As one of the first mainstream programmes to actively promote the attitude of ‘I don’t care how much of a berk I look, I just want to be on prime time television’ Blind Date effectively opened the gate for the onslaught of reality shows that we know and unfortunately appear to love today. It showed the nation that it really didn’t matter if you had no discernible talent at all; as long as you were able to screech thinly veiled innuendoes whilst giving a cheeky wink you still had a great shot at being beamed into people’s living rooms on a Saturday evening. What people at home were actually thinking was ‘It’s easy to see why that one couldn’t get a date without help,’ but still they tuned in to see the contestants apparently happy to humiliate themselves.
At its height in the mid-eighties 18.2 million people turned on their television sets to see Cilla ‘Lorra lorra laughs’ Black blind the audience with the studio lights bouncing off her sparkly, big shouldered outfits. The format of the show was simple: one loud, attention-seeking pillock sat behind a screen, and questioned three other loud, attention-seeking pillocks who were sat on the other side (they could be seen by the audience but not by the first pillock). When pillock number one had asked their three questions, and heard the ridiculous, ‘aren’t I hilarious? Pick me. PICK ME’ pre-prepared answers (these were either hideously cheesy or laden with puerile double entendres but always tinged with an air of tragic desperation) they would then choose one of the three pillocks to go on a romantic date with, along with the Blind Date camera crew. Doesn’t that sound fun?
Each week there were two ‘Blind Dates’ – with both a man and a woman getting the opportunity to pick the best of a bad bunch for their romantic trip and Cilla ushering the process along by pretending to laugh when somebody said something not very funny at all. The great intellectualism that went into asking and answering the questions can be summed up by this example: ‘How would you entertain me on our first date? ‘I’m a keen guitarist – we could make sweet music together and you could pluck at my heart-strings!’ The audience would coo at the cuteness of the response, whilst anybody with any taste at all was quietly being sick.
When this vomit-inducing process had finished, Cilla handed over to the unseen narrator (‘Here’s our Graham with a quick reminder’) so he could summarise each of the potential suitors in a natty sound bite which made them sound even more witless than they’d managed themselves. ‘Or will you pick contestant number three, who says he likes baking, and fancies putting a bun in YOUR oven? Nicola, the choice is yours!’
‘Our Graham’ was the voice of Graham Skidmore (who also did the voiceover on the first five series of Shooting Stars). When ratings plummeted and the show bosses tried to vamp the show up in 2002, Our Graham was replaced by DJ and presenter Tommy Sandhu. It didn’t help.
Anyway, once the singleton (let’s say it’s a woman for this example) had chosen which of the three macho twit she wanted to date Cilla would introduce her to the two she had turned down. This led to the first genuinely amusing moment of the show; watching her face as a muscly, good-looking bloke was led straight past her – ‘And you turned down the lovely Michael from Portsmouth…’ – before she was introduced to her ‘date’, who was five foot nothing and wearing an outfit that Timmy Mallett would have turned down for being too wacky. Cilla would then proffer three envelopes; claiming that the couple could pick one of three date destinations, despite everybody actually knowing that the same place name was in each one. Here lay the second genuinely amusing moment; watching their faces when the hoped-for sunshine break in Spain turned out to be a day playing pitch ‘n’ putt in Scarborough. The couple then promised through forced smiles to come back the next week and tell Cilla how the date went (read ‘No matter how much we humiliate ourselves we can be on television again, yay!’) and off they went. The following Saturday they’d return, and you could immediately get an idea of what sort of time they’d had by how close the pair sat next to each other on Cilla’s sofa whilst they watched a video of their experience. This was generally a fairly bland overview of what had happened as the real dirt would be dished next, in their individual VTs. There each person would get their chance to say how atrocious the other’s personal habits were, how much their breath smelt and how their laugh sounded like a cow with hiccups. The other one’s reaction could be seen in a small pop-up in the corner of the screen. The most fun was to be had when one of them (let’s say the guy this time) was completely oblivious to how the other one was feeling. He would beam into the camera, waxing lyrical about how he thought this was the start of a fantastic relationship and that he could have found ‘the one’ before the film then cut to the girl saying how dull he was, how he spent the whole time talking about his collection of On The Buses memorabilia and how she couldn’t wait to see the back of him. Crushed wasn’t the word. Then they had to face each other on the sofa, where Cilla would lean in sympathetically and say ‘Oh Mandy, how could you say that about our lovely Richard?’ knowing full well that he was in fact as much of a prat as Mandy had described him as.
The idea for Blind Date came from successful formats Perfect Match (in Australia) and The Dating Game (the US). The UK pilot was fronted by Duncan ‘Chase Me’ Norvelle and was called ‘It’s a Hoot’ (no idea what that had to do with dating, unless it was originally a show for owls…) but John Birt, who was then the Director of Programmes at LWT, and the Independent Broadcasting Authority’s regulatory body weren’t comfortable with Norvelle’s campness. The producer of the pilot, Alan Boyd, was also the producer of LWT’s Sunday evening tear-fest Surprise, Surprise which was hosted by Ginger Scouse Cilla Black, whom he thought would be perfect for the new show. So, with a new name and a new face at the helm Blind Date was launched. It ran from 30 November 1985 until 31 May 2003, with a revamp of the format in 2002 to try and halt the ratings slide. This didn’t help however, and when the 18th and final series began (for the first time as a live show) Cilla announced that she would be jumping ship (she didn’t actually use those words of course) which came as a complete Surprise, Surprise to the programme crew, who hadn’t been told beforehand. There were intentions for a new host to be found and Blind Date to live on, but at the end of the series it was announced that there would be no more, and badly-dressed, attention-starved fame seekers across the country sighed with disappointment.
Most of the contestants on Blind Date faded back into obscurity, but several went on to become ‘famous’ (this is using the word in its least impressive sense, which you’ll understand when you read the next few names) – Amanda Holden, Jenni Falconer and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson all giggled inanely on the LWT stage. Comedian Ed Byrne also appeared on the show, but whether you find him funny or not, at least he’s done slightly more throughout his career to earn his fame than simply smile vapidly into a camera.
The 356 episodes produced only three marriages, which is a pretty rubbish statistic given that over 700 couples appeared on the show over the years. What can we learn from this? Well, perhaps that it’s pretty near impossible to pick your life partner from a selection of only three people (and let’s remember that it was three of the kind of people who would voluntarily go on Blind Date) by asking three questions completely unrelated to love, relationships or genuine compatibility. Still, it gave Cilla the chance to buy three new hats.