Meet the brave souls looking for love on TV with RTE's First Dates
From a young man's first gay date to fights over the bill, the Irish version of 'First Dates' promises to be must-watch entertainment. Tanya Sweeney went behind the scenes
A blustery Wednesday morning back in January isn't largely considered as the optimum time to find love. But it's not for want of trying on the part of the makers of First Dates Ireland.
The restaurant of Dublin's Gibson Hotel has been fashioned into a romantic cocoon, and Coco Television's cameras are trained on one pair as they navigate the already choppy waters of the first date. Daniel (33), (a dashing medical student from the UK) and 26-year-old Katie (a creamy-skinned student from Limerick) are gamely making their way through usual first date fodder: travel to Brazil, his work as a doctor, and their respective hobbies. So far, so predictable… although this month, their date will be broadcast to a TV audience already chomping at the bit for action and drama.
Few could have predicted the runaway success of the original First Dates series when it broadcast on Channel 4 in June 2013. On paper, its premise was deceptively simple; a number of cameras capture the good, bad and cringeworthy as couples meet for a first date in a purpose-run restaurant.
But five series in, the British show has been a runaway success, replete with colourful characters, jaw-dropping revelations, Twitter storms and viral clips aplenty. The reality show features a number of couples of varying ages, sizes, provenances, sexual identities; all of whom have volunteered themselves up for the ignominy of an on-screen first date. Hidden cameras do their thing as the pair sizes each other up, put their best face forward and attempt not to get too drunk.
And then, there's the all-important money shot: the point at which the pair are asked if they'd like to see each other again. It's a compelling moment of high jeopardy, which each person unwilling to show their hand.
Some couples coyly squeak out a 'maybe', visibly relieved when their plus one does the same. Others engage in a sort of hari-kari, where they enthusiastically put their cards on the table immediately and have to endure a rictus-grinned moment whereby the other person admits to feeling no spark ("nope, yep, sure, yep").
If you've braved the likes of Tinder and online dating, First Dates is the televisual gift that keeps on giving.
Of course, the Irish dating pool is a different beast entirely to the British one. We're much more reticent about sex, for a start, right? And not nearly as comfortable in front of the cameras? Um, wrong.
Cocktail bartender Rebecca Keogh (32), clearly has the chutzpah to come across well on television. But the cameras are certainly daunting.
"Usually I'm a very confident person but this date was a whole other scale of nervousness," she explains. "I've been getting a little nervous about not coming across well (on screen), but I just hope I come across as a nice person. I'm not sure my true self really came across. I'm usually a bit off the wall but I was a bit more sedate this time."
PhD student and university worker Tony Sheridan (28), meanwhile, has been single for almost six years, and is sure to be a hit with viewers.
"I had 15 people (I know) message me telling me that First Dates were looking for applicants," he smiles. "I think they just want to see me happy, though some probably thought I'd make good TV.
"Dating in Ireland is so easy," he adds. "I'm quite lucky on the likes of Tinder. Because I can spell correctly and I'm mannerly, I'm ahead of 90pc of the guys on there."
Once the producers Coco Television put out the call for Irish singletons to climb on board the First Dates train, they were inundated with applicants. The only problem was that many of them were women.
Undaunted, they kept fishing for men - largely via social media - and finally found their balance, and "thousands" of willing applicants. After meeting with three casting producers, a series producer and an executive producer, each potential dater is then matched with a potential plus one based on their likes, dislikes and core values.
"We get to know everyone as much as we can so we're matching them with a bit of knowledge," explains producer Linda Cullen. "We're not matchmakers - we're TV producers - but we've put everyone up on different boards and gone, 'will these two get together? Why?' We ask them what their deal-breakers are, for instance if a woman says she doesn't want a guy with kids. We find out who's living at home, who has a job, who has been unfaithful in the past."
As TV makers, surely there must have been the temptation to chuck a proverbial cat among the pigeons, and to make some potentially combustible mismatches? Not at all.
"Sometimes you'll find a great 'character', but you won't find a date for them," Linda explains. "On TV you can play things for jeopardy but we're not doing that. Instead, we cheer (behind the scenes) if we see that there is a match."
Yet if you have any reservations about whether the magic of the Channel 4 show will translate in Ireland, rest assured that there are plenty of colourful characters on board the first series. Chief among them is 23-year-old Barry Kissane from Ratoath, who went on his first same-sex date on camera.
"If I'm doing it (coming out), I'm doing it big," he laughs. "I want someone to go to the nicest restaurants in town and someone up for a laugh. Someone who can keep up with me."
He's already had plenty of experience of the online dating experience prior to the show: "It's a nice thing when someone sends you a message on Grindr saying, 'hey sexy', even if they're 75," he laughs. "I just think, 'well, at least you've got good taste'."
Another dater who would potentially prove a hit with viewers is 36-year-old Michelle Lyons, a cleaner from Donaghmede.
"My type is Rob Kearney meets Tom Hardy," she states. "A rustic caveman who can throw me over his shoulder and be like, 'let's go'."
In the main, the daters admit to forgetting that the cameras are even there during their date. Yet the prospect of beaming out to a nationwide audience - and one ready to pounce on Twitter at that - is weighing heavily on their minds.
"Oh I'm cringing," says Michelle of the prospect of her episode airing. "I had a panic attack when I saw the (preview) ad. But that's the way it went. I went on for something real. I'm just on it really to see if there's someone out there who'll put up with me."
In one of the Gibson Hotel's suites, 'background' daters (daters who won't be filmed or fitted with microphones) are happily drinking wine. Though they will be on genuine first dates, it's their job, largely, to create the restaurant's ambience.
Producers are tight-lipped about the finer details, but there have already been memorable TV moments. Irish viewers can expect a walk-out, and a squabble over who pays the dinner bill. In short, your common-or-garden date night.
As seen on Channel 4's version, presiding over the entire lot is French maitre d' Fred Sirieix, who is a sort of cross between Jean Claude Van Damme and Nietzsche. In his stead, Irish viewers will watch the dashing Mateo Saina, who will act as the suited and booted master of ceremonies.
"Everyone that walks into this restaurant deserves a chance to find love, that's what First Dates is all about," he is quoted as saying. "It's a great feeling to see two people making a connection and if I can help make this happen, then that's my job done."
'First Dates' is on RTE2 Thursday April 21 at 9.30pm