Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

There's much more to love than simply looks Samantha

A man called Richard said: "Planning something as simple as a date can be very stressful." Some of us could have told him that before.

Dates, as those of us who have been on more than we've had hot dinners know, are stressful. They're stressful even when you're meant to have fairly good social skills. God only knows what they're like if you have Asperger's.

But now, thanks to a new Channel 4 series called The Undateables, even those of us who aren't God do. It is, said Richard, an amateur radio enthusiast with Asperger's, a condition that's "like a radio key" that's slightly "off-tune". It makes it, he said, "100 times more difficult to find a partner". But gamely, and in front of a fair chunk of the nation's TV-viewing public, he gave it a try.

After a dress rehearsal with his mother, the first date he had, which was his first for 20 years, and only his second ever, went quite well. It went quite well, that is, until Dawn, the woman the dating agency had arranged for him to meet, suddenly announced she had to go. Richard was left grinning bravely at the camera.

It was a roller coaster, this programme about the dating efforts of a group of "extraordinary singletons" some people might brand "undateable". Would Richard's next date, with a smiley French financier called Patricia, go better? And what about Luke, whose Tourette's means he can hardly ever go more than a few minutes without yelling out "horny bitch" or "slut"? And what about Penny, who has a genetic condition which means she has broken every bone in her body except her collarbone and nose? Would she find love? Would anyone find love? Was love, as the posters advertising the programme on the Tube said, "blind", "disfigured" and "autistic"? Or at least on offer to people who were?

It was, after watching the first programme, and gasping, and cheering, and wincing, as you do when people you already feel you care about are battling disappointment, and clinging on to hope, far too early to say. Luke, who's a stand-up comic, said he had "no confidence with girls".

So when he met Lucy, a pretty receptionist who didn't seem too fazed to find herself suddenly called a "**** whore", a big chunk of the country held its breath. And when she was 40 minutes late for their second date, we were in pieces. But when, after a second date that seemed to go brilliantly, Lucy announced that she was "happy to have met someone as cool as him", some of us were fighting tears.

And when Penny, who's a trapeze artist training to be a primary school teacher, and who's also three foot three, was getting ready for her first date, some of us felt as nervous as if it was our own. But she, it turned out, wasn't. Her ideal man, she said, would be a six-foot-tall policeman. The man she met, who was handsome, and kind, and also in a wheelchair, was a youth worker who was 5ft 11in.

The date, she told her parents later, was "all right", but she wasn't sure they had "that much in common". When he texted her to say he'd love to see her again, she said she'd have to let him down. "I think," she told her parents, "I'd quite like to date someone without a disability." She thought, she said, "they'd be a bit more livelier".

It's a shame that a woman called Samantha Brick was probably too busy responding to an article she wrote this week to see it. In the article, she said that women hated her for her beauty. And that they hated her so much that she had problems making friends.

If she had seen The Undateables, she might have noticed that what Luke said he was looking for was someone who was "sweet" and "caring" and "kind", and that Lucy, who was clearly all of these, liked him because he was modest, and funny, and fun.

She might have noticed that Penny, who's about half her height, and quite an unusual shape, with quite an unusual face, had learnt that her unusual appearance was no barrier to future dates. And she might have noticed that it was Richard, who was the most good-looking, but the one with the least developed social skills, who seemed to face the biggest challenge.

She might, in fact, have noticed, that what most people look for in their friends, and colleagues, and lovers, and partners, is warmth, and good humour, and openness, and kindness, and that what most of them don't look for is people who think the world is a giant beauty contest they've won.

I worried when I saw the posters for The Undateables that this programme would be a freak show. It wasn't. It was touching, and tender, and sweet.

But there was a freak show in the Press this week, and its star was a woman who doesn't seem to have learnt that the love that most people value, and the friendship, and affection, is often blind to an unusual body or face, but rarely blind to an ugly soul.

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