First Dates: a tender relic from our now painfully distant past – The Guardian

First Dates is back! And you’ll be pleased to know it is exactly the same as before. Fred Sirieix still says “Ooh la–la!” when a glamorously made-up woman turns up in a dress to eat dinner with a man in a T-shirt. Merlin is always there behind the bar, a Dracularian butler trapped in the body of bartender, asking what you do for a living. There are all the waiting staff, looking unerringly attractive throughout, primed as if to always descend into a slithering orgy as soon as Fred blows his ceremonial French sex whistle.

Someone orders a shot with their first drink and the person they are dining with says “Ooh!”. Someone stutters slightly while responding to: “Have you ever been in love before?” and the music drops and we go backstage and slowly unravel their trauma. A phone call from a bathroom. A mild squabble over who gets to pay. Two people who have been set up on a date already know each other from before (“Yeah … just a little bit”). Someone in their 20s admits they have a child and the date doesn’t immediately get up from the table in disgust so they both instantly fall in love instead. A smitten man visibly winces while a woman coolly tells him she thinks they should just stay friends.

Bartender Merlin.

Something of the night … bartender Merlin. Photograph: Dave King

You wouldn’t want First Dates (Friday, 10pm, Channel 4) to be different! You wouldn’t want this to change! We are on season 15 of this shit! A nan with fun hair is literally always dancing alone in the middle of a redressed restaurant in the middle of St Paul’s! Why would they change it?!

We should be thankful it is still like this, though. This latest series was filmed just before Covid happened, and it’s fascinating to watch such a pure expression of the Old Normal here from the chaos of the New. Remember when people used to just … kiss each other hello, without thinking about whether that was OK first? When they used to just … touch forearms together, an ancient ritual of the flirt?

You, like me, have probably spent the last six months watching TV and film made before social distancing was a problem, and it’s always so bizarrely jarring to see people touch each other like we used to: a hug, a kiss, a completely unnecessary high five because they both like heavy metal. First Dates is a show that takes two achingly lonely strangers, gives them two shots and a drink with their meal, and has Fred coo gently at them in French until they touch. What the Covid-era version of this will look like, it’s hard to really know.

The next series already began filming in Manchester in March (see? There are fresh thrills to be had in the old format!) and was interrupted by lockdown – but has restarted now, albeit with strict social distancing and a new no-kissing policy presumably upheld by Fred in a hazmat suit, slapping strangers’ genitals apart with a hockey stick. So that’s something to look forward to. But for now, sit back and enjoy the First Dates of old: it’s just great, wholesome TV. There is something enormously tender and cheering and heartwarming about the whole thing – the same as it ever was, on and on and over again, one last relic from our now painfully distant past.

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