The quiet revolution of First Dates

In an understated way, the dating series is one of the most diverse reality shows on television.

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It’s a busy evening at central London’s Paternoster Chop House, an upmarket restaurant in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral. A couple having dinner there are on a blind date. Danni, a 25-year-old make-up artist and model from Cardiff, is meeting bar manager Aiden, 28, for the first time.

Both had been out all night and were feeling sheepishly worse for wear. It wasn’t long until they were admitting their partying ways to each other and joking about hitting it hard the night before. They also briefly chatted about Danni being trans and Aiden pansexual. They shared nachos to soak up their hangovers.

The incidental detail of the pair’s identities was a small but touching moment in one of thousands of dates run by Channel 4’s First Dates series, which began in 2013 and is now on its 11th series (excluding the celebrity and hotel spin-offs).

A simple concept, the show matches people up who apply using its database, interviews them to find out who they’re looking for, and then introduces them to their match in a dinner date format at the same restaurant.

Deep conversations and fun dates often ensue, with some shockers unfolding in between, and people tell their life stories candidly. It’s ideal, compelling reality TV. But unlike other similar shows, it has avoided exploiting its participants – and includes a variety of daters from minority groups and different backgrounds without making a big deal about it.

Like Danni, for example.

“The actual facet of me being diverse, of me being trans, was such a small factor in the show when it aired,” she tells me over the phone. “I didn’t feel tokenised or anything like that. I never felt they were like ‘Oh here we go, we’ve got one’. It was just another component to finding a match for me.”

She did, however, worry about her date’s reaction. “One of my biggest concerns was, ‘Oh my goodness, what if he’s going to react badly to me telling him that I’m trans?’”

Panicking and calling a producer the week before her date, she asked “what if he reacts badly to me?”, and was immediately comforted. “Obviously they don’t tell you anything about the person before the date, but they were really reassuring: ‘You’re going to be fine, I promise, you’re in good hands’.”

The production team gave her their personal contacts and invited her to get in touch any time with concerns. The producers were right about her date going fine, and Danni appreciated the “duty of care” they displayed ahead of her appearance – and her gender being treated as a run-of-the-mill detail.

“A lot of feedback from my own community was that it was refreshing to see somebody be on television and it be mentioned that they’re trans, but that not be their storyline, and that really resonated with me,” she says. “It was just like ‘oh I’m trans’, but also ‘I was out last night, I was having a laugh, and blah blah blah’. It wasn’t about being trans. It’s the same as in my own life, it doesn’t really come into it, you know.”

First Dates, which currently has over 300,000 applicants on its database, has filmed participants with a dizzying range of experiences: a woman brought up in an orphanage by Mother Teresa, a football coach with a terminal brain tumour, an Iraqi refugee who lost family in the invasion, a helicopter pilot on his first ever date cross-dressing, two young gay men united in their love of Theresa May, a celibate Christian, the UK’s only female sumo wrestler and a 31-year-old administrator with autism – and that’s just the latest series.

Mostly, the daters are interviewed and filmed with open-mindedness – though there are misjudgements. Maître d’ Fred Sirieix’s “ooh la la”-ing of glamorous women, for example, not to mention cameras sweeping rather too luxuriously over some people’s bodies, or the voiceover’s recent suggestion that an autistic man is a “quirky” match.

Occasional conversations aired during dates have rightly provoked backlash, such as the decision to broadcast cage fighter Ricky laughing about being “catfished by a tranny”, the accountant Ruth claiming she was “born in the wrong race”, and one dater calling his match who had ADHD “bonkers”. The charity Trans Media Watch told Diva magazine at the time of the “catfish” comment that “Channel 4 usually does better than this”, and the show does indeed usually differ from others in the same genre by trying to match people authentically rather than comically for the cameras.

“The key is we match people for a ‘yes’, we’re not exploitative and we’re not matching people to fail and for us to laugh at and watch,” says Jon Crisp, a producer who’s been working on the show for three years. “We’re very much looking to find them love. And through that, I think naturally, dating’s a funny business, and occasionally you get the odd mismatch and a bit of a car crash date. We’re absolutely matching with their best interests at heart.”

And the understated diversity is intentional.

“We want our episodes to be a snapshot of dating across Britain, because we live in a diverse society and we’re really keen that we reflect that,” says Crisp. “We do get a diverse range of people applying – we’re blessed with the choice but we try and make sure we use it to our best potential…

“We try to be non-judgemental and take people for who they are. We try and be as inclusive as we can without labelling people – labels are a bit dull, a bit out of fashion, out of date,” he adds.

Salam, a 39-year-old trauma surgeon who left Iraq for the UK in 2003, also feels it’s “important for diversity and integration” for people like him to appear on such programmes.

“People who have migrated to the UK and made their life here and become British, from this kind of background, minorities, I think it’s very important they come and tell their story,” he tells me. “Also to draw the right picture for people – because some of the media can mislead or give the wrong impression of us.”

He lost his father, uncle and some of his cousins during the invasion, and dedicated himself to human rights work in conflict zones before qualifying as a surgeon in the UK. “I was focused career-wise, and maybe I neglected quite a lot of the relationship side,” he says.

His background also dented his confidence – something his First Dates experience helped him overcome. “I’m always worried about being judged because I was born outside of the UK and I speak with an accent,” he says. “That’s always in the back of my head, when I’m trying to speak to somebody, especially as English is not my first language – I’m always worried about how people perceive that.”

Whether it’s immigration on Muslims Like Us or Make Bradford British, poverty on Benefits Street, or sexual politics on Love Island, reality TV is usually an incendiary medium for exploring (and often exploiting) social issues. But First Dates has somehow found a way to show us a rich tapestry of romance stories – without being smug about it, or abusing its subjects.

“You can come from whatever background and watch someone on First Dates and whoever it is, whatever their background, whatever age they are, however rich they are, however poor they are, you can relate to them,” says Crisp. “Because they’re talking about feelings that we all have.”

First Dates at Christmas in on Christmas Day at 9.15pm on Channel 4

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.