A keen viewer of Channel 4 documentaries, Tannice takes a look at this year’s most controversial documentary series: The Undateables.
Channel 4’s been taking a lot of flak for its look at the travelling community, with its ads proclaiming ‘Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier.’ coming under the scrutiny of the ASA. The Undateables has also split its audience, weeks before it was screened for the first time tonight. As always, series that examine people solely due to their disabilities need to be sensitive and good-natured, so how was it?
Opening with one woman’s fears she would be the subject of someone’s ‘fascination f**k’, things didn’t immediately bode well and I was concerned that the show would rely too heavily on fetishising its subjects’ disabilities to the point of nausea. However, over the course of the programme, I found that whilst the voiceover could often be criticized as slightly patronizing, the tone was humourous, good-natured and based in the reality of its three stars.
It could so easily have been framed in a way to make us feel better about our own dating failures, but we soon came to get a good understanding of Penny, Luke and Richard as people, instead of just labels.
Whilst this isn’t the first time a programme has tackled the subject of love for the disabled, this is the first programme to solely focus on romance, love and the nerves that everyone faces when they’re seeking a relationship.
First up was Richard who, at 6′ 1″, is described by the dating consultant as a ‘good commodity’. Not the nicest of terms for anyone. Richard has a narrow geographical region of a 5 mile radius but is very self aware of his own inflexibility, feigning surprise at his mother’s insistence that he won’t cope well if his criteria isn’t satisfied. Those who’ve struggled to find Mr or Mrs Right will empathize with his obvious nerves before his date and his fury with a route finder that simply won’t find a route. His temper flaring several times; “the people who designed it are stupid”, Richard is just like any other man flustered when things don’t quite go his way.
In preparation for his date, Richard’s mum decides to help him out with a preparatory role-play. Pretending to be a catering assistant, his mum is seemingly useless at small talk herself, her answer to his probing “what do you cook?”, “Well, meals” hardly conducive to flowing, sparkling conversation.
Richard goes on two dates, the first a bit of a disaster as he commits the social faux pas of eating the remnants of his dates’ dinner after mistakenly choosing to forego a meal of his own. Seemingly matched solely for their shared passion for 80s music, 38 year old Dawn wasn’t keen. Undeterred, Richard gives it another go with Patricia, whose accent caused viewers and Richard alike trouble and a misunderstanding over whether Patricia was green-fingered and enjoyed ‘hoeing’ rather than rowing.
Richard takes the impression many people hold about those on the Autistic spectrum and turns it on its head. Funny, genuine and startlingly self-aware to the point of self-deprecating, “I look good on paper”, Richard is a good catch, putting only Ron Burgundy to shame in his earnest attempts to show off his ‘guns’. He’s also got a cracking turn of phrase, deciding, when letting keen Patrice down, he didn’t want to “knock her opulence”, as she wasn’t quite the one for him.
Luke seemed there to raise a few laughs. Which is good, to some extent, as he’s very much keen to provoke mirth in his role of a stand-up comic. Good looking, cheerful and with what you’d assume was swagger, Luke is actually shy, with little confidence. Doing his best not to offend others doesn’t come easily as Luke’s Tourette’s means he often swears at people, his most common insults seeming to be directed at ladies. Not the best approach when you’re trying to date the woman you just called a fat s**g. Although the voiceover did make it clear the swearing form of Tourette’s (coprolalia) is actually fairly rare (10% of Tourette’s sufferers do it), it seems he was likely picked for the show because he fits within the public’s idea of what Tourette’s is and it did therefore feel a little exploitative. Success came fairly quickly for Luke, with his lady friend, a very pretty cross between Janine and Whitney from Eastenders, although 40 minutes late for their second date, saying she was pleased to have met someone quite so cool.
The third person featured was Penny, a circus performer. A brave choice of job indeed, given her bone condition. At the time of filming, Penny was excited to be approaching a full year without breaking anything (excepting fingers and toes and her ribs).
Getting ready for her first ever date was nerve-wracking and exciting and Penny’s friend duly came over to help her curl her hair and talk tactics.
Keen on the idea of a six-foot tall policeman, Penny was instead paired with Max, a youth worker. However, they seemed only to have their method of conveyance in common, as they sat in their wheelchairs in awkward silences only interrupted with fractured, staccato snatches of badly aimed exchanges.
Max’s interview with the documentary makers after their date had faint reminders of reading the Guardian’s Blind Date feature in Weekend, where you’ll frequently get one party more interested in the other. Penny soon learned that sometimes the hardest part of dating is turning down the poor sod when you’re just not interested.
I’m sure many will disagree with me but I thought this first outing of a programme so distastefully named was sensitive and funny without being heavily exploitative. I won’t defend the name other than to suggest that it was a good way of making a taking point out of a nice look into the lives of those the ‘not-yet-disabled‘ can often overlook. Many were rightfully concerned that it would be a freak show, for the cruel to laugh at those portrayed. But the humour ultimately came from the GSOH of these SWMs and the lovely SWF realising that while you’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs, there’s plenty more fish in the sea.