Come in the girls

Remember “Blind Date”? Merseybeat popstar Cilla Black, welcomed girls and boys to the stage, her clenched teeth, her mirth, her mirthlessness, her Marks and Spencer ensembles. After interviewing some hapless Dixon’s manager, a junior accountant lothario, a student (ooooohhh, went the audience — did they flash a cue card to get them to do that or was it involuntary, impressed, mocking, both?) she issued her war cry, “Come in the girls (or boys)!” The cheesy band music, the nervous tug at a neckline or hem, the arranging of hair. You could picture the girls, at Top Shop or Miss Selfridge, dress-buying with girl friends, preparing to win the date trip, skiing in Solvenia or a wet weekend in Slough.

The trips were usually a gag that foretold disaster, a train wreck of manners and class differences. They’d show footage the next week, with Cilla tut-tutting the gaffes, the awkward kiss, the missed hint, the checking out of someone else. It was Saturday night viewing before there was a fifth channel.

Home with a baby and unable to tune our VCR, we watched in the name of cultural immersion. Alone with a baby in the pre-dawn, I watched Channel 4 from when it came on air, an episode of Clangers, Trumpton, Bagpuss or the Magic Roundabout, sleepy voices and trippy stories acted out by toys about going to the shops or important mail train deliveries, followed by Countdown, a game show which has no match on American television, based as it is on anagrams and math puzzles as opposed to being able to name five things most likely found in a fruit bowl.

With my free hand, I jotted down the letters and tried to solve the puzzles, hoping that my brain wasn’t turning to mush. Outside the sky slowly brightened, the Countdown clock ticked down the seconds for solvers.

I never watched daytime TV in the UK. Not when I was home on maternity leave. Either time. Not ever. I have standards, or rules. Or something. After Countdown, I got on with the day.

Blind Date was on a cultural wane. It felt like TV from the olden days, corny and already the stuff of parody, like The Alan Partridge Show, A-ha! At its heart was fear. Fear of  rejection, fear of class differences.

At some point, Channel 4 brought out Streetmate, hosted by a pre-Big Brother Davina McCall, running breathlessly after real people who’d been spotted by a member of the public and identified as datable. That show more comfortably included a wider bandwidth of normal, to include gay dates, vegans, cyclists, without that being a gag, and it did not rely upon assembling the holy trinity of cheap, cute and scary.

Where Cilla could be a bit civil service, part of Davina’s schtick was an accessible, matey, dorkishness. She hosted Big Brother through one or two pregnancies. You’ve gotta love British TV for that. American TV hides the bump. No pregnant ladies here. Ew. Fat.

Davina fixed people up right there on the street and then went and asked their friends and family members about them. We saw the dates getting ready and then rather than waiting for the easy laughs of some insensitive jerk getting his skis tangled in the lift we felt a welling of hope and sympathy as the young people nervously chatted over their starters.

Rather than garnering cheap package holidays abroad, Streetmate sent their people down the high street. The humiliation/exposure factor was more about who you were in your daily life than in how you responded in a lab rat kind of way, plunked into some exotic rodeo in Copenhagen scenario. The Cool Britannia years implied a denial of class, a tiling over of awkwardness, a chuck out your chintz of insecurity and snobbishness, everyone can have a posh kitchen from Ikea, though of course it was still there. The street view may have obscured, initially, any differences, but they would come bubbling up along the way was we saw their homes, met their friends, observed their table manners and the ease with which they ordered. Risotto, that’s just rice, innit?

The next wave of reality dating included analysis, advice and reinvention. Would Like to Meet was fronted by a trio of psychologists who focused on the plight of the dateless and sorted out their issues so that the drama was not human failure but transformation. (Very American, very late 20th century.) Cilla’s dates still had chat-up lines. The newly evolved dating show plucked the gag date out of the line-up (I know! Third use of the word gag) and said “What’s with the off-putting hair or the hat, and the hideous clothes? Look at your body language! Don’t be a joke date.”

Elsewhere, Trinny & Susannah tackled dress sense. They pointed out the underlying emotional issues while filling bin liners with decades of bad choices — the baggy, printed sweaters, elastic-waist trousers, too short, wrong color, wrong, wrong, wrong. Come in the invisible menopausal ladies!

There was a mean-spirited show hosted by an American woman whose solution lay in plastic surgery. That was unwatchable. There were declutter your house,  buy a house, sell your house, pre-credit crunch sort out your debt shows. There was Property Ladder, with the lovely and wise Sarah Beeny, often pregnant, often with shockingly wide roots and badly chosen fitted blazers or turtleneck sweaters that Suzanna would have wrested from her hands — and that’s a show for Channel 5. Sarah Beeny now runs a dating website, My Single Friend, a further step away from the pain and humiliation of Blind Date, though without the promise of drawing for a holiday.

Of course the sympathy and empathy of the television audience ebbs. We get bored of any format and the formula. The show jumps the shark of normal, so that you are no longer just decluttering but staging an intervention. Or morphs into the emotionally abreviated tough love of “Snog, Marry, Avoid,” hosted by “a computer,” reverting in the title alone to Cilla’s trinity of types. It featured insane, bikini-clad, blue wigged clubbers from Newcastle. But at this end of the evolution, the show was willing to own an occasional failure, a girl with a pierced face or one with an obsession with dressing in nutty Japanese street fashion, both happy as they were, and if that meant the vox pop in some high street of Middle England deemed them unsnoggable, so be it. We don’t all want to date men in Ben Sherman shirts.

Blind Date ended in 2003. We had stopped watching by then. As a family we would enjoy, in various seasons, Pop Idol, Come Dine with Me, and House of Tiny Tear-Aways.

Writing this post, I wondered what had become of Cilla Black. I can tell you there was a plan to bring her back in 2009 with a show called Loveland, “a Blind Date for the 21st century,” with avatars of the date choices. Avatars, hmm. Horses and barn doors come to mind. There are Facebook groups that say Saturday nights aren’t the same without her.

And that is the strange thing about pop culture, that you will run into the stars of your youth or your parents’ youth in the strangest places. And you become nostalgic for it just because it was. Britain has moved on from Blind Date. But we miss the days when we watched it, whether for a year or 20. I hadn’t thought of Blind Date for years, but something exuberant and hopeful about the way our dog jumps onto our bed led me to exclaim “Come in the dog!”

And that got me started. Blame the dog. The Wertis would.

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