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.