There is a special moment in former Big Brother winner Josie Gibson's episode of Celebrity Dinner Date. Well, there are two moments, really, because it happens twice: of the three men she chooses to go on a date with in her native Bristol and its surrounding areas, two do not know that she is famous. In the third date, she discloses her celebrity the same way you might warn a potential partner about herpes, or a recent divorce: with quiet, padding, no-it's-fine-honestly light-toed shame, slid under the door of the conversation with as little fanfare as possible. "Oh," one date, a Christian soccer league-playing catalogue model, says, as Josie Gibson's celebrity dawns on him. "Are you a celebrity? Oh, I thought— sorry. What's going on? Oh. Amazing." Which makes me wonder about the very nature of celebrity: if you have to tell someone that you are a celebrity, are you actually a celebrity? Who decides whether you are a celebrity or not? Is it you (the celebrity)? No: you cannot decide you are a celebrity, same way you can't invent your own nickname. Then wh— how is celebrity measured? If you do not have the cache to not have to explain that you are a celebrity, then surely you are not a celebrity? Are you famous if you're not famous? If not: who decides whether you are famous or not? How does this affect the parameters of Celebrity Dinner Date? If you have to tell 66 percent of the people you are dating that your job is to be a celebrity, surely you are by definition not a celebrity, therefore you are simply appearing on the civilian show Dinner Date and not the celebrity-led spin-off?
How Josie Gibson eating paella in a flat in Bristol sent me into an existential tailspin.
Dinner Date is a mild ITVBe show where single people try to find true love, forever love, and literally always fail at that task. The format is simple: one single, the star of the show, is offered five three-course menus to choose from. As they read the menus aloud in a modern but soulless local bar, explaining to camera what they like and dislike about it, we see interstitials of the potential dates, introducing themselves and saying who they are: the menus, for some reason, are laden with puns that not-even-slyly allude to their jobs or their hobbies, and these intro videos help us connect those dots. Then the single selects three, throwing two of them away forever, and embarks on three dates, visiting each potential conquest's house in turn and eating the food they made them, before leaving and rating the date on a frankly baffling three-star system (*1) in the cab home. At the end of the merry dance, they choose to knock on the door of the date they would like to see again, after which the two go out for a meal at a semi-fancy nearby restaurant or bar. The two remaining dates – the failures, the life failures – have to eat a microwave meal instead. This is all Dinner Date is.
The five-to-three format – the process where two potential dates are binned off forever based on the strength of their pun about cheesecake, deemed unworthy of love because they suggested kievs as a dinner option – seems to me possibly the cruellest mechanic in television. Because imagine it for a moment: you apply to be on a show, a small faltering brave step towards Love; you are accepted, contacted by producers; you take a day off work, jolts of excitement skipping through you, to make a sizzle reel about Who You Are and What You're Looking For In A Person; you take a camera crew to briefly film you doing your favourite hobby, which for every single person on Dinner Date is "a sport of some kind"; you take the camera crew to work with you, explain to everyone in the office what is happening – "I am going to get a date," you say, "finally I will fall in love"; and then someone reads your menu and goes "nah" and throws it on a pile marked "nah" and you never feature on television again. Mentally, emotionally: what does that process do to a human? There are tattered minds out there, walking ragged because of the psychic hope-then-despair spin cycle of Dinner Date.
But we are not here to talk about the losers.
There are two kinds of TV show only: love and food. So you have food (Great British Bake Off, Saturday Brunch, Nadiya's British Food Adventure, Jamie's 15 Minute Meals) and you have love (First Dates, Love Island, Celebs Go Dating), and there are no other TV shows that don't in some way adhere to that spectrum. Alright, let's test the theory: The X Factor, which you think is about singing, but it's actually about people's dreams, and their dreams in particular are about fame and singing, singing being a facet of music, which literally everyone who has ever been on The X Factor opens their audition by saying they love, so The X Factor is about love. What other… what other ones can we do. The Only Way Is Essex is a series of women who self-identify as "glam" sitting in empty cafes lamenting a boyfriend they dumped eight months ago, so TOWIE is about both food and love. Every sport is love because every sportsperson loves sport, every footballer wants to kiss the football. Robot Wars: the robots fight not from a position of hatred but a position of respect, and all of them are made carefully and with love, so although they are weapons of love, they are still love, so Robot Wars is actually the most love-filled programme on TV. I've only watched Game of Thrones through once but it's about a wide lad called Hot Pie (food) and northern blokes forlornly fucking their auntie (love). Breaking Bad: he only gets bang into drug manufacturing because he loves his family too much, but then it all goes wrong because violence is like food to him. The Sopranos is a show about a sad lad eating complex Italian hams. This is what underpins everything we consume and enjoy. Food, love. Dinner Date is nakedly about both.
Sadly love literally never, ever, ever ever ever ever occurs on Dinner Date, which is the nub of what makes it such compulsive viewing. We like watching love bloom on First Dates, yes, because it is very wholesome to watch two people connect on that underlying romantic frequency, that dog tilt of recognition of a kindred soul in another body: fine. But also we very much enjoy the full-body cringe of watching two people dance in anti-chemistry, which is what Dinner Date is. Watch these two people try to awkwardly hug each other at a doorway and know they could never – with a hundred years of trying, under lab conditions, they are given a grant to live at home and try to do it but they are doomed only to fail – they could never coordinate a single session of penetrative sex if their lives depended on it. Witness as two people, both desperate in their loneliness enough to go on an entire TV show to meet other people in an attempt to join their lives forever to another, half-sit on the edge of a sofa and politely ask each other their names. It is hard to find hope in this world, but it's easy to find a reflection of your own agony, and in Dinner Date this comes in the form of a Scottish single mum who doesn't eat broccoli but she'll meekly try it if you absolutely insist. No, she says, single forkful eaten with the teeth. No I still don't like it. There is not a single atom of sexual tension in the room. Absolutely no one here is getting ploughed tonight.
Something that happens in every episode of Dinner Date: someone wraps a chicken breast in parma ham and pops it in the oven. Something that happens in every episode of Dinner Date: someone pours cream on potatoes and cooks the potatoes in cream. Something that happens in every episode of Dinner Date: you realise, truly, how one- or two-note every human being you've ever met is, when you see their pre-date VT, when you see them explain who they are and why you should care, and they are always either doing their one hobby or, worse, you see them at work, play-acting their way through a non-meeting, and there is proper "search Spotify for a single keyword" music playing in the background.
So for example one lad really likes cricket, and his hobby every weekend is playing cricket, so here he is mugging around in cricket whites, rising up in front of the camera with a goofy grin, running and throwing a lazy bowl, putting his cricket helmet on, and in the background I Don't Like Cricket is playing, and over dinner he casually mentions cricket maybe three, four times, because he likes cricket and the only thing he likes is cricket. Maybe this is all we are: at the screen selector at the start of life, we are allowed to select, like, exactly three things we enjoy, and nothing else – over the next 80-odd years of passion and misery – can ever eclipse those things. When you watch Dinner Date you realise that you, too, are something akin to nothing. Something that happens in every episode of Dinner Date: someone artlessly presses a fork into the edge of some pastry to put the finishing touch on their beef wellington.
I suppose one thing I can't stop thinking about is: why would producers just not explain to the dates, Josie Gibson's dinner dates? Why would they not prime them to expect a celebrity? Not a major celebrity, obviously (Bristol), but a celebrity. Because: what is the point of the Celebrity twist on the Dinner Date format if a large chunk of the show is spent with a former army officer quietly cooking chicken and not knowing he is wooing a celebrity? Is it even Celebrity Dinner Date if the celebrity has to tell the other person they are a celebrity? Surely it's just Dinner Date?
Tanya, 22, would be a lasagne, if she is anything. (Tanya works as some sort of jewel seller and clearly work have told her she can't film there for her stupid food-dating chimera, so she's just chatting absolute shit to camera in lieu of Dinner Date's previously accepted getting-to-know-you footage of someone either doing their hobby or doing their job, hence the lasagne thing). Tanya: "If I was a food, I would be lasagne. 'Cos the cheese is the hair, the pasta is my skin and the meat is… my internal organs. So essentially I am a lasagne."
Tanya is onto something here, because surely by extension everything is a lasagne, seeing as a lasagne is just three things of various hardness stacked on top of each other, which correct me if I'm wrong, but is how science defines everything. The earth is a gigantic lasagne, with the geological crust an enormous cheese layer on top, and the molten rock beneath it the meat and béchamel. Dinosaur skeletons are the pasta. Earth's lava core is the casserole dish. Thanks.
So most daytime TV shows are secretly anthropological studies into the breadth and depth of the Average British Bore: this much we know. Come Dine With Me, for example, is a show about people who think they are really eccentric proving forever they are uneccentric. Four in a Bed is about defining the exact parameters of the bastardry and pettiness of the Great British B&B Owner, fingers holding a single pube up to the camera, unsmiling, saying the fry-up they've just been given is too small ("The bean touch me eggy! I'm underpaying!"). And in that way Dinner Date is a study in anodyne British living rooms: grey sofas, slightly lighter grey carpets, white-grey walls, a grey "LOVE" sign washed in highlighter grey. Everyone has the same white plates, the same silver cutlery, the same IKEA cheese grater w/ tub. Everyone lights the same single fat cream candle and watches it burn down to nothing as they do the washing up.
Prisons in the US have strict guidelines on how to keep inmates pliant and neutral with the use of mild colours, cold bare walls, occasional pops of pastel pink to suppress any horniness. This is what everyone who has ever appeared on Dinner Date uses as interior design inspiration.
It must strike you in quiet moments. You, out in the moor, alone. Fresh air and a thick cagoule. You sit on a rock as the wind flutters around you. A quiet moment of peace. Flask of sweet tea, cheese and pickle sandwich. You went for a walk this morning, just you. Sunday AM has turned to a grey afternoon. You haven't spoken to another human being for hours. You are sat on stone and you can look down at the swathe of valley below you. You are utterly, utterly alone. Tomorrow, the great sigh of work. Behind you, the thick part of the weekend. Just this stolen moment of you-ness. And: oh, there it is. There's that intrusive thought again. Here it comes, shooting like a bullet. Ah, the thought says. Remember when you got rejected on the first round of Dinner Date? Remember when your suggestion of dinner was so underwhelming you were denied a chance at love forever?
Lie Bot, what is the saddest thing? The saddest thing is on Dinner Date, when a date has gone kind of well but not actually well, and the host closes the door behind the date, and in a moment of knee-jerk, post-date, half-pissed, pure, pure hope, flashes a double thumbs-up and a silent wretched smile at the camera, and for a moment you can see their bones, and their sinew, every pull and stretch of blood and ligament inside them: every want and every need, their loneliness pulled out of them like a long grey ribbon. The next time you see them interact with a door they open it to microwaveable spaghetti bolognese. That is the saddest thing.
8. THE INEVITABILITY OF DEATH
Every single man on Dinner Date is "not good with spicy stuff". Every single woman has "a thing" about touching raw meat. For some reason the narrator, who is awful by the way, sums up every date in verse. Everyone comes to Date #1 with intricate, self-inflicted rules: no kissing on a first date, I won't eat vegetables, I only like blondes, they have to be tall but not too tall. You learn, soon, that these boundaries are as soft as butter: Natalie, a teacher from Cardiff, lists four things she wants in a man (tall, dark, handsome, good bum) that quickly ameliorates as she's curling her hair. "If he turns up and he's ugly, then… I'll just wait and see if he's a nice guy." We all just want someone. If perfection isn't coming to dinner than please god give me a beating heart. People have low expectations and are willing to lower even them.
Sean from Burton has never eaten mashed potatoes before. He reads the word "pâté" as "party". He does a backflip on a trampoline. Every woman he's going on a date with has somehow, somehow, never been on a date before. How does Britain's sexual ecosystem work if nobody is taking women out for dates any more? How lonely do you have to be to have been in a three-year relationship with someone and never be taken out for dinner?
Dinner Date suffers because it is cut from daytime TV cloth but aired at 8PM, stranding it uncomfortably between two worlds, TV as an identity crisis, TV designed to be half-watched while you chop an onion.
Martyn's first course patter is this: "I love a Scotch egg. I sometimes get one to eat in the supermarket when I'm doing my shop." They do not have a second date.
Everyone on this show is doing some extremely suspect shit with raw meat that seems in direct contradiction of a little hobby of mine I like to call "not constantly having diarrhoea". There are only three puddings: brownies, cheesecake, tiramisu. There are only a finite number of mains: beef wellington, chicken in ham, steak with dauphinoise potatoes. Starters are normally prawns or something violently deep-fried. Given absolutely zero clues, contestants try to read into the 48-word menus they are given at the start. "She's got Millionaire's Shortbread on the menu," Martyn says. "So I think she likes the finer things in life— a bit high-strung." Nobody knows how to kiss hello or kiss goodbye so they just clatter through the ritual both ways, in and then out. There is nothing more depressing than watching someone get really nicely dressed up to then have to eat a ready meal. And through it all, like chicken through ham, runs a deep current of desperation: please, the guests on Dinner Date say, please like me, please take me out, please enjoy my cooking, please; my one function on this planet is to join in a team of two, a forever union, with one other beating heart; I am approaching 30 and I am alone; please, let me cook you a chicken and love you with my soul forever. And it never works out: as the end card of every episode always tells us, of the three chefs, one is still single; one is in a new relationship; and the one who went on the second date swapped numbers but never met up again. Love is the ultimate pursuit and Dinner Date consistently proves itself to be the most ineffective method of finding it.
It is an hour-long show where we watch people joylessly eating beef. Dinner Date encapsulates life, in a way: that little thrill before a date, the anticipation of What Might Be; the reality of a recruitment consultant called Ryan showing up to your door with a bottle of £6 red; getting through dinner, which is just asking constantly "did you like it?" while recounting your entire family tree; the dawning understanding that you are never going to fall in love with this person, not truly, not fairytale love, I mean maybe you could scratch a sort of hollow life out together but that's about it; they finally leave and you sit on your bed and say the date was a two stars out of three. Everyone lives, everyone dies, love isn't real, dinner was average.
Every TV show is about love or food – we have decided that. Except Dinner Date, which has somehow conspired to be about neither.
(*1) Loathe as I am to sound here like that boy who cornered you at a house party once when you were 18 and laughed through his nose while slowly describing 4Chan jokes to you and hopped on the aux-cord to put Axis of Awesome on the stereo, thoroughly clearing the room out into the garden in the doing so, but: if your system is a three-star system where people regularly give intervening half-stars then clearly the rating system is not fit for purpose and requires more spine points; it needs to be an out of seven rating system at least; there is no nuance in a three-star rating system when those damned to using the system feel a constant need to bust out of the confines of it, jfc