Missed Episode 1? Click here to read the review.
I was fourteen years old when I was fitted with the head-brace – a demonic-looking metal harness thing designed with just one specific purpose: make my shambolic fourteen-year-old teeth do exactly what the teeth people wanted (due to the device’s demented look, which seems like a direct precursor to a horrible torture-helmet contraption featured in the first installment of the Saw horror film franchise, I feel more comfortable calling these sadists people rather than experts). Naive and young as I was, when my orthodontist assured me that nobody at school would take the piss out of me for wearing the brace, I believed him. Seriously, I actually did believe him! When I arrived at school, things changed quickly. Soon, the malicious web of lies which my orthodontist had concocted began to unravel. Everyone did take the piss. All the time. And all the time was a lot. See, the head-brace had to stay on at least 12 hours a day…
It was like the actual end of the world. Really it was. Until the head-brace came off two weeks later, and I rebelled against my parents’ wishes. Ha! Fuck the head-brace! No longer would I be called Helmethead (strictly speaking that’s a lie, of course. The calling of Helmethead actually increased in its ferocity in those fateful days – unsurprisingly, this is what you get when you take away the main source of amusement from deranged pubescents’ lives – and I often wondered if I’d have been better with the damn thing on).
I could take my head-brace off though. On a good day, it took about five minutes – there were a number of straps and a certain protocol to follow unless you wanted to carve your face with metal – but I could do it. Watching the second episode of The Undateables, I began to think about what my life might have been like if I’d have been forced by my evil orthodontist to wear that head-brace contraption for the rest of my life. Could I have coped with that disability? I highly doubt it. But then again, I’d have had no choice. I suppose I would have adapted. Eventually.
As I write this, it goes without saying that the jokes about Episode 2 of this year’s Undateables will be in full flight. There’ll be people commenting on Ruth’s elaborate and often hilarious ticks, while others mock John for his surprise insight into how the shape of the first champagne glass was arrived at (apparently it was modelled on a very famous French woman’s left breast. I did not know that). Cruel as it is, others will likely find great joy in Zoe’s innocence and how obsessed she is with the idea of living happily ever after (I would like to think not, but that’s probably being unrealistic).
What really struck me as I watched this episode of The Undateables was just how brave these people were being. It’s struck me many times before, of course, being a long-time fan of the show, but for some reason tonight it was especially poignant. Because whatever way you look at it, it’s bloody impressive. Here are 3 people going through their lives besieged by their own unique barriers – ones which the likes of most of us would never be able to even contemplate, let alone comprehend. To go out and have a first date with a total stranger takes guts in itself. But to do all that with cameras in your face, while the entire viewing public make assumptions about what’s wrong or right for disability? That has surely got to be tough.
In some ways, I think tonight’s episode featuring John, Zoe and Ruth was one of my favourites ever. Not because it was entertaining – and I dare you to argue that it wasn’t entertaining when Ruth said, repeatedly, “kick him in the nuts, send his nuts to space” – but due to how much ground it covered. With John, we saw a sweet, kind, honest young man. A man more mature than many his age, determined to break new ground, no matter how difficult and confusing (although, if you haven’t, I suggest you don’t try and break new ground by watching Breaking Bad, John. What happens in season 5, disc 2, might just tip you over the edge!). In Ruth we met an articulate, charismatic woman full of soul and love for life, willing to put aside her difficulties and take an enormous risk with her heart, right there on camera for us all to see. Zoe’s sections were particularly touching and insightful of someone with a rare kind of Down’s Syndrome (mosaicism), I think, and when her date, Nsimba – spoiler alert, so you’ve been warned! – asked her if she wanted to be an item, the look on her face was one of pure, blossoming hope. If you can’t admire Zoe’s basic ambitions and smile at the thought of her wearing a wedding dress, then maybe it’s time to look in the mirror before you write that tweet.
Some people are saying The Undateables is entertainment for able-bodied people, just so they can laugh at disabled people. I get their point, I really do, but I wholeheartedly disagree. The simple facts are that Channel 4 make television shows which are broadcast to the world, and to continue making the shows we love – and indeed have the leverage to commission new ones – they have to get viewing figures. Enough to make business viable. In a perfect world, The Undateables would be 3 hours long, delving into disability and dating at a forensic level, exploring the deepest of issues and explaining things in a way in which disability and those afflicted by it could not be misinterpreted. But The Undateables can’t be a million things to a million people. You can’t have a simplified show for people who have no idea about disabilities and a complex show for those who live with it and understand it expertly. Make a show too simple and some will say it’s missing the point, yet make it too complex and fewer people will watch it. The show will cease to exist. So what we get is something in-between. And I believe Channel 4 are doing almost as good as they can manage within the strict parameters that exist surrounding the show.
Of course, if you don’t like this particular show, that’s your prerogative entirely. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching The Undateables, it’s that a general conclusion about it being right or wrong cannot and arguably should not be met. If you’re offended by the show, maybe it’ll make you do something about it, something positive. Either way, thanks to The Undateables, we now live in a different world to the one we lived in before the show existed. It might be taking us a while to break down barriers, but taking a few steps has to be one hell of a lot better than taking none at all, through fear of what may come.
Another thing: why are so many people asking permission to laugh at the show’s undeniably funny moments, or expressing their guilt about doing so? Some of Ruth’s ticks were priceless and had me laughing (“Paedo in a Speedo” comes to mind! Not to mention “your penis is showing”). It’s not necessarily wrong to laugh – it’s all about what comes after that initial reaction. Does it make you feel good, really? Or, after the laughter has dissipated, does it make you feel sad, confused, or want to understand the condition more?
A big well done also has to be given to the dating agencies involved, it has to be said. Both Flame Dating and Stars in the Sky do a remarkable, unique and infinitely challenging job (I may be biased as, only today, Christine from Flame Dating sent me a tweet, but I’d like to think I’d think that anyway!).
Other things…I hadn’t thought about Thundercats for about fourteen years until today – certainly in my top 5 of all-time most loved TV shows growing up – and you have to hand it to John: he did damn well on his date with Alana! (Maybe I’m alone on this, but when Alana showed up to her date, I said, out-loud, “wow, she doesn’t look anything like her profile picture..she’s got a tan like David Dickinson!” Sorry about that Alana, I think it may just be my monitor, don’t take it personally, please.) Another big well done has to be given to Nsimba, Zoe’s date. He did a literally incredible job of masking his possible dislike of JLS, and managed, somehow, to maintain a good level of composure while Zoe once again mentioned that she quite fancied the idea of getting married. And this: thanks to John, hope now also exists for all men who are fans of the common deodorant Lynx. Which is great, because I’ve been sporadically using Africa since I was about 12. What’s the point in changing now?