Behind the scenes on the Irish version of 'First Dates'

First Dates invites viewers to share a meal with some nervous couples who have just met. Marjorie Brennan gets the lowdown on the new Irish version

THE appetite for reality television programmes shows no signs of dimming, but while the likes of Made in Chelsea, TOWIE, and Geordie Shore continue to be popular with a certain demographic, there has been a swing towards shows that leave you with a warm glow rather than feeling faintly grubby.

Witness One Born Every Minute, 24 Hours in A&E and the phenomenon that is Gogglebox. Another hugely popular show in this vein is First Dates, where viewers get up close with singles seeking romance on a blind dinner date. Now RTÉ and production company Coco Television are hoping to replicate that success when the format’s Irish version hits screens this week.

Producer Ger Philpott’s passion for the project is obvious.

“I am a big fan of the Channel 4 programme. It’s not just a regular reality show — it has real heart, and it’s fun and sweet.”

The Cork native serves as head matchmaker on the Irish show, overseeing an intensive selection process.

“People applied online and we reviewed those. Then people were graded, and we had phone conversations with some applicants. Based on that, we chose people for an hour-long in-depth interview on camera. We got a very good sense of the person and also ideas along the way about who would work with who.”

Philpott says key to the success of the show is that those involved are completely committed to meeting someone.

“They are genuinely looking for love, not their 15 minutes of fame. We had a commitment to do the best we could in matching people. Obviously you’re looking for people who can perform on TV, that’s a given, but beyond that we were looking for people with stories, something to say for themselves.”

First Dates was filmed over five days earlier this year in the restaurant of Dublin’s Gibson Hotel and is the first fixed rig show of its kind to made in Ireland. Every moment is captured by 14 cameras.

“The fixed rig was used on Big Brother and at first, you could see the cameras, but as the technology has developed the cameras have become smaller. So you can take the cameras around, they can move, tilt, turn, pan — we see all the action in the restaurant from a gallery above the restaurant. It’s fascinating.”

Philpott relished the experience of making the show, which has taken on a life of its own.

“It was a joy to work on, there was a great energy about it. Now it is screening, we’re reliving the experience. We have regular contact with the guests, and I probably know more about some of them than their friends.”

It could be said that First Dates is an antidote to the more on-demand nature of dating today, fuelled by apps such as Tinder, where ‘hooking up’ is achieved in a swipe. “A lot of people tend not to go on dates any more because of technology. It is the 21st century after all, most people who are single are into internet dating. But a proper date is a slower beast, you’re breaking bread, getting to know somebody.

“The couples have had no contact with each other beforehand, whereas if you’re dating someone online, you’re bouncing back and forth and things move along quicker. I don’t know if this was a trip back in time but it is a different ball game. Everybody was in it to win it, to see what was on offer, what the chemistry was like.”

The show features couples of all ages and sexualities. Philpott isn’t giving much away when I ask him about his strike rate in terms of successful match-ups. “It was fantastic, of course,” he laughs. “Though I don’t think I’ll be getting a job in Lisdoonvarna. I’m a real people person so it was a great experience. But there’s a responsibility, what happens if you get it wrong with people.

“But you also get a hunch for these things, the little things that tell you something about people.”

While it remains to be seen how many matches are made, Philpott is confident of a happy ending for the show itself.

“It’s running a long time in Britain, it’s popular with all ages and I know a lot of people can’t wait to see it. We’ve put our heart and soul into it.”

  • First Dates begins on RTÉ2 tomorrow at 9.30pm

HOST WITH THE MOST

A good maître d’ possesses a certain skillset that is essential to the smooth running of a successful culinary enterprise and the First Dates restaurant is no exception. Croatian Mateo Saina seems to be the perfect man for the job. He has worked for a host of top Dublin restaurants since arriving in Ireland in 2004 and — given that his bosses have included Marco Pierre White and Conrad Gallagher — he is no stranger to the theatrical side of the business either.

Chatting to Mateo, it is obvious He has the charm and warmth required for the role; almost every question I ask elicits a throaty chuckle. He nabbed the First Dates role after being approached and asked to audition.

“It’s been very good, very unexpected. It was just surreal — I didn’t wake up dreaming of being on TV. Am I ready for it? Nobody is ready for it. Opportunities arise in life, so I took it and it turned out to be even better than expected.”

While some people might be intimidated carrying out their job with cameras tracking their every move, Mateo found the experience a lot less taxing than dealing with the stresses of overseeing a busy restaurant.

“It was actually easier than my normal job, because people weren’t there for food only — they were there to find love. There was no stress involved, it was more like being an advisor than a regular restaurant manager. When people see someone’s being pleasant to them, then the experience becomes more pleasant for everyone. People realised I was there to help and that made my job easier, and their life easier.”

While Mateo says he was rooting for certain couples to get together, he was aware he couldn’t overstep the line.

“I knew I shouldn’t stick my nose in, because you don’t know which people will match or not. I might think ‘they’ll be great’ but next thing they don’t have any chemistry.”

Mateo is currently general manager of Marcel’s on Merrion Row in Dublin.

His counterpart on the Channel 4 show, Fred Sirieix, has become a star thanks to his entertaining and philosophical musings on love and romance. Is Mateo prepared for the same kind of attention?

“No, I’m not prepared. What happens, happens — I don’t know what to expect. It’s slowly starting to feel more real.”


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