“It’s much more interesting to watch people fall in love than fight,” said Molly Sayers at the latest RTS Futures event, which put the spotlight on Channel 4’s First Dates.
The Twenty Twenty Television production is that rare thing among dating shows – it wants audiences to like, not laugh at its lovelorn participants.
“The programme comes out of the docs department of Channel 4 so it’s not an entertainment programme, although it is entertaining,” said Sayers, who produces the series. “As much as it’s about love, dating and the funny, flirty, sexy things happening in the restaurant, it’s a documentary about people.”
“First Dates has this amazing way of tackling big topics and themes,” she added.
Casting producer Alex Gray has the task of picking the daters and matching them. Gray uses the show’s casting database of more than 150,000 people to come up with potential participants, which he supplements with street casting.
“We spend a long time on the phone with people before we even meet them,” he explained. “When they do come in, we treat our auditions as if we were down the pub with a mate so they are as relaxed as possible.”
Gray added: “You can match them on paper but it’s a lot easier when you know them.”
Every week the production team holds “match meetings” where they “fight over their favourites”. “It can get really heated but that’s a good thing because it means we’re passionate,” said Gray. “That’s why the show is so successful and creates so many successful matches.”
The show’s producers looked back at series 3 and 4 and discovered that around 80% of couples went out together again at least once after appearing on the show.
First Dates has been a regular telly presence since the first show aired in June 2013, racking up more than 70 episodes, including the various special and celebrity shows that have followed in its wake.
The series is filmed at a restaurant in Paternoster Square near St Paul’s Cathedral. Three featured couples are filmed by 42 fixed cameras – and some GoPros in the loos – while the restaurant is filled out by other couples, who are also on first dates.
Dan Muncaster-Ross and Adam Stewart are the show’s poster boys – they met on the show in 2015, Muncaster-Ross moved 250 miles to live with his beau in Bury St Edmunds and the couple were engaged by the end of the year.
Despite being filmed for national telly, the two men didn’t feel at all awkward on their restaurant date. “There is no camera crew walking around. There are static cameras, a bit like Big Brother, scattered about. When I first got there before Dan arrived, I though, ‘Oh God there’s cameras everywhere,’ but as soon as he turned up I totally forgot about them,” said Stewart.
“Because it’s a date, you want to impress the person that you’re with. They’re in front of you, so I just forgot everything else that was going on. Until they get up to go to the loo and then you think, ‘Oh my God there’s a camera on me,’” added Muncaster-Ross.
The waiters and maître d’ Fred Sirieix are employed by the programme-makers and are an integral part of the show. Actor Cici Coleman, one of the panel at the RTS Futures event, explained how she was recruited as a waiter.
“I was serving a table and they happened to be a street-casting team from Twenty Twenty. I didn’t realise who they were and I was just chatting away,” recalled Coleman.
The casters offered her an audition for the third series of First Dates, a show of which Coleman was unaware, when tweaks were made to the show, including bringing in restaurant staff.
“I thought it was a joke because no one ever comes to you [with a job] – you have to go to them,” she added. Coleman went for an audition with Sayers and was offered the job. Her role is not only to serve food but also to chat to and relax the daters.
“The only way that we know what’s going on in the [daters’] heads is via Cici or [another waiter] at the table asking, ‘Do you like them?’ or [if they make] a phone call in the loo,” explained Sayers.
“It’s a juggernaut of a production,” she continued, offering hope to anyone in the RTS Futures audience looking for a route into television.
“We see up to 80 [potential daters] a week and we always need help, so there are logging positions, and on the actual shoot there are [opportunities] for runners. In terms of getting a toe in [to the industry] this is a good way.”
The RTS Futures event, “First Dates Uncovered”, was held at The Collective, Bedford Square in central London on 23 November. TV presenter Ria Hebden chaired the panel and the producers of the event were Sasha Breslau and Alex Wootten.