Is RTE about to muck up First Dates with a 'craic date' and 'bumpety bump comedy music'?
First Dates is a phenomenon. It’s one of the most-watched programmes on Channel 4 and pulls in the kind of sizeable audience that a station still regarded, rightly or wrongly, as slightly outside the mainstream doesn’t regularly draw.
More significantly, it has met with widespread critical acclaim across the media spectrum, from the tabloids to the higher-minded broadsheets, many of which would normally treat reality television with undisguised disdain.
Like Channel 4’s other breakout hit, Gogglebox, First Dates is a reality show that it’s okay to love. Six series in and that love affair shows no sign of cooling any day soon.
It’s generally agreed that First Dates has raised the bar significantly for matchmaking shows. It couldn’t be any more removed from the scripted phoniness of Blind Date or the coarse trashiness of Take Me Out.
It has a warmth absent from both of those. The majority of people who appear on the show genuinely seem to be looking for love and companionship, not just TV exposure.
Even if things don’t work out and the date turns into a cirque du cringe, viewers are never encouraged to laugh at the people involved. There’s no slapstick soundtrack, no jauntily sarcastic voiceover.
It’s not difficult to see why First Dates has become so popular. It’s arguably the first television dating show not to be predicated on some level of cruelty, mockery or humiliation.
And now Irish television has got its own version. First Dates Ireland starts on RTE2 tonight, following a tease bigger than the ones in an old-time burlesque strip show.
But I know some fans of the original, including my wife (who’s not even sure she’s going to watch), fear that RTE might muck up everything that makes the original so likeable. Given some of the mistakes and misjudgements the domestic channels have made when adapting certain established British concepts for the Irish palate, it’s a justified concern.
You’d imagine certain formats, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire being the ultimate example, are completely cock-up proof. Yet RTE’s version, which began in 2000, somehow managed to bungle it.
The difficulty level of the questions could be inconsistent from round to round. One contestant was told he’d given a wrong answer; embarrassingly, he had to be brought back for a second chance when it was discovered the question he’d been asked had multiple right answers.
Gay Byrne’s air of lofty patrician tetchiness was a poor fit for the show. On one occasion, he tried to hurry a dithering contestant along – a strict no-no for the host.
Who Wants To Be a Millionaire was shelved after two years when RTE failed to attract a new sponsor.
RTE’s take on Who Do You Think You Are? stuck rigidly to the winning BBC model, but faced a blindingly obvious drawback from the start: in a tiny country like this, you’re going to run out of celebrities pretty fast. It lasted just two series of six episodes each.
RTE’s Dragons’ Den and The Voice, and TV3’s The Apprentice, Take Me Out, Deal or No Deal and The Great Irish Bake Off have all looked like what they are: uninspired, budget-challenged copies with little of the polish or panache of the UK originals.
Sometimes transplanting British TV formats can work superbly. Monday’s Toughest Place to Be (RTE1) was arrestingly great television, and better than anything I’ve seen on the BBC2 version.
While it’s unfair to pre-judge First Dates Ireland, small but significant alarm bells are already ringing. For a start, there’s that clip featuring South African model Federico insisting bewildered Donegal accountant Lee use “emergency” hand sanitiser before they eat. Depressingly, it’s got bumpety-bump comedy music – never, ever a good thing.
In an interview this week, the show’s maitre d’ Mateo Sania promised the show would be full of surprises. “This is Ireland, whatever you plan is never going to happen.”
Most worrying of all is the revelation that the series’ makers, Coco Television, have introduced a uniquely Irish tweak: something called the “craic date”, featuring people who are there just for a laugh.
Oh dear. As soon as you mention that hideous word “craic”, you have sown the seed of self-destruction.
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First Dates Ireland is on RTE 2 tonight at 9.30pm.