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…