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TV review: First Dates: Be my Valentine, Alice and Jack, and Bring the Drama

23 February 2024

Channel 4

Ronald, aged 90, and Iris, 91, appeared on First Dates: Be my Valentine (Channel 4, Tuesday of last week)

Ronald, aged 90, and Iris, 91, appeared on First Dates: Be my Valentine (Channel 4, Tuesday of last week)

AFTER searching in vain for any TV programme celebrating that most solemn observance Ash Wednesday, I turned in despair to the day’s remarkable conjunction in 2024: the commemoration of the blessed martyr St Valentine. The previous day, Channel 4, as a kind of first evensong, a special edition of First Dates: Be my Valentine.

Somehow, I’ve hitherto missed this long-running series, and snobbish distaste predominated as I watched the various couples first being interviewed separately, then meeting awkwardly at the bar and table, and then finally talking to camera together. Yet, actually, as these disparate people told their stories, and we heard of the sadnesses, insecurities, and loneliness beneath the bright and not-quite-believable jollity, I began to feel admiration for their courage and optimism over experience.

Ronald, aged 90, went to the piano and, all unrehearsed, serenaded Iris, 91, melting all hearts; 27-year-old Colby was delighted to meet pregnant Macy; the driving instructor Gareth was thrilled by a trans newsreader, India, on her first date as a woman. Although the opulent restaurant and copious alcohol possibly played their part, all the couples wanted to meet again. It presented a generous and accepting Britain,in which the possibility of love flowers far beyond the conventional boundaries.

The blind date that kickstarts the new series Alice and Jack (Channel 4, Wednesdays) is every boy’s dream — or nightmare. Poised, brittle, and attractive Alice wastes no time in sweeping Jack up to her flat for apparently torrid and satisfactory coitus, then — despite all the evidence that they are soulmates — coolly chucks him out.

But uncommitted one-off sex exacts a terrible price: they are instantly deeply besotted with each other, and the drama tracks the explosive relationship that blights their lives over the decades. They can’t get over each other, but they can’t get on with each other, either. We learn something of what leads Alice to be so thoroughly messed up: sexually abuse by her father, and her alcoholic mother’s complicity.

Our support for them is, to say the least, compromised: Alice is shockingly manipulative and wholly self-centred; Jack makes decisions so foolish that he deserves all that he gets. But this sophisticated and witty tragicomedy lodges powerfully in the mind.

Bill Bailey is in charge of BBC2’s new series Bring the Drama (Wednesdays), in which eight lucky would-be actors chosen from thousands of applicants are given coaching and catapulted into the sets and scripts of real TV dramas, helped by the actual stars. We saw the huge difference between aspiration and the actual professional business: the hard practical craft of being immersed convincingly in an ensemble, making a heightened fiction seem real. But, very quickly, we also witnessed unsuspected sheer, moving talent.

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