There was a scene in the first episode of Channel 4′s excellent new drama series, Utopia, in which one of the main characters was tortured by having chili flakes, sand and bleach rubbed into his eyes, and then having one of his eyes popped out with a tea-spoon. It made for uncomfortable viewing, and yet I’d maintain it’s only the second most disturbing thing I’ve seen on British telly in the last fortnight.
What tops my list, I hear you ask? Take Me Out.
For those of you with the dignity and self-respect not to watch this every single Saturday, Take Me Out is ITV’s 21st Century answer to Blind Date, the dating show in which young couples are hitched up and sent off on a date to a dream location. Except, actually, it’s less like Blind Date and more like a kind of bleak, post-apocalyptic breeding programme dressed up as light entertainment in the aftermath of a zombie epidemic or nuclear war in which 90% of men have died.
It’s hosted by Paddy McGuinness (who always comes across as the kind of man who would flirt outrageously with your girlfriend or wife, thump you in the back and say, “Only joshing!”, and then do it all over again, but more malevolently) and features a line-up of women aged between 18 and 30-ish who decide whether or not a single man is worthy of a date. If they like him, they leave their lights on, if they don’t they switch them off (“No likey, no lighty”). If, after several rounds of competing for their affections, the single man has any lights left on, he gets to choose who he takes on the date.
For the uninitiated, it’s pretty grisly, depressing stuff. The women fall into roughly four categories:
- 40% young, white and blonde
- 40% young, white and brunette
- 15% young and black or Asian
- 5% “kookie”
The men, in turn, fall into a similar four categories, with added sub-categories like “ridiculously buff”, “lower double figure IQ”, and “ironic hipster”.
Needless to say, no-one comes out of this mess with their dignity intact. The man is invariably made to perform a ridiculous task (juggling, playing a musical instrument etc) or else look on in horror as they play a VT of his “friends” telling everyone how terrible he is with women, how smelly his feet are, or how many STDs he managed to pick up on a lads’ trip to Magaluf.
Most damning, for the women, is the “boo!” sound as they switch off their lights when it becomes clear the single man doesn’t earn much money, or isn’t the sort of gym-honed troglodyte who promises a life of brief excitement followed by serial infidelity, steroid-fuelled jealousy and possible domestic abuse.
“I go to the gym every day…”
(Lights stay on.)
“I’m a kick boxer…”
(Lights stay on.)
“I visit my gran every other day and twice on weekends…”
“And I work for a charity…”
“But the rest of the time I work for a large investment bank in the City of London. And I love driving my Lamborghini.”
(Lights stay on. Girls who turned their lights off look visibly annoyed with themselves.)
In between these rounds of self-abasement for both genders we see what happened to the couples from last week’s show. The running joke is that they’re sent to the “Isle of Fernando” - in reality some generic, vaguely upmarket Mediterranean holiday resort – but despite the sun, sea and sand it’s almost always the most depressing thing you’ve ever seen; like a 5 minute Ingmar Bergman pastiche, with piña coladas.
Suddenly two people who were tossing out “witty”, innuendo-based one-liners with abandon a week ago are rendered mute or inarticulate. (Anyone would think they’d had a team of runners or line producers feeding them funny things to say back in the studio…)
A waxy-looking brunette from Braintree sits opposite a shaved gorilla from Eastbourne. Behind them, a turquoise swimming pool shimmers in the dusk, and as they sip champagne the sun melts, blood red, into the sea.
He looks at her across the table, flexes his oversized arms, and says, “I really like courgettes.”
She frowns, the fork paused near her lips. “What’s a courgette?”
He points to his plate. “That’s a courgette.”
Her eyes grow wide. She puts down her fork. “I thought that was a cucumber.”
And okay, so I’m not quoting from an actual date here, but that’s pretty much the level we’re talking. And usually, by the end of the date, Tasha from Braintree (who last week said she was fed up with “bad boys” and looking for a “nice guy”) has decided that Connor (who looks like a “bad boy” but who lives with his Nan) is a “bit too nice”, and that she prefers someone a little bit “rough around the edges”. Connor, meanwhile, hasn’t managed to process much more than the fact that Tasha has breasts, and thinks “romance may be on the cards”.
Back to the studio, where McGuinness compares the date to something terrible…
Then it’s time to replenish his stock of crazy-eyed women, and another helpless chump comes dancing out onto the stage to the strains of Color Me Badd’s I Wanna Sex You Up.
And yet, despite all this, I find myself watching it every week. I think a part of me watches because it feels like the kind of show we should be watching in 2013 – all flashing lights, bright colours and enormous video screens, laced with a subtext of bleak, sexual desperation; The Year of the Sex Olympics for the Magaluf Weekender generation. I watch waiting for something to go catastrophically wrong, for the moment when a young couple, bloodied and clad in rags, come staggering out onto the stage, followed by a closing ring of armed security officers in black uniforms.
“It’s all a lie!” Screams the young couple. “There is no Isle of Fernando! They’re all dead! THEY’RE ALL DEAD!”
We hear a rattle of gunfire, and our screens jump to the test card. Minutes later, we’re back on McGuinness while the cameras try and film around the cleaners mopping the stage.
“And remember… No likey, no lighty… Single man! Reveal yourself!”