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.
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.