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.