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11 September 2023

Please, Davina McCall: leave middle-aged people alone!

Her new dating show My Mum Your Dad left me in a state of almost pure trauma. Will this be the show that finally forces me into therapy?

By Rachel Cooke

Having resisted therapy all my life, I might end up being driven to it by Davina McCall’s new dating show. After four episodes – you get to watch ten, from between your arthritic little fingers – I found myself in a state of almost pure trauma, my entire body begging McCall please just to leave us middle-aged people alone. First, there was her menopause campaign, which suggested subliminally that even if HRT won’t deal with rampant ageism in the workplace, it will give you a six-pack and have you shrieking excitedly at the word testosterone. Now, here she comes in her white bouclé playsuit – a little bit Chanel, and a little bit Andy Pandy – to tell the divorced, the bereaved and the perennially single that the only impediment to true love is themselves (and, possibly, the state of their hair extensions).

Forget the apps. Davina’s answer to midlife loneliness is My Mum, Your Dad or, as you may prefer to think of it, Love Island with control underwear and (strictly non-pubic) topiary. In a big house somewhere in the British countryside, she has brought together a group of would-like-to-meet forty- and fifty-somethings, each with their own sorry relationship backstory. However, in addition to the usual pot-stirring reality show techniques – the dynamic of the group is changed twice by unexpected new arrivals – this one comes with a major twist (or perhaps I mean kink) in the form of their adult children, cooped together in a separate bunker, where they spy on their parents, and manipulate the action. I mean, how perverted can you get? Imagine using binoculars to watch your mum or dad do paddleboard yoga with a total stranger. Actually, on second thoughts, maybe don’t.

So far, no one’s on the Viagra, but there has been quite a lot of cringe-de-la-cringe flirtation (sample dialogue: “Do you like snuggling? I love snuggling!”). Caroline, who’s Scottish and thinks all men are bastards, likes Roger (no jokes, please), the silver-fox postman. But he’s not opening up, his beloved wife having died only 12 months ago (how annoying of him, though it’s good, too, because… emosh). Meanwhile, Monique, who’s never got over being dumped by text, likes Martin, because he’s tall, though her feelings have been complicated by the appearance of another Martin, who’s only a couple of inches shorter (honestly, it has nothing at all to do with the fact that he’s loaded and lives in Ibiza). Finally, there’s Sharon, of Sunderland, who likes Elliott, of Essex, in spite of the comedy exercises he does poolside (he’s a PE teacher), and with whom she has agreed to take things to the “next level” (tennis, followed by prosecco). As for the others, they’re still waiting “to make a connection”, which is the woo euphemism for getting off with each other.

Davina flits between parents and children, is available for hugs when the tears flow, and tries to be encouraging – crazed smile! – about things such as the “self-acceptance workshop” they must attend, an outdoor festival of platitudes led by a psychotherapist called Asa who has a man-bun and many scatter cushions. (He instructs the group to devise affirmations for themselves, slogans that should ideally be a bit less bald than, “I want a wife/husband.”) Obviously, I find this kind of stuff grim and ridiculous: I read Women Who Love Too Much at 19, and then I put self-help behind me forever. But far more alarming to me is My Mum, Your Dad’s prime-time depiction of 21st-century middle-age, which for women seems to be all about 24/7 eyebrow husbandry and uncomfortable shoes (the men just pad around in bad shorts, and talk about whether they prefer blondes).

I know the message is that passion and friskiness are not the preserve of the young, and that frumpiness is no longer the province of the old – and I’m thoroughly down with this, though I’ll draw a veil over my libido, thanks. But still, it all feels madly regressive to me. While the middle-aged tend to feel inside much as they always did, we’re not teenagers either (though I was less ridiculous even as a teenager than this lot). Age has made us more subtle, more complicated, more kind and, above all, more confident. Our eyebrows are the least of our concerns. We’d rather wear Birkenstocks than cripple ourselves. Can’t we have a proper conversation as well as hot sex?

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My Mum, Your Dad
11 September, 9pm, available on catch-up

[See also: The ugliness of Netflix’s The Ultimatum]

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This article appears in the 13 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Revenge of the Trussites