Heather, Gareth, Matthew: Series 2 Of The Undateables Concludes With Episode Number 4


Ladykiller Matthew — sorry about that out-of-place hair on the top of your head Matthew, it honestly wasn’t deliberate


Series 1: Introduction, Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3 discussion and Episode 3 review. Another discussion piece on disability here.

Series 2: Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, and…

Yesterday, while sitting in the dentist’s chair all helpless and victimized and robbed of my money in sheer artificial daylight, I found myself once again pondering the brutal accidental humour that cruelly underscores all aspects of our everyday life. It was hard not to ponder such a thing – the humour was about as subtle as a forgetful Iranian space-scientist, still wearing his space gear, asking for a monkey in a pet shop. In so many ways it was a day lacking in subtlety. For example, MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This was on the radio in the background, mocking me, harassing me with dancy-ness, making me want to laugh at the irony of it all, and above me the dental nurse was telling me that the painful gum injection I had already just experienced “will hurt a bit when it goes in”, to which I attempted to say “yeah, I could have told you that,” but failed. Then there was the dentist herself. She wasn’t my usual dentist, and it was showing. It seemed that she was hearing U Can Touch This. U Can Touch This Very Much, Preferably Until It Really Hurts Your Patient. With the tools banging around in my mouth, I was going “Oh…Oh…” just like in the infamous song, but she wasn’t listening, and went on until the finish with the same crazed determination that Hammer put into his dance moves.

If only she’d been a rapper. She might have been really good.

I have no idea if Matthew from Episode 4 of The Undateables likes MC Hammer, but going by the fact that he was a bit of a dude, I’m going to say he does. 20 years of age and a massive music fan, when Matthew and his moustache noted the tragic lack of AC/DC fans around nowadays, he surely had a point. I found myself nodding and agreeing. Then I found the words flooding into my ears that have always terrified me and I am never, ever prepared for: the words Milton Keynes. Matthew lived there…that place of many roundabouts and a confusing grid system designed to mercilessly trap people for many hours on end, just for the fun of it. At the time, flummoxed by the words, I couldn’t work out whether or not Milton Keynes was a good place to live if you have Autism, but since then I have come to the conclusion that due to its supposed logic and such, probably, it is. As narrator Sally Phillips did her voice-over bit once again – telling us that Matthew was a big karate enthusiast, as Matthew did his kicks on-screen – I found myself wondering who in the world Milton Keynes was actually designed for. I still haven’t come up with a decent answer. Somehow, I doubt I ever will.

But let me not waste too much time banging on about the oddity that is Milton Keynes. This is the last episode in the series, so we want to do it justice.

And I’ll tell you what: Matthew’s mum was a mum of mums, a mum of justice. A true woman of mums. You could almost think of her as the Judge Dredd of the Mum World, I suppose. One of those mums who other mums likely stand around and talk about in car parks, even though their Iceland frozen goods have started to thaw. Every time Matthew fixated on something, Mrs Matthew was there to set him straight and tell it how it is. I liked these bits – most of us are aware that people with Autism are a bit different from the rest and struggle with change and empathy, but when Mrs Matthew told her son how it was, you could see that Matthew had the same needs as any 20-something bloke who thinks he looks a bit like Jonny Depp. With mum on his side, helping him with the dating thing for the first time in his life, I could see good things happening later in this programme. The only question was…would Matthew actually have time for a girlfriend even if he found one?

Then we met 38-year-old Heather, who hated being near people just as much as I hated my dental nurse for being 5 seconds late in telling me I was about to experience sharp daggery pain. I was going to say Imagine if you had 90 degree burns all over your body and that’s how Heather feels all the time when she thinks about someone, anyone, touching her, but in the end it seemed pointless. Not only might imagining such a thing put you in a foul mood for the rest of the day – something most of us don’t need additional encouragement to get into, what with slow-walking pedestrians always there just when you don’t need them, not to mention increasing rail fares, again – but it’s a bit of a silly thing to do, isn’t it? Heather had extreme OCD and no amount of imagining is going to really show you how that feels. All Heather wanted was a caring and understanding man by her side – a connection with someone she could really trust. Yet every moment of every day was dominated by stress in various forms. Forget about the being-filmed-dating part. Heather deserves our respect for even contemplating going on TV full stop.

Luckily, Heather was also in possession of a supermum. This supermum went by the name of Dawn, and Dawn had kindly allowed the filming of Episode 4 to happen at her house. At this point, we learned another amazing fact: Heather hadn’t allowed anyone in her house for 2 years. Not only that but she hadn’t been hugged – or had any physical contact with anyone – in over a year either. For Dawn, each and every time she went anywhere, she felt as if every element of life was out to get her in the most malevolent sense of the word. In the toilets at the train station, I’ve witnessed men hold one finger under the cold tap for approximately 3 seconds post urination, in a pathetic attempt to brainwash themselves into believing that this is better than doing nothing at all. Heather was different, and I don’t only mean that she wasn’t a man. I mean she washed her hands as much as 100 times each and every day. As much as Heather, I felt sorry for her supermum Dawn. When Heather got upset, all she wanted to do was give her precious daughter a big, warm hug. Yet she couldn’t at any point. How sad and difficult must that really be?

Heather was and is amazing. At no point did she complain, moan or say “I’ve bloody well had enough of all this shit,” which I’m certain I’d definitely have been doing. She just got on with it all, and that was great to see.

As the screen changed and we went back to Matthew once again, I wasn’t in the least bit surprised by the sneaky way that those Channel 4 producer people suddenly broke my concentration without warning. In fact, I almost wanted them to do it again so I could scream out loud, “Think I’m surprised, well, do you narrator Sally Phillips?” But they didn’t, and so it was that I stayed pensive and quiet, listening to narrator Sally Phillips.

So, Matthew. He was finding the rules of dating hard to understand. And, at this, you could almost feel the atmosphere and walls and floor bend and warp as millions of people across the United Kingdom willed Matthew to realise that there were no solid universal rules to dating and likely never would be. At least until all the supermums came together and sorted the world out. Yet there, once again, were the fixed ideas behind Autism making themselves so known again. Matthew didn’t like change and struggled with accepting it at even the most basic levels, so the fact that he was willing to have a go at dating – something which is never the same and we’re all constantly revising our ideas and opinions of – meant amazing things for what human beings were capable of. I liked Matthew more and more.

And if you’ve been sat there for a few minutes wondering So where do Stars In The Sky? fit into all this? then you’re just lucky I don’t have some kind of amazing technical gadgetry device on this blog which disables people who haven’t yet watched the show from continuing their reading! I won’t even make you wait, either: Stars In The Sky, the agency we’ve come to know and love for their helping disabled/disadvantaged people find one another, entered the picture right about now, and took down Matthew’s hobbies and details. Next job: find that man a match.

You fall over, you break your leg. In the hospital you swear. If you buy cheap coffee from the vending machine, you wish you hadn’t, but that’s not really the point. You are a teenager, you are an adult, you are angry – it’s hard not to be. Breaking bones is never fun, and 25-year-old man-perfume-loving Gareth, the next star of this eclectic Episode, knew all too well about all that. Gareth was a normal Essex boy in so many ways apart from just one: if Gareth sneezed too hard, he might break a rib. Most of us break a couple of bones in our entire lives, yet Gareth said he’d broken 205 of them. That’s Brittle Bone Disease for you.

Then Gareth came out and said it, and it was brilliant, because you could see he didn’t care in the slightest, and he felt no shame. No, I’m not talking about having Keira Knightley as his ideal woman alongside Cheryl Cole, even though Keira Knightley was responsible for the strangely watchable visual atrocity that was and is Domino. Instead, I’m talking about the fact that he was saying on TV he was a virgin. Where most people would have hidden it, Gareth came right out and said it, just like that. He also made it plain that he was a born-again Christian, and for that I had respect. Me, I’m an agnostic-atheist, but that’s irrelevant. Anyone who’s willing to stand up and speak like that is a man in my book.

Just as long as they don’t claim Domino to be a good film. It’s not. It’s crap. Sorry, Gareth.

Fortunately, Gareth soon had me thinking less about Keira Knightley’s questionable acting and much more about the good things in life. Family. Friends. What really matters. Gareth and I might be different when it comes to our knowledge of cars – Gareth has some, I don’t – but we seemed to be on the same page when it came to that. When Sandy, Gareth’s very own supermum, spoke of how she longed for her son to settle down, it was emotional. I almost felt like going out and getting a fashionable haircut and tight jeans, then buying the complete DVD box-set of Evanescence Live – if such a thing exists.

I said almost. I stopped myself just in time.

Clad in their biking gear which I bet they paid way too much money for, the two neon-yellow cyclists on the screen were waiting on the coastal path, sun beating down on a blue-sky day, and Heather, well, she didn’t know what the fuck to do, did she. All she wanted to do was get past them, but there in lied the problem. Her extreme OCD meant that she couldn’t just walk through the gap between them like anyone else might have done. So there she stood, right on the cliff edge, with someone from behind the camera saying, “if you find being near people so difficult, why do you want a partner?” It’s exactly these kind of questions which, I think, have been the foundation of why The Undateables so gets under peoples skin. And after I heard this question, I felt similar to many who have Tweeted their dislike of the show in the past. What right did this producer woman have to ask such a blunt, obvious question? I found myself thinking. For a few seconds, I felt defensive, like all of this was just one big trap. Note to Channel 4 producers: in the future, wait until someone backs away from the cliff edge before asking such a thing.

Then I realised it wasn’t. It never has been. Why? Because, like it or loathe it, there are hundreds-of-thousands of people out there asking far harsher questions about disability than this. My take on it is: for a show like The Undateables to really get the attention it deserves, we need to ask the bluntest of questions. After all, questions which might seem and sound blatantly obvious to many of us are things that some people will have no idea of.

Luckily, Heather didn’t seem offended in the slightest, and gave an articulate and insightful answer. She likened the need to find someone trustworthy to a ship searching for a lighthouse, and that sounded like a pretty good description to me.

Remember Christine? Christine from Flame Introductions should be a familiar person by now. Along with her team back at the office, Christine is one of the people who has made a number of The Undateables dating moments happen. Here, next, she visited Heather at home for a nice chat about the kind of bloke she was after.

Which was when we all got hit with a particularly poorly timed bombshell. Now, I’m well aware that the very nature of a bombshell is its poor timing – if you could see the bombshell coming, you’d get out of the way, after all – but in this case, it was just plain illegal. See, according to the show’s makers, Heather had Asperger Syndrome, as well as her excessive OCD. Fine you might say. Only this was the first thing we’d heard about it, as far as I’d been aware. Why does that matter? Well, because it would have been nice to know this information before, if you ask me. The fact we were only being told this right now meant I could only come to one conclusion about the show’s editing: that this information had been held back deliberately, and unleashed right now so as to increase the entertainment factor and make us all go “oh, I didn’t realise that!” My problem with this is two-fold. Not only did the show fail to then explain that not everyone with OCD also has Asperger Syndrome – the two things are strongly linked, but not nearly always present simultaneously – but not knowing about it earlier had allowed viewers to form the wrong impression of people with both OCD and Asperger, and now they were stuck with it. For a long time, I’ve been saying that I think Channel 4 have done fantastically well with The Undateables when it comes to highlighting positive things about disabled and disadvantaged people, yet this left the essence of something cheap behind that did not belong and had no place. Raising awareness of these issues is hard enough on its own. The last thing we need to do, surely, is mix things up even more so people don’t know what to think.

Now Channel 4 have had yet another slap on the bottom for being a little bit naughty, let us move on past Heather and her worrying about how she couldn’t even shake hands with people – something to worry about on a first date it has to be said – and onto…

Gareth, at his computer, anxiously awaiting the profile of someone very special. Yes, here, on the screen, thanks to the dating expert people, was the face of a girl who was well up for meeting him. She wanted to Give It Large, if you want to get all Essexy about it. Gareth thought she looked a lot like Keira Knightley, while I thought she looked precisely nothing like her. Still, that’s immaterial. The main thing was, Gareth liked the sound of her and he was bloody well ready to go for it. He reminded me of this boy I went to secondary school with who was absolutely obsessed with becoming a pest control officer. The difference was, I smiled at Gareth’s single-minded determination. It’s hard to get passionate about someone who really wants to catch rats.

I’ve never much liked people who made me go to Milton Keynes, as I’m sure you’re aware. Usually I’ll tell them straight to their face, swiftly followed by “well don’t fucking expect me to be on-time”. But then, you get used to Milton Keynes after a while. By this point in the show, I had been beaten over the head by Milton Keynes and Milton Keynes-esque thoughts enough that I was almost, in a weird sort of a way, beginning to sort of miss and long for the hellish nightmare that is Milton Keynes. That’s how bad it had got. It was like that Stockholm Syndrome thing. Luckily, though, Matthew made Milton Keynes fun again. He was saying about how he couldn’t dance to just any old music. About how he had to actually like it or he wouldn’t bother. As we learned that Matthew had made the 50-mile journey to London for a Christmas party that the dating agency were putting on, all in the hope of finding that special someone, I found myself feeling very much like Matthew. So much so that I began to feel that I was more Autistic than Matthew was. I mean, the number of times I haven’t danced to music because I didn’t like it. I won’t go into that here. When I think about it – all those bodies writhing to music I passionately despise on every level – I could cry. I won’t think about it, or else I might.

To begin with, it was bad news. Predictably, as with discos were so much depends, there was lots and lots of music that Matthew didn’t like. But on this night, it appeared that luck was on his side. One moment the track was changing to music he did like, and the next he was up and dancing with a pretty black girl…more than that, they were jiving and holding hands! Not an easy combination, I think you’ll agree.

And now I’m going to be brutally honest: watching Heather wash her hands for what might have been the 56th time made me feel a bit perplexed. The thing was…feeling perplexed about this caused another wave of confusion to rise up within me. Why am I confused I’m confused? I kept thinking, as we learned that Christine, now on the phone, had some great news – that she had a good match for Heather. It highlighted, once again, the considerable effect that strange phenomena has on me, and all of us. There I was knowing that OCD was like this, and there I still was finding myself wondering why people felt so compelled to do the things they do, such as repeatedly wash their hands. I pitied people who had absolutely no idea of what these conditions were, and hoped that Heather’s date had some idea. Even if you understand why people have these issues and problems, it can still be hard to get your head around.

Luckily, the more you read about these kind of things, the more sense it makes. If this second series of The Undateables has done anything at all, it’s shove in our face, once again, these important things. Which means one firm conclusion can be arrived at: after the second series ended, there’ll be more people than ever who are willing to want to learn more about this stuff. Great news indeed. The more people who learn what it means to be different, the more people they can pass that new knowledge onto.

Excited by Eye Tee, also known as IT or I.T.? Love the idea of spending hours on a Friday night not even doing HTML coding, but thinking about doing HTML coding? In that case, when Heather’s date arrived on her computer screen in the form of a profile, you’d have been all hot under the collar and thinking about doing HTML together, in a kind of sexy HTML embrace, or something. 46-years-old, Heather’s IT developer date went by the name of Peter. And if you thought that all IT developers love to do is sit about and obsess over what it might be like to become integrated into the internet as an actual computer file, then you’d be thoroughly wrong, or maybe just partially right. Peter liked walking and nature as well as science. Yep, he wasn’t playing games…

And neither was Heather. She was going on that date if it killed her. She hoped it wouldn’t, of course, and joked about how she might need a tranquilizer to do it. At least, I think she was joking.

One month after first getting in there with the dating agency, Matthew was back on the screen and Lydia – yes, the infamous Lydia from many a previous Undateables episode – was back on the phone. In the spirit of not playing games, Lydia had taken that concept to a whole new level. She’d scoured the books and found Nicola. Enter Matthew’s long-haired black-clothes-loving friend Charlie with some good across-the-table advice for Matthew about the etiquette of dating. Tactfully, Charlie did his best to educate his best friend about how to talk to a girl when on that all important first date. You could see it was an uphill struggle, but you had to commend Matthew for bothering to climb the hill anyway. If I was him, I think I might have just given up at the bottom.

Preparing for a date is never easy, but imagine you live in a world where it constantly feels like it does on the London Underground at rush hour. That sweaty arm pit right in your face. Those joggers standing there all sodden-groined in lycra when you’re stuck sitting down and eye-level with the source of all their stench. This – being stuck in close proximity to others and hating every single second of it – was how I imagined Heather had to be feeling pretty much every time she left the house and had to be near people. Add dating into the mix and you have purest hell, surely. No wonder supermum Dawn was busy helping her to work out how to move around and get through the date without wanting to kick a lycra-wearing commuter right in the balls. In those circumstances, it would have been insanity to not worry like hell about the impending date.

Goodbye Heather – hello Gareth. Today, right here, right now, was the day of reckoning. Gareth said he hadn’t been on a date since he’d been at school. It’d been ten years, but Gareth was doing a fine job of not appearing bothered. A man very much in love with his perfumes, we already knew that Gareth thought of himself as vain and Jesus-loving and didn’t care, and now we knew that he was a man of romance, too. Earlier in the show, Gareth had said how he hoped that one day he’d be able to propose. From the looks of how Gareth prepared for the date with Beth – buying flowers, being all Essex and snazzy – it was pretty clear that he’d likely get his chance if he kept on going like that.

I wanted this Beth character to be perfect for Gareth. A fellow born-again-Christian, Beth seemed like a good fit on paper. Unfortunately, Beth wasn’t a good fit in person when they met up at Southend-on-Sea – or Gareth wasn’t a good fit for her, if that’s the way you want to look at it. Not only did Beth say Gosh an awful lot, which I hadn’t heard Gareth say even once, but when he ordered fish and chips, a slight look of unreadable vagueness came over Beth’s face. Did it mean Fish and chips are terrible or Fish and chips, you blow my mind with your incredible taste for this humble British classic, I wish I’d thought of that and not ordered this poxy goat’s cheese salad thing? It was impossible to tell, but as the date wore on a bit like a cold shower just on the verge of being too cold but also just about warm enough to keep one underneath the shower for long enough for the shower to be just about worth enduring, it was clear that their love of God wasn’t going to get them into bed together any time soon. At least, not without Gareth being arrested. It was also clear that Beth saying things like “I go on dates all the time” wasn’t going to help much at all.

Gareth was kind about it all, though. He didn’t say “all she did was talk about herself,” when that’s how it came across to us viewers. What a gentleman. Not that Gareth was that fazed. Cut-up though he may have been, he wasn’t giving up the dating game just yet. The man wasn’t going down without a fight.

Had enough of Milton Keynes? Tough shit, we’re going back again. Don’t worry, you won’t need you GPS.

Matthew was preparing for his first ever date with Nicola. Hailing from St Albans and also autistic, Nicola and Matthew were to meet at a local restaurant. At first Matthew was worried about saying the wrong thing. As it turned out, Matthew didn’t have to worry about that, because his thoughts were consumed entirely with other more serious ones like: how the bloody hell am I going to eat this fantastically hot curry? Somehow, Matthew recovered, didn’t have a heat-fit, and found his body firing in the right and not wrong way so usually associated with extremely hot curries. Out he came with the questions. Before long, they were doing small-talk and not once had he offended her!

Every good story needs a pinnacle. A moment of truth. A moment where everything that has been building up until this point comes together as a tremendous force that must be overcome. For Matthew, that force was deeply intense – his greatest challenge yet, some might say – and it came in the way Nicola responded to “what’s your favourite kind of music?” with “Peter Andre.” Yes, those two words that no human being who adores real music wants to be confronted by. For a few seconds, I held my breath and pictured what I might say if I was Matthew. Then the vision got out of control, and I found myself running out of that restaurant as fast as my legs could carry me, into the safe arms of the music I loved that made the world alright once again.

When Matthew looked worried Nicola right in the eyes and said, reasonably convincingly, “Peter Andre is alright,” I thought I was imagining things. That my brain couldn’t handle any more hardship and had done its optimistic thing once again. Yet as the seconds wore on, I found it was real.

Well done Matthew, I thought. I don’t actually know anyone else who could’ve done that and kept a straight face.

Heather ended Series 2, Episode 4 in exactly the way I wanted it to happen. So many times on this show, the dates haven’t quite been what we expected. This time, Peter was the perfect gentleman. Anxious as Heather was, from what I saw, Peter was every bit the understanding, patient and supportive man that Heather had been looking for all along. Walking around some botanical gardens, Peter graciously kept his distance and respected Heather’s boundaries at all times. No hand-shakes, nothing too familiar, staying calm and kind all the while. And Heather did her bit, too, being totally upfront and honest about the depth of her problems. Being refined, but never holding anything fundamental back.

Then they talked about Star Trek. I have next to no idea what in the world Deep Space 9 is, but Peter has the entire series of it on DVD and according to Heather, that’s quite impressive. We even saw her blush and make eye-contact briefly – something she’d been struggling with all along. Thank goodness for Deep Space 9.

When Peter asked Heather if she wanted to exchange phone numbers right at the very end, and Heather said Yes – more than just Yes, she also said she wanted to talk with him again – it was the ideal moment to end the series on. Peter? He stole the show by blowing a kiss, Heather smiled, and maybe one day we’ll get to see what happened next.

Speaking of which, there’s one last show to come in this series. Next week we’ll get to venture back to the stars of Series 1 and see where they are now…


The Undateables – Series 2, Episode 3: Disability Is Never Dull



Catch up with Series 2 Episode 1 here, and Series 2 Episode  2 here. Click here to start at the beginning with Series 1.

As I start writing this blog post it’s 00:31am in the morning and I could quite fancy a wee, but I’m not going to go for a wee, because I have promised myself – forced myself – that I will at least write a single full paragraph before allowing myself the privilege of what I like to call “a nice, luxury, sit-down wee”. One of those things that every man loves but only very few men seem to be able to admit to liking. Which means that if this doesn’t go to plan and I get struck with a debilitating case of writer’s block then there could quite literally be hell to pay and an embarrassing blog post to write. Luckily for me, I don’t believe in writer’s block and I also have very little willpower when it comes to things like just sitting there and committing to wetting myself. If I feel like that’s even a remote possibility, then I am safe – and so is this sofa – in the knowledge that I just won’t allow that to happen. I like to think it’s one of my good points.

Not that it ever came to that. I’ve just been and now I’m back. Go on, next time you go, treat yourself to a nice, luxury, sit-down wee! Things won’t be the same after you do, trust me.

But to get back on track, before this becomes a full blog post about going to the toilet.

Not so long ago it was Tuesday. Right now it’s Wednesday, and by the time I finish writing this it’ll probably feel more like Thursday. You’d think I’d feel at least mildly euphoric about that, it being so close to Friday, and Friday basically wanting to be Saturday, but in reality I am mainly jealous…jealous of all those lucky journalists and bloggers who receive a preview of the TV show/film/documentary they are reviewing and get to go to bed at a reasonable time, where they then actually manage to sleep. Me? If I want my review to be out while people still want to read it, I have to stay up late into the early morning. Not that the world’s going to stop turning if I don’t get it done, of course, it’s just that The Undateables is a popular thing on this blog and one of my favourite things to write about. Besides that, in some ways I’m a creature of habit, and I hate to let myself down. That’s probably why, between the ages of 12 and 16, I only ever ate cheese and ham sandwiches.

However, there are some things that make doing this voluntary task that nobody is forcing me to do that much easier. Well, not that much easier – I do really want my bed – but a bit easier, a bit like one of those hand-driers in the toilets which sort of works, but only in the most fractional and unnoticeable of ways. Seriously, when are they going to pass a law to get rid of those bloody hand-driers. With The Undateables, for example, I mind less than I might do if Tom Daley’s Splash! was unleashed upon us late in the evening and I felt compelled to write about that. Now there’s a scary thought. (Come to think of it…I have no idea why Splash! would be aired late and advise you not to ponder it either. Naked diving? I feel awful for the children of tomorrow, because instead of The Undateables, that’s probably what they’re going to be watching. Somehow, I think I’ll be both missing much and almost nothing at all.)

I’ll probably look back on this time in a fond way, though. If I ever get some kind of prestigious TV-reviewer position that makes everyone else jealous, I mean. For instance, one of the benefits of reviewing a show just hours after it came out is obvious to me, but it might not appear obvious to you at first glance. That’s to say that right now – at the time of writing – the internet is dead and I feel like some kind of ideas renegade. What I mean by that is this: right now, at 00:58 on Wednesday, you Google episode 3 of Series 2 of The Undateables and you won’t see much other than lots of links to watch clips from the show and other related content (I just tried it out and was relieved that no irritating, about-to-go-to-sleep, prestigious TV-reviewer had just released their review). This fact essentially means that, unlike some of the reviewers who are going to be releasing their opinions tomorrow morning after reading other reviews and chatting with colleagues, I have nothing to go by. Nothing at all whatsoever. I’m in dead space, with my own thoughts, and it’s 00:45am. With no influence and nothing out there to bias me, I can write my blog post knowing that these are my own, 100% unadulterated, uncontaminated thoughts. And I like that. I don’t want to write reviews that are swayed by public opinion or what some people think. The Undateables always has been a show that stirs up debate, and sometimes I think half of the reason for this is that people just don’t know what to make of it all. Quite simply, it’s easier just to think what someone else has on their mind than to bother to think yourself.

I should know. I’ve tried it. It’s a bit like washing my own washing which someone else has accidentally washed for me and feeling really content because I know that nobody could possibly say my washing wasn’t clean, however badly I washed it myself. Actually, that really did happen to me once in Germany. I went to the shop next door, came back, and someone else had got my washing confused with their washing and shoved it all in together. I sat there smugly, then took it out afterwards and realised it smelled a bit funny. So I had to wash it again. In the end it just made me more work, not less.


Every now and again, as I was writing down my notes for this episode – my girlfriend sitting next to me acting as a sort of romantic backup memory, reciting to me the facts coming from the TV – I wrote Damian’s name as Damina. Which is pretty apt, actually, as Damian not Damina was and is a huge fantasy fan. I say apt because I think of Damina being the name of some fantasy character in some fantasy book, movie or game. By now enough alarm bells should have rung to tell you that I have absolutely no idea about anything fantasy-related. In fact, the more I think of it, Damina sounds like the name of a femme fatale from a James Bond film. That bit in Skyfall* when the digger spins round and half destroys that train was fantastical, though, so I reckon I just saved about myself there.

* major spoiler alert. Oh dear, it’s a bit late now, but still, better late than never. Serves you right for not going to see Skyfall when it came out. Consider this your punishment.

So, Damian.

Before I continue I should probably apologise to Damian if any of his friends have read this post and have started calling him Damina. Still, these things happen. I mean, look at me…my second name is Pink! (Not with the exclamation mark, of course, don’t be silly.)

First things first, we saw that Damian likes to spend a lot of time with wizards, demons and skeletons. As narrator Sally Phillips told us about Damian’s Albanism and the fact he’d been single for three years, we even saw two romantic skeletons hugging, which is a sight you don’t see every day. At least, you don’t if you’re not into fantasy like me. Who knows, maybe this is actually a rather common thing in the fantasy world. I have no idea.

To begin with, I was too taken with the hugging skeletons to notice much else, but as time wore on and the toll Damian’s condition has taken on his life became more obvious, it was hard not to admire how he’d dealt – and was dealing with – his disability. I mean, have you ever been stuck in the house for a couple of days, out of sunlight, away from friends, feeling isolated and lonely and generally fed-up? Thanks to a serious illness I once had, I have, for at least several years, and I know that it’s hard to deal with and doesn’t always get easier over time. So it was clear that Damian was a strong character – he’d been dealing with these issues ever since he was 4-months-old. Virtually blind and suffering from an intense reaction to even the mildest rays of sunlight, it was hardly surprising that he struggled with leaving the house and socializing. Imagine struggling with these things on a daily basis. Not only did I think Damian was fantastically brave for going on this show, but I thought his mum was terrific, too. It wasn’t easy viewing as, on camera, she conveyed her guilt for passing on Damian’s genetic, inherited condition. It was hard to hear that Damian had been verbally assaulted on numerous occasions. All for something completely beyond his and his family’s control. Sometimes, my mind boggles.

So at 25-years-old, it’s fair to say that Damina – agh, Damian! – had some catching up to do in the girlfriend stakes. Not that I could see Damian staying single for very long after this episode went out on-air. The man came across as clever and articulate, with a good sense of humour and a general awareness of his thoughts and feelings. In other words, precisely someone who shouldn’t ever be allowed to go into management, according to what I heard two bitter nine-to-five employees say on the train home the other day. Honest.

Tall, white and pasty he might’ve been – Damian’s words, not mine – but he did have a big dog, which we saw him hugging, and he also had best-mate Michael there, ready and willing to point him in the right direction and listen to his love woes. The more I watched Damian, the more I wanted the makers of The Undateables to interrupt and say, “sorry, Damian, you’re really not considered Undateable anymore, you’ll have to leave the show.” I mean…seriously? Does society really deem someone in his position as entirely Undateable? Maybe they do, maybe that’s the point, but still…the guy was genuine, and about as normal as any man could be who was forced to spend a large amount of time at home. I had high hopes. I had a feeling he was about to start meeting lots and lots of girls, even if he was extremely blonde in every aspect, apart from the popular Essex joke way.

When Damian said “You can’t very well pull someone in front of your mum,” I found myself saying, “you can’t and you shouldn’t Damian, not unless you’re one of those families of many generations who goes to Wetherspoons and all get blind drunk at the same time, like something out of Shameless, in which case it’d be perfectly normal.”

So, next up, Damian was meeting this matchmaker lady. Christine from Flame Introductions, to be specific – an agency in Sussex which is now becoming a regular on the show. Damian was shitting himself about this, of course. Mainly, he told Christine that he was only after the simple things. A girl to love him for who he was and all that stuff. The things any person would be looking for in someone else, providing they weren’t the real-life embodiment of Christian from erotic mega seller Fifty Shades of Grey. After Christine had left, we saw her driving away saying how she thought it’d be quite difficult to find Damian a date. At this, my heart sank. A guy with this much to give? I mean, I know he’s different and spends a lot of time in his room, but a lot of people spend that much time down the pub like the aforementioned characters of Channel 4 never-ending drama Shameless and they still manage it. “Come on Christine,” I was going. “It really can’t be that difficult, can it?”

Five weeks on, Damian had long passed the point of shitting himself. Now, as the phone rang on humiliation-mode – otherwise known as speakerphone – Damian looked like a man who had shat himself into submission and now just wanted, no, needed this over with. Luckily for him, that was about to happen in a big way. Christine had managed it alright. She’d only bloody gone and found him a nice 19-year-old lass who went by the name of Lizzie. One who loved fantasy nerds and everything. First Damian needed to sit down and stop shaking and process all this amazing. Then he confirmed the date and that was it: after 3 years of being single, Damian was going for it once again.

As with what was to come in the form of Oliver and Kate’s dating exploits, what happened next surely melted the coldest of cynical this-is-all-exploitation-I-hate-it-but-nevertheless-I’m-still-going-to-watch-it-and-complain-endlessly-on-The-Guardian-comments-section hearts – especially the bit where Damian made public his hatred of looking like Tintin. There was Damian, quietly crapping himself in the pub as his mum left him to it, and there was Lizzie, arriving and sitting down to, at first, a textbook awkward silence. The only thing more awkward than the silence was the visualising of that silence on TV screens across the United Kingdom, as Lizzie and Damian first struggled to find common ground and then struggled to get off it. By now, we knew that this was going somewhere – mainly because neither could stop talking. OK, there was no guarantee that they’d get together at the end, or ever see one another again, come to think of it, but Lizzie loved aliens and Harry Potter and dragons, for goodness sake. She even had bright red hair and alternative make-up, the likes of which I’d imagine Damina might wear if she was some kind of fantasy elf character born and bred in Newcastle.

Mainly, they both loved Fable. As Damian asked her if she’d like to meet up again, and Lizzie said Yes, I pondered, once again, what in the hell this Fable thing was. As they left the pub at closing, narrator Sally Phillips said that Damian was ready to take the next big step with this flourishing relationship. At this, my girlfriend and I looked at one another, both thinking that Channel 4 were about to enter the kind of sordid, sinister ground that the foundation of Shameless is purely built upon…that poor Sally Phillips had been coerced into doing a seedy voice-over for something she had never signed-up to do. We needn’t have panicked, though. What actually happened was we then saw Damian and Michael chatting, having a man-to-man talk. And with that there was…


I’ve got a relative who has Down’s Syndrome, so when I saw that Kate was on the show, I was intrigued, along with many other emotions. I was also quietly concerned. I’ve seen the abuse that people with Down’s Syndrome get by people who are ignorant to the condition – usually indirectly, but sometimes in their face. Much as I knew that this episode would, almost undoubtedly, turn around the opinions of many thousands of people with almost no idea about the specifics of the condition, I also wondered what the negative effects might be. A person with Down’s on a dating show? You’d be naïve and too hopeful to think that some people wouldn’t hellishly take the piss out of that.

Kate was fantastic and charming and everything we saw was good, though, so I was more or less instantly sure that we had nothing to worry about. Warm, smiley and thoroughly likeable, this episode of The Undateables made one thing very plain: disability does not have to define our personalities and kindness and lust for life. Good things do shine through. Seeing Kate on the show was a wonderful reminder of the fact that dating is dating, no matter who you are or what you’re like.

If Damian couldn’t do without his trolls and dragons, then Kate was equally smitten with her poetry. Living in Worcestershire, one of Kate’s main goals in life was to find a husband. Mainly, though, we found ourselves amazed. Kate worked in an office and worked more than some people I know. All this, and she was willing to put herself in front of the cameras, when even the merest mention of a man anywhere near gave her the giggles and made her shy. Quite simply, Kate’s dedication to dealing with her disability was breathtaking. No moaning, no crying, no complaining. At the risk of this blog post morphing into the pages of a chick-lit novel, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that you couldn’t help but smile whenever she did.

Two weeks after joining an introductions agency, things were looking up. If Kate got goose-pimples before at just the mere mention of a male in close proximity, then she was about to need several fleeces and maybe even a radiator strapped to her back: Rachel was on the phone and had amazing news – she’d found a match and his name was Simon. 32-years-old and the same height as her – this fact seemed to be particularly overpowering for reasons known only to Kate herself – Kate couldn’t help but tell the entire office about her impending date. It was just a shame that when she said “I really need a hug,” nobody got up to give her a hug. I mean, some people. But I’m sure she got lots afterwards.

When the day of the date came, Kate, thrilled with her pink phone and life in general, could barely contain her excitement. Actually, that’s a silly saying – in this case she couldn’t contain her excitement. This caused a worrying fear to grow inside me –a fear which was almost completely the opposite of Kate’s excitement. The reason? I’m terrible with directions and the date was to be at a maze in the grounds of some stately home. I had visions of some evil gardener from the past – maybe even a whole team of them – going about designing the maze with the purest intentions of trapping innocent human beings who were terrible at spacial awareness. Fortunately, the show’s producers managed to tug on enough of my heart-strings that my entire body was momentarily pinned to the spot and distracted away from all that direction terror. It was Simone’s first ever date, you see. So what if they spent the first few minutes of it wandering around hitting multiple dead-ends, causing a cruel tormenting panic to slowly then rapidly build within me? It was mighty compelling TV, they had a great time, and after having tea together, Kate and Simon hugged and had their photo taken. If that doesn’t make you have at least some faith in the world then really, I pity you.

Four days later, Simon had called and said he couldn’t do this any more and Kate was dealing with the fact that she was to be on her own once again. Not really! You should have been paying more attention and you’ll learn for next time, thanks to me. But don’t thank me. No, what really happened was this: Kate was set to go and meet Simon for their second date, and had a whole arsenal of poetry ready to read at him and woo him with. As I watched Mr Bean’s demented face stare back at me from a book or a DVD on a shelf in the background, Kate recited her special personalised poem. The next thing we heard, Simon was on humiliationphone and Kate was asking him if he liked surprises. Simon did, and that was good news for him, because he had a massive one coming his way.

Maybe it’s just because I’m a big soppy romantic git every so often, but, if you ask me, you wouldn’t have been human if, by this point in the show, you didn’t want things to go well for Kate and Simon. That probably means I’ve just called a few thousand people on Twitter sub-human, but oh well. The only worry was the incredible amount of hope that Kate had attached to this possible relationship. In just the space of one week, she was already thinking about marriage. Once again, you almost wanted someone to step in and explain that this might not happen…that this wasn’t always the way life went. That this was all way too early. But, at this point, let us remind ourselves what The Undateables actually is and always has been: it’s a documentary about people with disabilities on their quest for dating. What it is not is a documentary about disabled people dating with the show’s producers guiding them along the way, coaxing them to do what we might do. That may be what many people want to see, but that isn’t what it is.

When the food arrived, a big conversation about seafood ensued, langoustines in particular, which I should know about, as I write for a fish blog, but really don’t care too much about, as I much prefer a nice bit of salmon or crab or sea bass, or something. From there, the subject shifted to squid, and with this you could tell that Kate had something bigger on her mind. This was made blatantly obvious when the narrator actually pointed this out for us, just in case a few hundred-thousand people hadn’t been paying attention.

Then, not really from out of nowhere, it came: Kate says “…how do you feel about me?” and went on to clarify that by asking if he felt like she was a friend, a girlfriend, or something else. Kate’s not stupid, of course. Before Simon could give more than a cursory answer and dodge the question too much, out came the poem, and with it one of the most heartwarming and touching moments on either series so far. Gone was the doubt which had crept into our minds when Simon had, before, been slightly vague. Simon began to cry, stood up and asked to excuse himself so he could get his head round what had just happened on his first ever date.

Then Kate, she said “that poem worked,” and smiled, because it really genuinely did. Seconds later, they were walking hand-in-hand and Simon had his arm round her. Brilliant, priceless TV.


Autism: generally speaking, people just don’t get it. Is it when someone is simple? I have heard people say – and that’s not always their fault. There are many thousands of medical conditions in the world, and clearly we can’t all know about all of them. Perhaps it’s because looks can be so deceiving. If someone has Crouzon Syndrome or Achondroplasia, then people can generally get their head round what that is, even if they can’t always accept it. It’s the guy with the weird eyes, they might say, or it’s the girl who’s a midget, when they really mean a dwarf. With Autism, the line looks blurry, because people with Autism look almost like any so-called normal person. Oliver was the third and final subject of this third episode from the second series. A talented art student from North London, at times, it was hard to watch Oliver paint and fathom he was in any way different. Yet Oliver’s mum pointed out the stark reality of being Autistic and what that really means. Lacking a natural understanding of social interaction, and unable to build a cohesive understanding even after lots of time has passed, her son spent most of his time isolated in his own little world. Not that Oliver banged on about that. Clearly this was a man with a passion. And Oliver’s paintings were good. Not good for someone with a disability – simply good, full-stop.

Ever wandered around an art gallery on your own? I have, and I can think of fewer places where you can feel more isolated than this. I’ve felt less lonely in a graveyard. This has never been a problem for me and it probably hasn’t for you, but for someone with Autism, whose only carefree portal into the world is images and colours, this presents an issue: Oliver had been going to art galleries for three years with the hope of stumbling across someone special. It was easy to see where his mum was coming from when she voiced her concerns about him not looking in the right place.

Another huge problem which was much less obvious when you first looked at Oliver was his specific way of thinking. The way in which the need for familiarity all but consumed and dictated his life. Most of us hate traffic and queues and money and cinema and the weather and discos. Well, maybe not the cinema, unless you’ve got some really annoying sod kicking you right in the back, and maybe not money, if you’re absolutely loaded, but definitely the others (unless you live somewhere warm and sunny, in which case I despise you). Oliver’s problem was that any deviation from the things he was used to presented virtually catastrophic emotional barriers that could not be overcome. Most of us are particular in some way or ways, but for people with Autism, when change occurs, entire worlds come crashing down.

Aside from all that, next time you go out, try going out on a date without money, or queueing, or getting soaked, or getting stuck in traffic. Unless you want to go on a romantic date in an underground car-park on a bright Sunday morning, that’s not going to happen. Especially if you live in Scotland in a place where there aren’t even any cars.

Luckily, Oliver did have one huge thing on his side. Well, two actually. First there was his ever-loving mum, and second there was his simple need for someone of good company.

And so it was that Oliver found himself at a night for single people with disabilities. When Oliver’s mum said that it’d be her dearest wish to see her son happy, you could see what this and every positive experience can do for disabled people. What things that we take for granted really mean for them.

One thing I didn’t expect was for Oliver to be so bold. On the hunt comes to mind. I’d anticipated Oliver standing in alone in the corner, dancing and not really knowing what to do or how to speak to people, but speak to people he most definitely did. Over to the girl in the corner he went. Becky was her name, and this was just the beginning. Over the course of the next few minutes, Oliver made utter mincemeat of that dance floor, saying a great big Screw You! to an eternity of dating & disco ethics and generally asking out more or less every female on that dance-floor. Not only that but he managed to not get slapped hard in the face once, which was a serious feat in itself, I thought.

By the end of the night, Oliver had not one but 3 phone numbers. That man, he was euphoric!

Then there’s the funny factor. One of the things which people have been getting worked-up about with this show is the way in which the producers have a knack of catching funny moments. This presents an interesting question: is it unethical to film someone acting funny when they themselves aren’t aware they’ll be perceived that way? I’m not sure. But what I am sure about is that this has been happening forever, and it is an intrinsic part of being on TV. Take The Apprentice, for example. In that show, not an episode goes by without one or five of the contestants making an arse of themselves. Are they aware of this at the time? Mostly, not, even if they really ought to be. The editing plays an enormous part of how funny the moment is, of course. Depending on how it’s integrated into the running order of the clips – the timing, what came both before and after – it may be anything from insulting to hilarious to weird to freaky and so much more. What’s my point? My point is this: if you’re going on TV, expect to look daft or funny at some point. As far as I can see, as long as the subjects of this show are comfortable with being on the show and looking human, then that’s enough of a guarantee for me. Now series 1 is well into the past, doesn’t it strike you that if this show really was exploitative, someone from a past show would have spoken out about that? And if not them, one of their friends or family, speaking of the negative effect it has had on their life?

Going back to Oliver, the man had been busy. Not only had he been in touch with one of the girls from the singles night, but he already had a line planned with which to stun her with. “You’ve got really good lips,” he practiced, at home. “And I wonder if I can kiss you?”

Much as I knew Oliver understood that this was to be beamed into the homes of almost everyone in the entire country, I sincerely hoped he wouldn’t use those words.

I needn’t have been worried, though. Oliver met his date, 24-year-old Amy, at a local restaurant in North London. Amy had muscular dystrophy and Oliver quite liked her haircut and wasn’t afraid to say so. I was impressed he’d noticed to be honest, because I know plenty of blokes who wouldn’t have. It also took my mind of the glass tomato ketchup bottle that they had on the table. Ever since that time I sprayed ketchup everywhere, seeing that item has always triggered a minor stress situation inside my head. Just get the squeezable ones and be done with it.

But The Undateables never really stays stressful for long, does it? As Oliver asked Amy if she’d liked to be his girlfriend in his own charming way, and then immediately went home and changed his relationship status on Facebook – notice I said changed and not upgraded, because Oliver had seemed reasonably content before – and then started doing loads of paintings of him and Amy together, happy, laughing, hugging, I was reminded that each and every one of these shows has been vastly different in every way. As far as I can see, we’re almost done with this being a novelty, now. And that’s good news for Channel 4 and great news for planet Earth. Whatever their motives for creating a show about disability and dating, what they’ve done is contribute to destroying a taboo which needs much more awareness. Looks like we’re well on the way. About bloody time, I say.

Lance Armstrong Implosion: Lance May Have Lost His Head, But Where His Mental Health Is Concerned, We’ve Got To Keep Ours


Half the man

Usually, I have a routine. I’ll sit down and begin writing a blog post with the first things that come into my mind, then go back and delete them and replace them with the finer observations – the things that only come to mind after sitting and thinking for some time. Those things that are guided by empathy and understanding, examining what it must be like to be in a certain person’s shoes. Much of the time, this process happens in reasonable time, and I eventually arrive at what I feel is a fairly solid conclusion — that’s not to say it won’t change and evolve over time, but usually I am at least happy with leaving things at that. Or as happy as any writer can be. The Lance Armstrong story presents a problem for this technique, and writers, on a number of levels. Now he’s finally come out and told the world what so many people suspected – that he really is a cheat, and nearly always has been – there’s too much information to sift through and assimilate right now. I could sit here all week and come-up with a thousand different starting points. It seems that every time I think about this story and how it’s progressed, how it is progressing, my opinion changes and things shift a few degrees: sometimes I remember the Lance Armstrong who beat cancer multiple times and I smile, while other times I feel just as cheated as everyone else. Stupid for being taken in. Sad about it all. Mainly, though, I’m astonished and bewildered. Partly at my own naive wanting to believe that none of this was true, but partly…so much more as well. Then, every once in a while, I find myself thinking about what state-of-mind this man must have been in for so many years. It’s with this thought that things start to come into focus, finally, if there ever is a solid conclusion, which seems debatable right now. It gets more comfortable. The fact, from the looks of it, is that Lance Armstrong struggles with comprehending and understanding what he’s done wrong — how ruining people’s lives is bad and unacceptable human behaviour that people will not tolerate. And if he’s unable to truly comprehend the scale of his mistakes now, then what must he have been like while it was all going on?

First, a few notes:

1: Forget for a moment that Lance Armstrong doped relentlessly during all 7 of his Tour de France wins – the man was still an incredible, unbelievable athlete. Yes he was boosted by the drugs, as were some of his team-mates, but his achievements were still monumental — the drive, the dedication, the single-minded commitment to winning at all costs. That’s stuff that will never go away, even if it is tainted. I’m no expert on EPO, the drug which manipulates red blood cells into carrying more oxygen, enhancing performance, but I’m certain that not just anybody can get on a racing bike and win races like Lance did. This throws us into a state of pure anger and confusion…we can’t take back how we felt when he won those races, the emotions his winning stirred up in us all, the hope he gave us, and that fuels intense fury. So we’re left with an athlete who was never really a true, fair athlete. Or a man who we just can’t understand and don’t want to. Believe what you want to believe.

2: On Oprah, Lance Armstrong made admissions. The word Sorry even crept in there once, and, who knows, there may be more to come in due course. I haven’t watched the full interview everyone’s talking about just yet, but from what I have seen from various clips, he recognises now, at least on some level, that he was in the wrong. Not that this helps any of us much. It would be hard to label Armstrong’s appearance on the show as anything other than an academic acknowledgment of the truth – a genuine apology to us all it was not.

Which puts us on ground we don’t really know how to navigate. Should we even begin to think about forgiving Lance’s wrongs, yet?

Personally, right now, I don’t think it’s the time to forgive. We’re way too close to it all to see the bigger picture. Everything I have read about Lance Armstrong over the years proves one solid thing: none of us know the real man here, we all just think we did. The man who, some say, has serious mental health problems. And of course, with all this coming to light, who can blame them for thinking that?

It comes down to empathy, really, and by the sound and looks of the interview he gave Oprah, Lance Armstrong has a serious lack of it. A dangerous lack of it, you might say. This statement will come of little surprise to those who have encountered split-opinion about the man over the years – many have called him a sociopath, and that’s hardly a surprise, either. Sociopaths are sometimes but not always known as people with Antisocial Personality Disorder, and, serious as it is, it’s hardly an uncommon thing. People with this disorder are often charming and highly driven, to name but two things, but the negative pay-off is enormous. In extreme cases, these people are completely unable to care about other people, giving them the edge when it comes to acting with ruthless intent. That’s to say they can probably go through the motions of caring, but this is a learned and testing thing, rather than basic human instinct that comes naturally. They know they should care but they simply cannot, and that is just the start of a huge range of interpersonal and philosophical problems which go on and on. Things which only trained psychologists and the very-well-read can truly get to grips with (note: I’m not suggesting I am very well read on the subject, but from what I have read, this is the case).

And so the picture changes once again. Viewing Lance Armstrong as an almost supernaturally driven entity, a man who just simply couldn’t quit, it’s almost impossible to think he could have acted in any other way (a statement that doesn’t feel right to make, seeing as up until recently there was so much conflicting information about the truth and what that may or may not be). Looking at all the evidence, it seems that the only way he could have avoided cheating is if he hadn’t ever have become a cyclist. Had Lance excelled in another area, then no doubt he’d likely still have cheated, but the exposure – the story – wouldn’t have been worldwide. How many quietly confident sociopaths must exist in office buildings all over the world?

Which brings us to another point: the Tour De France alone is a story of immense power and charm, and that’s before you even talk about Lance’s amazing story of overcoming all the odds. A story which everyone got behind for very good reason. Maybe the reason we’re all so pissed off about this is because it all comes together to form such an unusual story we don’t know what to do with. While cheating at the highest level is hardly a new thing, this specific level of disregard for the rules and will to evade — combined with the overcoming-cancer-victories — is something of a unique entity that doesn’t come along too often. With hardly anything else to compare it to, Lance Armstrong has, ironically, achieved one impressive thing that will last far longer than his previous legend: he’s become just as universally hated as he was once so thoroughly adored. Not an easy thing to do — one thing Lance clearly was was a fantastically gifted cheat.

Of course, the fact that Armstrong might have a severe, high-functioning mental illness, doesn’t mean he is absolved of all responsibility and that our understanding and empathy should be charged with resolving it all. It just means that we’re the ones who can’t win and are stuck with not knowing what the hell to think. For Lance, he can apologise and apologise and eventually, it’s going to sink in with some people. Some will forgive. For many, it’ll be a natural thing. The rest of us have to make do with the fact that we’ll never truly understand why he did these things. We’ll also have to build our trust for sports personalities and other high-ranking individuals back up once again.

Armstrong’s legacy is now properly an endless one, and the issue of trust isn’t going to be resolved any time soon, if ever. No matter how many interviews he gives, he’ll never be able to transform that fact.

Is Channel 4s Utopia any good? Right now, it’s too early to tell



Everyone’s favourite nonchalant hitman — the aptly named Neil Maskill, who looks like he’s never ever been hugged

Utopia, Utopia, Utopia, where to begin with Utopia (the new six-part series that recently arrived on our screens and finally put about a million teenagers and mid-life-crisis sufferers out of their tight-jeaned misery, if you weren’t aware)? How about those by turns annoying, interesting, captivating ads. About as Channel 4 as Channel 4 drama gets – or as Channel 5 as Channel 5 gets, depending on the impression they gave you – the ads made an instant statement about what was coming, that’s for sure, even if they gave frustratingly little away and made those same teenagers I talked about above cry into their ridiculous garments and long for Cheryl Cole to pop round for a cup of tea. Mysterious and striking, the show’s characters fell, ran or stumbled in slow-motion across flat yellow backgrounds as an unsettling air-raid style sound rose, adding to the feeling of menace. Or confusion. Or For God’s sake, can’t Channel 4 do anything without being a bit weirder and more edgy than everyone else? One episode in and scores of people are already calling this the most stylish new drama in years.

Well, if you haven’t seen it yet then I hate to break it to you, but it’s a bit bloody early to be proclaiming Dennis Kelly’s production – he co-wrote Matilda the Musical – as the next best thing on British TV. Stylish, yes, but the best thriller drama in years? No. Not yet. Definitely nowhere close at this point in time. Forget it. Let’s watch the entire series first, or at least get half-way into it and learn what the hell it’s all about. You wouldn’t read one chapter of a book and then write a giant review of it. As such, reviewing this first episode in any depth should be done with a degree of caution. Or at least awareness. It could be shit, it could be amazing, but right now, we just can’t know.

What the hell is it all about, then? That’s a very good question. We’re not supposed to know that yet, of course. That’d sort of fuck things completely up.

But you can’t help yourself but ask the questions…what is it about…what is it about — and repeat those words about one hundred more times. It’s true that the premise of Utopia is strangely captivating in an alien sort of a way. From the start to the beginning, mystery and conspiracy is the aim of the game as six strangers do their Channel 4 thing, looking all young and youthful and calm and angry but justifiably angry, because the world is out to get them. That cool but not cool, hard but not hard, weird but not…actually, yes, it is bit weird, let’s be honest. I won’t bore you too much with the storyline, as it’s like televisual scabies all over the internet already — scabies is an apt description, too. The show may be tame so far on many levels, compared to movies of a similar ilk, but this opening episode still left you feeling dirty and grotty and weird; a case of all-over body thrush, if someone forced me to get really specific (lucky for you they didn’t, or it could have been a lot worse than that). Which is bizarre, come to think of it, seeing as everything about Utopia is clean and simple. The look and feel of it, I mean. The storyline is anything but simple and straightforward. Fragmented would be the best description. No, discombobulated – that’s better. No wonder the show makes you feel strange. It is a mass of contradictions. It looks simple and clean, the language is normal, verging on the mundane at times, yet around every scene exists an unending void filled with questions, and not all of them are about how cutting edge and clever Channel 4 can be, or what it must feel like to have all-over body thrush. Like being drunk and stuck on the train listening to someone sober trying to talk some sense into you when all you want to do is punch them hard and you cannot, the questions get annoying after a while, but hopefully it won’t all end in tears.

If you’re too lazy or drunk to perform a basic Google search, Utopia is this: six strangers come across the original manuscript of The Utopia Experiments — a famed for its incredible out-of-this-world intensely imaginative vision type thing of a legendary graphic novel which no-one can stop harping on about — and…well, shit hits the fan bigtime because some bad people want that same manuscript. Obviously, I probably don’t need to say that this is no normal manuscript. There are darker forces at work here, and they do not look like the kind of people who have ever seen a comic, or a graphic novel.

One thing’s for sure – all this business about the violence being too much is more than a bit bizarre. Read The Guardian‘s comments on their review and you’ll see a lot of I couldn’t watch the show I’ve never seen anything so horrific and This kind of thing should be banned from TV. Trust me, if you’ve ever witnessed an episode of Tom Daley’s craptastic Splash! or The Apprentice then you’ll have seen something equally as horrific, and if you think this should be banned from TV, then you should probably stay indoors for a very long time because much worse things are going on in the world. For exampke, once, when I was 12, I had a horrific haircut that was more disturbing than this. Yes the opening scene is one of mass murder and yes the end of the show contains a scene that is vicious and calculated and nasty, but…banned? I don’t think so. You don’t see much, and what you do see has been filmed cleverly, leaving much to the imagination…which must be the point. Utopia is all about tone and style and implication. It remains to be seen if it can all come together to form something truly remarkable.

Then again, there are no shortage of positive points, and that immediately elevates Utopia above plenty of other crap out there. Neil Maskill of Kill List is one of them. Playing the world’s most unfit assasin – a man who almost anyone’s granddad could surely stumble away from without too much of a hassle – he guns down people with the cool unhinged charm of one of those Countdown nerds who can solve a complex number puzzle in less than 30 seconds. Yes, he’s eerily down-to-earth, vacant and all together freaky.

So, we’ll see, won’t we? My money is on Utopia turning out to be a sound, decent thriller series. I just don’t want to get too excited yet. Call me a cynic, but it’s going to take more than just a few clever shots — I want to see this series earn it.

The Undateables, Series 2, Episode 2: If they can do it, so can you


On Twitter the other day, I warned @Sam_Culpeck I might do a drawing of her and she sort of dared me to, which is always a dangerous move as I’m not scared to draw aything badly, ever. So here it is. Hopefully she doesn’t now want to kill me.

Warning: like last time, this contains major-major spoilers.

When I was 12, I underwent one of the greatest psychological traumas of my young life, and it wasn’t just my fault, it was also Derek from school’s fault, too. Derek was one of those nightmarish but essential to our heritage pre-teen characters who, for reasons not obvious then and still not obvious now, looked much older than everyone in our year and seemed to have a bizarre insight into what it was like to be a veteran teenager well before it was physically or chronologically possible (smoking, growing a mutilated beard, being freakishly powerful, that kind of thing). Taking this into account, it’d be reasonable to assume that Derek had stayed on a year as punishment from the natural scheme of things, or that Derek needed to stay on a year to catch up, because he struggled with his school-work. Or that Derek was some kind of evil time-traveller. Yet none of these things are true. Looking back, the only sound answer is that Derek was planted there by malevolent teachers, as a form of light-to-medium entertainment (I picture them scribbling instructions down for Derek and sending him out there to cause carnage with all the pre-pubescents). When the trauma happened inside my young mind, I cursed Derek something rotten, I can tell you.

See, Derek had given me the number of a random girl in our year and convinced me to call her family’s home phone and ask to speak to her. This was back in 1992, when the mobile phone was something of a myth. Anyway, I did as Derek said and it didn’t go anything like Derek had promised it would. Derek had said that the girl, who I (luckily for her) will not name here, would be overcome with joy. He made it sound like all this girl did all day was wait for such phone-calls from boys like me (but in a classy way).

What actually happened was the girl went very quiet and then burst into the kind of debilitating tears more often associated with surprise colonoscopies (I should know, I have had one). I would later discover, by way of constant verbal torture and rumourmongering at the hands of the entire school, that the girl’s family were extremely religious and boys were approximately as anyone sticking anything up anyone’s bum, ever.

Had Sam Culpeck – the first person we were introduced to on this second episode – answered my poor excuse for a call, I have a feeling that she wouldn’t have burst into tears like that poor girl did. In fact, having watched her chuck herself out of a plane with what appeared to be absolutely no fear whatsoever, I’d say that she’d have found the whole thing quite amusing (or have told me to piss off, which might have marked one of the first occasions of a girl saying rude words to me — quite the rite-of-passage for any boy, I think you’ll agree). Which is was, of course. It just took me about 20 years to find out.

See, unlike the girl who Derek groomed me into pestering — in a completely non-gay way — this Brighton girl wasn’t afraid. Born with Achondroplasia, the most common cause of dwarfism, pretty and funny Sam just wanted to date a cool guy who wasn’t a total pussy – not too much to ask, you would think.  Except “there’s pricks everywhere you go,” she said, talking about the numerous crude things men had said to her, and I had to agree. What other word is there for men who joke about spinning you around on their cock? I can’t think of any but I wouldn’t mind betting that Sam can think of a few. “When I see a couple together,” she said, “I think they’re incredibly lucky.” Now trying calling someone with dwarfism stupid. Actually don’t, especially if you’re aboard an aircraft…

So, here we were: 7 years since Sam had had a date, and now she was going for it big-time, complete with a PhD in psychology. Flame Introductions were back again to do the dating honours, and this time Christine and Jenny were on hand to meet Sam and discuss what she was looking for. I’d had some cool tweets from Sam on Twitter — along with Joanie Scott, the mum of Sarah from Episode 1 – and was excited about what was going to happen next. If you want to follow Sam it’s @Sam_Culpeck. You can follow Joanie Scott on @SymphonyUK and Sarah on @SarahBScotty.

Next up, we have the man with the best laugh out there, the ever-likeable Ray. If you’ve been reading The Undateables Twitter feed then you might think Ray was in the Stevie Wonder lookalike business. Actually he’s a 49-year-old Leeds United fanatic with one of the most infectious laughs ever. Living in London, Ray has a learning disability and would, throughout the rest of the show, get ridiculously excited, making the people of Twitter come alive with joyous praise, drowning out the nasty taunts of the many and numerous who think people with learning disabilities are somehow inferior. Mainly, Ray looked like a bloody good laugh and great fun to be around.

As well as the unique laugh, I think it’s fair to say that Ray had one of the most unique histories of anyone to appear on The Undateables ever. Whereas many people like to get as far away from their ex as is physically possible, Ray was, by the very nature of being on this show, in dangerously close proximity at just mere metres away. Most people wouldn’t want their ex in control of the person they might date next, but Ray’s approach was different to say the least. His ex ran the dating agency, was the thing. Not only was Ray at the mercy of his ex, Lolita, but their mutual friend Lydia was to mediate between the two.

With dynamics like that, it’s not hard to see why the show is effecting such polarized opinions. But here, now, I’ll repeat what I said in my blog for Episode 1: The Undateables is genuine people, filmed in real-time, by people making a TV show about real, genuine issues. If you’re uncomfortable with what you’re watching, it might have more to do with you than any of the people on the show.

Or it might be that you’re Derek my ex school nemesis, I suppose. But I really hope not.

It’s tricky, of course. When you hear that Lolita left Ray for another man, and you see how sweet Ray really is, it’s going to stir emotion. And so it damn well should. It’s 2013 for God’s sake. Time to get our bloody heads out of the sand once and for all. If not now…when?

And all this has got me thinking. Maybe all the negativity surrounding the show – I say all the negativity, but let’s put that in context: many people also love it – is a necessary thing in a weird kind of a way. Before there can be proper enlightenment, we need to break barriers. That’s never going to happen if we don’t have all kinds of reactions, with extremes at either end of the spectrum.

Back to what was going on with Sam: Flame introductions weren’t mucking about…they’d only gone and found her a match! It was only bloody James, wasn’t it! You’d be smiling too if this was the first date you were going on in 10-minus-3-years. Sam said it best herself with “actually shitting myself,” while smiling and generally looking like someone had just asked, “I’m about to throw myself out of a plane, I don’t suppose you want to come with me?” The guy also wasn’t overly tall, Sam also noted, which made me laugh. If a TV camera crew were in my living room watching my mum and me have a conversation about an impending date, I’m not sure I could crack a joke like that – whatever you think of the show, you can’t say appearing on it isn’t anything but stupendously brave.

Now the show’s producers had lured us into wanting to know what might happen next with Ray and Sam, it was time for their good old favourite trick – switching to someone completely new.

To begin with I was cursing those fiendish Channel 4 producer people, but then I was once again engrossed. Oh, they’re so cruel!

On the screen before me now was 30-year-old supermarket worker Steve. Hailing from Sunderland, Steve hadn’t been on a date in 7 years (it seemed like this was very much the 7-year-episode). According to Steve, whenever he met a girl he immediately fell into friendship territory. As with Haydn from Series 1 (find him on Twitter here) who favorited my tweet just the other day, Steve was born with the genetic condition Crouzon Syndrome that disfigures the face – so named after the French physician who initially described this disorder. Like Ray and Sam, Steve’s desire to find himself in a relationship was touching to watch. If you’re not touched by this and you think Ray’s laugh is anything but ace then it may just be because your recycling bin is full up with Daily Mail newspapers – if I were you, I’d pulp them rather than just empty it, but it’s up to you.

Maybe it’s because I’ve written a book on a boy with Cherubism – fictional young adult adventure story The Number 3 Mystery book, if you’re twisting my arm to find out – but watching Steve talk about how his condition had proved problematic for dating, and how he’d been called everything under the sun when it came to his eyes, I struggled with how anyone could not want to be around someone like this. I mean, seriously, we’re talking about a man who had already planned how he’d propose when he met that one – cynics, mouth shut now, please – special person.

If you can’t find that touching then, as I said in my previous The Undatebles blog, you’re most likely someone who thinks Dirty Dancing is a terrible movie. Still, there are perks to being clinically dead inside. One of them is not spontaneously bursting into “Nobody puts baby in the corner!” which is actually quite a good thing. People always look at me funny when I do that. Sometimes, my girlfriend thinks I’m really weird.

Another thing which made this episode stand out, for me, was the filming of the families, which gave the show a captivating edge. With Sam there was her mum, laughing and always there to give moral support, and with Ray there was Lydia (not strictly family, being white and from another mother, but you get what I mean). Steve’s family couldn’t have been more supportive, and if you ask me they’d done a bloody good job bringing up their son. Steve had inherited his Crouzon from his mother, but nothing about him appeared bitter or like the world owed him anything. All Steve wanted was to fall in love with someone like his dad had done and raise a family. Not someone just like his mum of course. Stop thinking that…you’re being creepy.

And so it was that Steve met Christine from the dating agency. Then those dirty Channel 4 dogs did their business, again, and changed things back to Ray.

Ray was anxiously waiting for Lydia from the agency to call, only it was hard to think of Ray as anxious, because he was more or less constantly laughing. Then the phone rang, and it was real: Lydia had good news. She had him a date!

By now, like a man or woman who has been forced to sit down and watch 10 episodes of once-trailblazing but now botox-infested soap drama Hollyoaks, you’ll be too beaten down to care that we’re changing things yet again. In fact, I feel a bit stupid for even mentioning it, so I’ll stop instead.

It was time for Sam’s big day, and also time for the population of the UK affected by vertigo to do big faeces in their pants. Yes, oh yes, Sam wasn’t meeting her date at a local pub for Sunday roast or any of that bollocks…Sam was going skydiving with 38-year-old sales adviser James from New Zealand! And if you thought sales advisers were dull as hell, and have recently made a bet with a friend that the next New Zealandish (?) sales adviser you see on TV is going to be outrageously exciting, then I hope you didn’t bet a lot of money, because you’re going to look pretty stupid. Almost as stupid as me for writing New Zealandish, I should think.

I could dress it up. I could lie and say that I think James was a really thrilling guy and his personality just didn’t come through. In reality I’m not going to do that. In reality, I’m going to say that James just wasn’t Sam’s type in any way, shape, or form, just as she said herself, and maybe the cameras made him feel just a little bit nervous. (And actually, I don’t feel too guilty about saying that, because somewhere in a parallel universe out there, Sam and James are married with 7 kids and 12 dogs. But don’t worry Sam. In that parallel dimension I wouldn’t have even been born, so that makes us even, I think you’ll agree!)

So…the date. If you could call it a date. It basically consisted of Sam trying to have a laugh and interact – you know, talking about being obsessed with good music like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, etc – and James putting his foot in it by admitting, live on British television, to actually liking Genesis in more than just a casual way, without anyone holding a gun to his head. Something which we all know shouldn’t legally be allowed to happen until a man has experienced at least 2 failed marriages and is on the brink of a quadruple mid-life-crisis. And maybe a heart-bypass, and only after having lost most of his hair.

Those few seconds, as Sam sipped whatever she was sipping, holding the cup to her mouth while James spoke of liking Genesis more than just casually, were something alright. I’m just not sure what. I think I may still be in shock. We’ll know if I ever stop crying inside.

Back to Ray again, who was having what I like to call An Extreme Date. I call it this because so few people do blind-date picnics in the park nowadays that the concept itself is dangerously daring. I mean…anything might happen…a pigeon might fly overhead and crap on your sandwiches…a gang of Evanescence-loving goth-hoody teenagers might wander past, wearing tight jeans, talking as if proper words quite literally went out-of-fashion long ago.

Ray’s first date in 3 years, don’t forget.

And the cringe factor, it has to be said, was seriously high. That may just be because Ray had chosen to hand-make cheese and marmite sandwiches, or it may just be what you couldn’t help but think. Watching Ray make cheese and marmite sandwiches, you almost wanted one of the show’s producers to step in and say “make cheese and ham, make cheese and ham! Or just cheese and tomato, just to be safe! Or just cheese, just to be safer still, because the tomato might make the bread soggy and that’d be a nightmare!” That’s another reason why people think this show is cruel, it seems to me. Viewers want the producers to keep things safe and keep the subjects from making mistakes and being at emotional harm. But surely that’s more offensive? What is more offensive than saying Disabled/disadvantaged people shouldn’t be allowed to make all their own decisions, as it upsets my sensibilities when things go wrong and I don’t like it, really?

So, the outrage of cheese and marmite it was. And that wasn’t all. Ray also bought a single red rose and had the man at the shop make up a delightful poem and write it on the label.

Following Ray’s sandwich debacle it was time to finally, once and for all, see Sam throw herself out of an aircraft while strapped to someone else. Here, us viewers were treated to an awkward televisual feast: first James sitting in the plane looking like a man possessed with the spirit of a ground-dwelling creature never designed to leave the comfort of the ground – this was his very first skydive, I should have said – and second Sam sitting there, smiling with excitement, expectantly awaiting her big dramatic free-fall. Next time James goes on a first date, I have a feeling he’ll have his feet well and truly on the ground.

The contrast of Sam and James as they fell through the atmosphere was less funny and more harrowing. As a man with a fear of heights, James’s face transported my worried soul to new despairing depths, while Sam balanced things up, and reminded me that doing new things is actually a big part of life that you sometimes – but by no means all the time – need to do. Upon landing, Sam looked exhilarated, while James looked a bit like I felt when my arch nemesis Derek had made me do that phone-call.

By now, it was blatantly obvious that Sam and James would never fall into the 40% of married couples who eventually get divorced, and definitely, certainly not the 60% who live happily ever after. Off went James, and actually, Sam didn’t seem too phased, which was great. If anything, the date had given her new hope – that someone was out there for her, and it was just a matter of time until she found them. A lesson to be learned there, too: if you fall to earth out of a plane and you don’t die then you have something to be thankful for, no matter who you are!

Time for Ray’s big date. Sandwiches at the ready, he was setting off, with Lydia acting as chaperone.

I’d love to say it went smoothly. I was sitting there, wanting the date to go amazingly well, wanting Pamela, 58, of South London, to have a secret thing for cheese and marmite sandwiches. Maybe not to want to rub them all over her body — that’s taking it too far — but to at least not be repulsed by them in every way. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Less a fan of cheese, and even less a fan of new dates who quickly start talking about their ex girlfriends while eating marmite, it wasn’t long until Pamela had decided that Ray wasn’t for her. At which point those Channel 4 rascals abandoned Ray, sitting there at the picnic table, and took us back to Steve – but only temporarily. There Steve stood in the kitchen with his dad, having a chat about the girl who the dating agency had lined him up with. “Treat the women with respect,” said Steve senior rather wisely. They really need to get Steve’s dad on This Morning as an Agony Uncle. Even things up a bit.

Switching unpredictably back to Ray once again, Ray was now a new person. Gone was the woe of the sandwich-ruined date: Ray had his mojo back, and it was perfect timing – Lydia was on the phone with good news about another date. Ray, you’re the man.

And now we come to one of the more heartbreaking moments of the show. In this case, it was Lolita, Ray’s ex, struggling to come to terms with the fact that Ray was dating once again. More than that, she still had feelings for Ray, and Ray didn’t know it…I could sense drama on the horizon. BBC1s Eastenders shaking in their big collective drama-soaked pants.

2 weeks after Sam’s dating anti-climax, mum Anna was round to lend her some moral support. And if ever there was a day for it, this was it: on the screen was the new guy the agency had found for her. His name was Colin and he was 24 and also lived in Brighton. First impressions? Sam was once again excited.

But let us not revel in Sam’s happiness too long, for there’ll be plenty of doing that in a minute.

Over in Ray’s world, shit was about to get real, as the kids say. On the one hand we had Ray, meeting another woman – Jeanette – and on the other we had the Lolita drama brewing in the background. Would Lolita and Ray get back together? I don’t know, I’m not Jeremy Kyle, am I?

Looking to make a good first impression, Ray went to the barber’s and got himself all clean shaven, save the tash — good, seeing as I couldn’t imagine Ray without a moustache. Then it was off to a central London pub, where Ray met Jeanette and got on like a house on fire and said she had really nice eyes. Jeanette followed it up with “you’ve got a really nice face,” and that, there, was what The Undateables are all about, I think. It doesn’t always have to be different. From where I was sitting, this was two people getting on well together, having a good time. Really, that doesn’t make them too different from anyone else.

If Steve had been really nervous before, now he was more or less a quivering wreck. Then again, if you hadn’t been on a date for 7 years – also known as two-thousand-five-hundred-and-fifty-five days – then you’d be panicking. I guarantee it.

Then the phone-call arrived and there I sat, patiently awaiting the news about the date. With what came next, I could have cried – as soon as he hung up the phone and stared at the floor you knew it wasn’t good. “Shit happens,” Steve said. She’d cancelled on him at the last minute and that was that. Shit happens, and it does. In the 3D future, people will be able to reach through the screen and give Steve a hug. Until then they’ll just have to hug their dog or cat or someone else (but not someone else’s dog…pet owners mean business. Never hug someone else’s dog).

Ray was having more luck, and I was glad, because once you’ve spent almost an hour thinking about what some people have to go through with things we all often take for granted, you need a bit of good news, right?

Except I was confused. What I saw before me was Lydia and Ray sitting in a cafe in what appeared to be a date scenario. Is Lydia about to confess her undying love to Ray? I thought and secretly hoped. Actually she wasn’t. Disappointingly, and much less dramatically but it has to be said a bit dramatically, Lydia was there to break some surprise news. No longer could Lydia stand by and watch Lolita pining for Ray in the office and do nothing. She was here to tell Ray that his ex missed him, that Lolita wanted him back, maybe, and ask him what he felt about it.

Jesus. I couldn’t think of anyone of any shape, colour, size or variety that would have opted to be in Ray’s shoes here. “We had 3 years…a really good time with each other,” Ray said, breaking down, with Lydia there opposite, asking him to make the choice.

Then Ray looked up at Lydia and said the words that I’m pretty sure about a billion people with a learning difficulty wouldn’t have been mature enough to arrive at. “I want to go on a date with Jeanette,” Ray said, “I want to move on.” Ray, seriously: you’re the flippin’ man.

Back in Sunderland, 4 weeks after his date fell through, things were changing for Steve in a big way. Another girl had been found and, once again, Steve was highly nervous. Not just 25 out-of-ten nervous, either, but a full 50-out-of-ten, a bit like any time I am ever forced to do anything with numbers, or asked to give directions against my will.

Ellie had been single for 6 months, and I’m not going to lie about my first impressions of her. Instead I’ll just come out with it: I thought she was bending the truth a bit when she said she didn’t care about how someone looked. There she was in front of her mirror, with all the hallmarks of someone who has spent a ludicrous amount of time making herself look good. So I’ll admit it – I was suspicious.

I needn’t have been, though, and I was wrong about Ellie. They got off to a promising start, talking about music and films and generally doing a much better job of being on a first date than 90% of us. Then just as you thought that was it, something within Steve got all bold and made him ask Ellie out for another date. And Ellie, she said Yes. It was amazing TV for everyone with a beating heart and a will to live – even people who hate Dirty Dancing and are clinically dead inside, as I mentioned before.

Best of all, Ellie really liked Steve. Are they still dating? I don’t know, I’m not a Channel 4 database-reader, am I? You’ll just have to Google it again. Or Bing it. You might even Yahoo it — up to you.

What do you do when your name’s daredevil Sam and you’ve got your second date in a month? Why, you dress up as a sailor, of course. “Everyone loves a uniform,” she said, preparing for her date on the Brighton seafront. Cue the screen changing to reveal Sam sitting there nervous, excited, apprehensive, and much, much more. Colin arrived wearing shorts and off they went to a bar called The Rock Ola, where the pair talked about how Sam had been a ski instructor, among other things (but not Colin’s shorts, from what I heard).

And there, more or less we have it. Colin thought Sam was cool and interesting, and Sam was cagey about fancying Colin, avoiding the question completely, but admitting that she’d certainly be up for another date.

What I love about The Undatebles is the normality of so much of it. The way that Sam struggled with sending that first text to Colin like we all would, and Ray and Lolita are finally friends, after all the heartbreak that any estranged couple might experience. There’s been a lot of moaning and complaining of the show exploiting these people, yet this second episode proved, once and for all, that the exploitation thing is a myth. If it’s there then it’s in our heads, not in theirs. These people are perfectly aware of what they are doing, and their families appear fully supportive, so it’s time to get over it and move the hell on.

In 10-years-time, I think we’ll look back on this show and finally all come to agree on what it really was. Even those people with recycle bins full of Dail Mails. Maybe.

Series 1 links: Introduction, Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3.

What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I complain properly?

Like any hard-working consumer with a grudge against the modern capitalism he so diligently feeds and profits directly from on a daily basis, I don’t like being hard done by. In fact I despise it. When I am wronged by society in even the smallest way, in particular when a popular supermarket chain has let me down by failing to re-stock the Pringles shelf, for example, I get moderately to highly frustrated, depending on the supermarket and depending on my mood and how much I need crisps (it seems even more insulting when they only re-stock with the salt & vinegar variety, as if goading me to burn the skin from the insides of my mouth, or what feels like mouths after an entire stinking tube of salt & vinegar Pringles which I am unable to resist). My problem is that I’m too polite for my own good. I can be dangerously polite, at times. I blame it on my parents – dad specifically. Growing up in a household where dad would politely listen to caller after caller attempting to sell him pointless stuff over the phone, time after time, and then say “wasting my bloody time!” to us but not to them, I didn’t have a single hope in hell. I didn’t even know that single hopes in hell existed, let alone that this would be a saying I would later use in a blog post many years later. Complaining about things? Genetically it just isn’t in my nature, and that hurts me very much, because now I am living through the most complaint-strewn period of my life. If ever there was a time for complaining, it is now. (Note: I’m talking about verbal complaints here, not written ones. I have demonstrated before, on this blog, that my written complaint skills are growing in power — such as this letter directed at Tesco’s Customer Service. It’s true that I did once almost get into a fight with a National Express coach driver, but I class that as a reasonable-furious-angry-outburst rather than a verbal complaint, seeing as he was acting like a prize buffoon.)

Fortunately, the modern evolving side of me doesn’t care much for nature, and every now and then I seem able to over-ride the nicer part of me (like the time when I asked the Customer Service bloke at the train station if I had a legal right to walk through the open barrier without a ticket and be fined at rush-hour rather than wait in the massive queue to buy a ticket and miss my train — one of my favourites. He was baffled). I haven’t quite got to the stage yet where I can work myself up into a furious rage in a matter of seconds, but I’ve definitely been close once or twice, which is very pleasing. Today’s complaint marked a serious evolution. Or at least one step in the right direction, as is probably more accurate. The end goal is to conjure up the spirit of (justifiable) complaining in mere seconds. I’m miles away right now but with every new day comes a kind of progress. I now know this. For example, just the other day I complained at the AMT coffee shop in the train station because they still didn’t have any White Hot Chocolate in stock after 2 months. Serious business.

Today’s complaint was a worthy one — it wasn’t just complaining for complainings sake, it was about my human rights and what I expect when I buy something online. It was about my Birds of Vietnam book, which I ordered on the 23rd of November 2012, and which still hasn’t arrived. Ignoring the fact that I can be a bit of a bird geek at times – no more accurately demonstrated than last Saturday, where I stood at the window for a full 30 minutes with my binoculars, watching a red woodpecker really go for it in the tree at the end of the garden – this book wasn’t just any old book. I need it for my travels. Our travels. Very soon, my girlfriend and I will be flying out to the other side of the world to basically get as far out of our prospective comfort zones as is physically possible without ending up as human sacrifices. It should be easy – we’re starting in Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Min City. They don’t do human sacrifices there — that was just an example of being really out of your comfort zone.

Anyway, last night I realised, very late at night, that the book hadn’t arrived. Quickly, I found myself looking through my 2012 diary, where I found an angry scribbled note that said CALL ABOUT MY BIRDS OF VIETNAM BOOK IF NOT HERE IN 2 WEEKS!!! Even more quickly, my rage was fuelled by the fact that I had left it much more than 2 weeks…I mean, just look at the calendar: it’s now mid January. Those bird book people were going to pay. Pay for their shocking nerve. Pay for their lack of sympathy and empathy for bird lovers all over the world. Lovers of all books, for that matter. Yes, I was being dramatic, and I felt I had a right.

Upon dialling the number of the online shop which I won’t name here, because my genes don’t allow me to do such a thing, I was pleased to discover a sense of urgency about my body: I couldn’t sit still, I could only pace up and down and around my small office room, and generally speaking I must’ve looked like a man who wasn’t going to take any shit. Sadly, that man, if he had ever truly existed, deserted me the moment the camp man answered the phone and I politely enquired and gave him my reference number, desperately calm all the while. Hideously calm. Luckily for me, after I had enquired, I could hear the typing of keys and then there was a long five-minute silence where the man attempted to find my order and discover its status. Plenty of time for anger and frustration to build to a manageable level. I felt lucky I had stumbled upon him when his computer was slow to load.

Unlike some people, for which consumer rage comes naturally and easily, I really had to work to sustain mine. At several points during the wait I found my heart beating slower and my mind veering off in the direction of what to have for lunch and other trivial things which had the potential to ruin my complaint spree. But I just about managed to hold onto it, thankfully, and so when the guy came back on the line and said that the book should be in soon and that they wouldn’t charge me to send it out, I still had enough left in me to do an impression of someone who was, at least, a little bit justifiably angry.

“I’m sorry but that’s no good!” I found myself saying, even managing to cut across the several last letters of one of his words. “I’d like a refund, please.”

OK, so the I’m sorry and the please bits ruined what would have been a good attempt, but still, you had to make exceptions. This kind of thing wasn’t learned over-night.

“Not to worry,” said the man, “you haven’t been charged yet. I’ll cancel the order, if you would like.”

“Yes,” I told him, firmly, no sorry or nothing. “I would like that very much.”

I was almost there, almost home. I could feel myself nicely angry, now. Angry enough that if a postperson had come to the door and asked me to sign for something right there and then, I may even have been able to make a moody face at him and mutter, “can’t you see I’m on the bloody phone?” Even if he or she was a postperson I had previously liked.

Then I went and ruined it, as was always going to happen. You knew it. I most certainly knew it. “Thanks for sorting it,” I said. “Cheers.” And put the phone down. Seems I still have a way to go.

The Undateables, Series 2, Episode 1: Disability Awareness Comes Home Again


Sorry Brent, this time it’s you I’ve visually assaulted and mangled the chin of. Copyright Chris Pink

Warning: contains major major major spoilers.

It’s hard to write a review of the first episode of any real-life documentary TV show without some kind of introduction. It’s even harder when that new episode follows one of the most talked-about series of the previous year. Maybe not talked-about for all the right reasons, at times – one look on Twitter during the show’s airing and that’s plain to see – but in so many ways, that’s the point, isn’t it?

As the first series of The Undateables finished in April last year, leaving behind it a trail of controversy and polarized opinion – to say the very least – it felt to me like the show was only just coming into its own. Not in terms of production, but in so much that for many, this would have felt like their first real introduction to disability. The first episode of Series 2 proved that point by adding yet more layers of insight which we hadn’t seen before — not easy when some of the same disabilities are being covered. Ugly, hilarious and heartbreaking come to mind. Some people might still be of the opinion that the show is pure circus TV exploitation – and of this I can see their point, no doubt – but the more of these episodes I watch, the more one thing seems to become increasingly clear: The Undateables may be edited and put together with an exacting formula, but really it’s just digital video of people with disabilities going about their daily lives. If you know or have ever dealt with anyone with these disabilities then you know with certainty that it’s not made-up, it’s not directed – at least in the traditional sense – and it’s not made to piss people off or cause arguments down the pub. It may be made to evoke certain strong emotions, to get people thinking about how they really feel about disability, but I don’t think that’s the same thing as actively trying to cause outrage and shock. If watching The Undateables makes you feel like a bad person, or makes you feel a little bit sick inside because you’ve had a hard day and watching someone with autism struggle with things that you’ve always taken for granted isn’t easy, then so be it. Purely for its educational value alone, I think this series should be compulsory viewing at schools across the country. Maybe even some workplaces (for example, the people who decide the benefits of disabled people).

Even if there is tons of swearing. And the kind of nasty, crude statements that children love and parents have always hated.

Speaking of statements, the introduction in this first episode promised some stellar ones to come. In less than two minutes we’d heard quotes ranging from sensationally graphic and specific (“Guys want to have sex with me to see if they can spin me on their cock”) to downright heartwrenching (“I don’t wanna be a 40-year-old virgin”). When it came to quotes, Michael, the first person we were introduced to, was a star.

When Michael, 26 years-of-age and deeply autistic, confidently stated that “You have to be careful on dating websites, it could be some fat sixty-year-old Nigerian sex killer,” I found myself nodding in agreement. I’ve personally never come across a fat sixty-year-old Nigerian sex killer, but that’s not to say it isn’t entirely possible (you’ll be well aware of this if you’ve ever been a member of the legendary Plenty of Fish, where people of every nationality gradually make you certain that you can’t trust anyone in the entire world ever again). So clearly Michael had his head screwed-on.

With the help of dating agencies across the country, things were about to get serious.

You couldn’t help but love Michael’s brutal honesty. Clearly this was the autism talking, but the man’s personality shone through too. The self-proclaimed owner of “hawk’s eyesight” and “radar ears,” Michael saw himself – and probably sees himself, seeing as he didn’t seem a big fan of change – as a charming romantic type. Armed with his highly comprehensive list of past girlfriends – seventeen of them, in fact – he’d only recently started online dating. Watching Michael talk in his matter-of-fact way, what intrigued me the most was just how aware he was of his struggles and issues. He didn’t just know he was different — he knew how he was different, why he was different, and even what he had to do to not be different. The tragedy of this condition, of course, is that knowing and recognising your problems and failings doesn’t equate to being able to do anything much about them. Still, Michael was determined. Along with mum Nicky, shit was going to happen.

By now, one thing had become crystal clear: when Michael set his sights on something – or someone – he was determined to get it/them. Not in a deeply crazy stalkeresque way (like in that film Enduring Love which features Daniel Craig in his pre-Bond, less successful era, for example) but more in the way that he’d try really hard using his very formal tactics.

Just as we were getting to know Michael, the programme makers decided to make an attempt at keeping us wanting more. And it worked, at least for me. Next up, we were meeting Brent.

21-years-old, slim and with a boyish charm, graduate Brent came onto our screens rapping. I smiled. He’s good, I thought, as we were told that he lived with his friend Tom in Plymouth. Then, just as I was wondering how people rapped, because whenever I had I’d sounded like a supreme wally, Brent’s turrets kicked in and reminded me what I was watching. “Come on then you bitch,” he said, which was to be one of his most common unsettling outbursts. While it was the most aggressive of the things he would shout, it made me most sad when he said “I’m gonna spoon you!” While threatening to spoon someone is funny, whichever way you look at it, it can’t be very practical when you’re meeting a total stranger, even if they are aware of your turrets. And they really like spooning.

Less a stranger to love than Michael, Brent had been down Love Alley and got his head kicked in, as so many of us have at times (I don’t mean Love Alley as in a physical place, like a gay haunt, of course. I was trying to be creative). In fact, it was love, we would soon learn, that kept him grounded. The tragedy of it all was that when he’d had a girlfriend – his childhood sweetheart who he’d been in a long-term relationship with – he’d been more or less fine. The turrets seemingly vanished. But the turrets was brought on by stress, was the thing. The more stress, the more twitches…physical things, too, like blowing kisses at strangers and giving them an up-yours (not usually to the same stranger). The tragedy of Brent’s situation was that he believed, quite rightly, apparently, that love could cure all. Is it selfish to want to be with someone partly because you cannot sleep at night, even if it isn’t your fault?

Just as I was beginning to wonder if Brent’s house-mate Tom had gone to extravagant lengths to colour his beard – it was very ginger, of the likes I had only ever seen on real people twice in my life – we went back to Michael. Things were moving rapidly for Michael. He was only bloody well off to a speed-dating event! I felt like giving him a high-five – or maybe even a hug. “A girlfriend isn’t just for Christmas, she’s for life,” he said. Had Michael’s only issue been his comparing women to dogs, he might have had more luck. But that’s aspergers for you.

Still, Michael wasn’t going to let a little thing like that be a problem. Unveiling his secret weapon to us – his slew of business cards, with which to impress babes with – we were promised a good time. Which was about when the uncomfortable factor really started to kick in. Fortunately, Stars in the Sky appeared to diffuse that quickly.

Stars in the Sky were an introductions agency for people with learning difficulties, and were to play an instrumental role in Michael’s big upcoming date. Because, actually, this was to be many people’s big date. Speed-dating was the name of the game, and immediately I started to think negatively about what Michael was entering into: from what I hear, speed-dating is hard enough for people who are confident speakers and presenters, let alone people who struggle with social interactions. Coupled with this was the fact that many people with learning difficulties find understanding the world a tricky thing to do. That’s to say they find people without learning difficulties challenging enough to deal with, let alone people with learning difficulties that are very different from their own. Still, who was I to judge? I watched on and tried to keep an open mind.

Remember that thing about Michael rushing into things way too fast? Next up was a demonstration in precisely that, as Michael met Kirsty (number 16), liked Kirsty, and basically became besotted with Kirsty…all in the space of a couple of minutes. Luckily for Michael, the dance-floor was mere moments away, and onto it they went, throwing their all into it. Kirsty and Michael dancing very seriously, with the entire nation not knowing what to think, presumably.

Far away from Michael’s dance-floor-torture was Sarah, 22 and from Hertfordshire. Attractive, blonde and seemingly normal in the traditional sense of the word, it wasn’t immediately clear what Sarah’s affliction was. Until we learned very quickly that, just 4 years before, Sarah had been a regular, normal teenager. One day while studying her A Levels she’d been in her English class and things had changed in a matter of seconds. The illness had come out of nowhere, making Sarah a very rare statistic: 1 in 400 people 18-years-old or under who, every year, suffer a debilitating stroke. In just seconds, Sarah lost almost everything, speech included. The doctors said she was lucky to be alive, and clearly Sarah understood that. Unfortunately, though, the stroke had left her with something called aphasia – a chronic condition which affects the mental functions which enable a person to think and interpret their thoughts via the meaning of words. Sarah could talk and express herself OK – just not at the same speed and intensity as other people her age. Along with this, the stroke had taken away her ability to write words down and read them, too. Sat next to her mum in the kitchen, Mrs Sarah explained that her daughter was all-but isolated from the world of social media which many of her friends blissfully inhabited. As someone who has suffered a debilitating illness which almost cost me everything, I felt deeply sad to think that Sarah may never get much better than this. For Sarah, this could be it. Something to think about next time you log onto Facebook.

When all you want is a cuddle or a hug and you just can’t have it because some bloody words won’t come out of your mouth in the right bloody way, life has got to be pretty exhausting, surely.

When the screen changed this time, I was grateful. After hearing what Sarah had been through, I needed, quite selfishly, to think about something else for a minute or two. Unfortunately, what I had to think about was that annoying thing that the programme kept on doing: repeating who the person on-screen was for the benefit, I assume, of flat-mates who had just wandered into the room or people who hadn’t been paying attention. I’ve always thought Sally Phillips’ narration was good, but it gets pretty tiresome being introduced to people you know of over and over again.

So we were back to Brent, again – desperate to be happy so his turrets would go away. On Brent’s side were Flame Introductions in Surrey, otherwise known as a group of friendly enough women who pride themselves on bespoke matching couples. Nervous as hell, as you would be if you constantly shouted “Fuck off!” at strangers while walking down the street, Brent sat with one of these nice ladies and discussed what he was looking for, managing somehow to largely avoid swearing or shouting. After the interview, the lady in question wasn’t exactly backwards in coming forwards – as my granddad used to say – and made it plain to us viewers that she thought he was cute. Everyone go “Ahhh!” now.

By now I was ready for it when the screen changed and I was introduced to Michael, again, for what felt like the sixteenth time. Even more nervous than Brent had been, Michael had the appearance of a man strapped to a renegade emu. Why? Because he was waiting anxiously for the introductions agency to call him and say Kirsty had fallen deeply in love with him. Sadly, when the phone rang, that didn’t happen. What did happen was Michael was left enormously disappointed. Apparently Kirsty was after younger men. Bollocks. To be honest, I’m not sure what the point was of them telling him that.

Meanwhile, Sarah had found someone she quite liked on the dating agency website. His name was Gary, and Gary was nice-looking, said Mrs Sarah. I think it’s fair to say that most people would feel a little bit awkward about calling up a dating agency and requesting a date with a random stranger, but Sarah handled this fairly easily. Luckily, with this programme, you never have to wait very long for drama to happen, and this was provided by a mammoth shitload of it when one of the crew, behind camera, took it upon herself to ask Sarah, in front of her mum, “so, when was the last time you kissed a boy?” Cue an awkward silence which likely had nothing to do with Sarah’s stroke, and her mum pointing out that she was out of practice – thanks, mum. Poor Sarah. I didn’t say it out loud, but in my head I was going If you meet up with Sarah then you had better not let her down!

Wondering how Brent was getting on, or if Tom really had died his beard ginger? Well, I still can’t speak for Tom’s beard – let it go, please – but I can say that he was riddled with anxiety and worry upon the day of his date with Lizzie; a girl who he considered well out of his league. Yet apparently he had nothing to worry about, because according to the agency lady – who I bet was probably jealous – Lizzie knew about Brent’s turrets and wasn’t bothered. Understandably, you could see Brent thinking Bullshit…

Actually, I’ll be honest. I was thinking the same thing, too. Sorry, Lizzie, I’d have thought it about anyone.

But actually, it wasn’t bullshit. It was true. Not that we knew that at first. Cue the screen changing to Brent waiting at a cafe by the harbour, still nervous, likely considering jumping overboard in a bid to escape the TV cameras. Then Lizzie appeared, and the spectacle of Brent’s entire soul dying inside was impossible to miss. Then it somehow quickly recovered again, and things seemed a bit easier. They ordered coffee and started to talk. It went badly to start with – well, it didn’t really go – until Brent asked what Lizzie’s top 3 sci-fi films were…

At this point, I was excited for Brent. How could you not be? You’d have to be dead inside, like someone who doesn’t like Dirty Dancing, or something. The best news was that Lizzie seemed to have good taste. The first film on her list was Alien and the second was The Fifth Element. I was just about to start cheering and ranting at the stationary object nearest me – the table, as it happened – when Lizzie ruined it all by saying an out-of-context word which should never have been aired on TV: “Prometheus.” At this, Brent looked visibly shaken. Oh no, I thought, this isn’t actually happening! He’s only gone and found someone who can put up with turrets but loves Prometheus!

I’d attempted to watch the film at the cinema, in 3D, and had found myself furiously hating Ridley Scott with a passion for making such utter turgid tripe. It was a good job I wasn’t Brent or else things would surely have gone horribly downhill. Fortunately, Brent managed to tackle this in a way which I never would have been able to, and when Lizzie said, “Yeah, I fell in love with it,” he was even able to restrain himself from being violently sick all over the table. It must be love, seriously.

With that, we learned that she liked him and he quite liked her. A lot. You don’t need to go “Ahhh!” now. You’re probably sick of it.

All you Michael lovers out there would have been pleased to know that there was more dating action soon to happen. This time it was to come in the form of a blind-date, and as he read out his mum’s tips, which she had lovingly emailed over, I found myself thinking the creepiest thought (maybe he should just date his mum?) swiftly followed by a worry about the recent rabies jab I’d had (can rabies jabs cause you to think crazy thoughts?).

They were good tips though. Things like 1: make sure you’ve got enough money with you and 2: consider buying a rose. Great advice for all men, actually. There’s nothing worse than forgetting your wallet and forgetting to even think about buying a rose.

If you were fooled into thinking that Michael’s date was about to play-out without interruption by Sally Phillips the narrator changing things yet again, then you must have been dangerously engrossed. Instead of that, we now moved back to Sarah, who was about to have her first date in over a year with this Gary character who we all wanted to treat Sarah properly.

Older man Gary was 23-years-old and a banking analyst. But don’t worry yourself with wondering what in the world a banking analyst does – do they analyse the mistakes that bankers make, or do they make even bigger mistakes which an analyst-analyst analyses? – instead, just know that Gary and Sarah went out on a boating lake and it was very low-key. Gary was rowing. Sarah was sitting opposite him, feeling more than a little bit out-of-her-depth (sorry).

Watching the empty silence grow between Gary and Sarah with every splosh of the oars, you’d be a cold-hearted Dirty Dancing hater to not feel a bit sad by this point. Who wanted to see Sarah’s date go wrong? If you’re putting your hand up, you need to check for a pulse. Watching Dirty Dancing isn’t mandatory, so don’t panic about that.

God I love the makers of The Undateables sometimes. Just when you’re thinking that everything’s gone to shit, they come along and say “actually, it hasn’t!” Such was what happened next, as Gary and Sarah went out to lunch. Anyone wishing for a rollicking romance couldn’t have been more disappointed, but there was a tenderness there that was plain to see. See, Gary was a gentleman. Sarah did have a good date. The world may have the Inland Revenue, traffic wardens and newsagents with poor fridges that contain ice-cream that when you get outside it falls off its stick, but at least it has good dates that happen every now and again, so don’t lose all hope.

We’re nearly there now, almost at the end of this first episode. The climax? What happened with Michael and his blind date, swiftly followed by Brent and his date, Lizzie.

Let’s be honest, I was expecting Michael to bomb very hard. Extremely hard, you might say. For the date to be a bit of a shambles, punctuated by occasional bursts of concentrated confusion. Yet expect the unexpected (maybe it should be called The Unexpectables instead?) It didn’t start well but Michael doesn’t give up easily, as you should by now know. Just at the moment that I was thinking Hmm, Michael’s last date Kirsty also loved Eastenders…is this a bad omen? things took a turn for the better. One moment he’s struggling with what to say to his date, Helen – who has learning difficulties – and the next he’s saying all kinds of funny things and handing over his business card. Followed by a rose and “Can I kiss you on the cheek?” to which Helen replied “Yes.” Not only was it Helen’s first rose ever, but they both had a great time. Brilliant.

Last of all, we learn the fate of Brent and Lizzie, whose date sadly ended with Brent telling Lizzie to fuck right off. Not really! I just put that in there to wake you up and amuse myself, as I’m well aware that this has been one long blog post. What really happened was this: Brent and Lizzie enjoyed their date at the harbour cafe so much that they continued it. They only went dry-slope-skiing together! Lizzie was a bit better than Brent, I thought, but Brent didn’t care, and didn’t bring up the Prometheus thing again, which was a wise move, seeing as things were going so well.

And with that, Brent asked Lizzie if she’d like to meet up again soon. Lizzie? She said yes. Bring on Episode 2.