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Perfect match

17 July 2015

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THERE was a vicar, a social anthropologist, and an evolutionary psychotherapist. . . No, not the start of an unfunny bar-room joke, but three of the five experts who have taken on the task of joining together in wedlock complete strangers.

The opening episode of Married at First Sight (Channel 4, Thursday) set the scene: growing numbers of UK singles find it impossible to meet a mate; employing the standard methods of basing choice on romantic attraction fails more often than it succeeds; even the internet cannot — a disturbing admission, this — be relied on wholly to have vanquished our benighted forebears’ fumbling attempts.

So perhaps a pairing-up organised by someone other than the couple concerned — and, in a modern twist, organised on scientific lines, analysing who is most compatible with whom, which couples will form an absolutely secure bond — has something to be said for it after all.

Applicants — 1500 of them — were asked 300 questions to discern their general compatibility; these were whittled down to a shortlist of 15; and, of these, three couples were paired up. They will meet their partner only moments before the wedding ceremony, and have promised to stay together for five weeks before deciding whether they are, indeed, a couple for life.

We saw the lucky six being informed, by phone, that they had been chosen, then telling their family and friends about the experiment. This was the point at which wider social reality kicked in: Sam’s parents were so upset by what their daughter was planning that she pulled out, leaving Jack in the curious situation of being jilted by someone he has never met.

The programme is trying to do something hugely important, and trying to do it seriously; but it raises more questions than it answers. It is intriguing to be told that scientific analysis can predict stable relationships, but we heard far too little about what tests and analysis were applied to the participants.

And how sad that it was not thought interesting enough for the priest to explain why he thought that this process was an adequate preparation for the sacrament of marriage; and why it is good enough to make vows of lifelong fidelity, knowing that you are signing up for only a five-week trial. When everyone, apparently, already has sex before marriage, I can imagine a few reasonable arguments in favour of short-term, experimental vows — but they were not rehearsed here.

Cordon is BBC4’s current Saturday-night attempt to foster closer links with our European neighbours by exposing how generally we share a culture of violence, mayhem, and general angst. This time, we are learning entry-level Belgian as we see how a deadly virus is deemed so contagious that the only solution is to seal off part of central Antwerp.

This invokes all manner of basic moral and theological concerns: the desire for purity; the attempt to create a safe place; the struggle between personal and communal priorities; loyalty, probity, and love. The scenario is far-fetched, but the characters and interactions are making compelling TV drama.

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