."

First Dates begins on Tuesday 19 Jan at 22:00 GMT on Channel 4.

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