Did Saturdays even exist before the Blind date column? Not as far as I’m concerned. The start of the weekend was a joyless desert until, in 2009, Weekend magazine started sending two hapless (my words) strangers out for dinner in the hope that three courses, a bottle of house white and the terror of appearing in a national newspaper would be the accelerant a romantic spark needs to go full inferno.
I have been obsessed with Blind date for most of its 10-year existence. Its simplicity is deceptive: what the daters say leaves plenty of room for interpretation. On the surface, the questions are formulaic – somewhere between inane smalltalk at a stranger’s house party and the sexless interrogation of a dietary questionnaire from your GP. But in the context of the column, they are traps – and I love to see the participants fall right in, revealing themselves via the short aside that they shared a pudding with their date. And let’s not forget that score out of 10. Brutal to have adults rate one another, you might say. Delicious, I say.
The key to its success? It’s relatable. I used to write an anonymous dating blog as The Guyliner. I know what it’s like out there. I have sat at deathly dull dinners with the king of halitosis talking about his loft conversion. I have taken sneaky glances at my watch as a partied-out zombie talked me through his negroni-inspired accumulator hangover. I have also dropped clangers, watched my date’s face plummet and realised that my half of the bill is no longer an investment in a bright future, but a tax on my stupidity.
This is why I love Blind date so much. But its two slim columns in the middle of Weekend, barely 400 words a week, weren’t enough for me. Every Saturday, I would dash to social media to debrief with other devotees. The disasters! The fairytale endings! Even the kind of “meh” ones where two clean-shirts spent two hours saying, “No, after you” over a dish of calamari – we discussed them all.
In July 2014, after years of writing about my own dates, I was coupled up and looking for something new to write about. It occurred to me that it might be fun to look deeper into Blind date, to read between the lines. In the same way that the Guardian’s episode recaps of Line Of Duty or Game Of Thrones are must-reads for fans eager to dissect their favourite dramas, I wanted to put Blind date under the microscope.
Thus my blog, Impeccable Table Manners, was born, taking its name from the stock reply given by many daters to the “Good table manners?” question. The tone is light snark, with greater savagery deployed occasionally for some of the biggest shockers. I try not to get too personal; I’m critiquing what people say, not who they are, and I invite dates to get in touch if they want to give their side of the story. To my surprise, the blog’s popularity grew and grew. Soon, every Saturday morning, my Twitter mentions were full of people asking when the review was going up – sometimes as early as 7.30am. (Guys, it’s Saturday.)
The idea was to take the daters’ answers and run with them. Sometimes, quite far. Almost every column inspires me in some way, and if I get speechless, well, there is always an animated gif of Joan Collins rolling her eyes close at hand. And while this bit is fun, every week the date throws up a deeper topic for me to chew on. I have touched on loneliness, snobbery, racism, misogyny, masculinity, poverty and kindness. An awkward answer about who gets to pour the wine can get me going on just about anything.
The blog has developed running gags of its own – my readers and I react very strongly to lateness (no!), negronis (yuck!), daters worrying they talked too much (you are on a date, hun; talking is the point), chopsticks (always a disaster), sharing food (no, thank you), people who say, “I think my friends would be too much for them” about their crew of magnolia acolytes and, of course, the dreaded “impeccable”: find a new word (except don’t, because I love it).
There have been occupational hazards. One guy I reviewed is now my editor at GQ magazine (awkward). Another woman was halfway through doing my makeup for a photoshoot before mentioning she had had the Impeccable treatment (she still made me look good). And I have been stopped in the street on numerous occasions by daters and fans of both the Weekend column and Impeccable Table Manners. The cult of Blind date is bigger than you might think.
They say you should never meet your heroes, but the completist in me wanted to find out exactly what goes on behind the scenes. Despite my readers’ frequent frustrations at the “algorithm” that puts daters together, it is not a supercomputer that does the matching. Nina Trickey, Weekend’s resident cupid, has been hooking up readers since 2012, curating the entire process: sifting the romantic hopefuls’ applications, matching them, booking the restaurant and compiling their answers. She has the perfect credentials for the job: as a favour to her friend Anna, her predecessor as cupid, Nina appeared in Blind date No 2.
She got on OK with Niall, 26. They scored each other an 8, but when asked if she would meet him again, Nina replied: “Not romantically. Also, he didn’t compliment me and I did him (on his shirt),” thus setting the tone for the hundreds of daters who would follow.
You need the precision of a heart surgeon to play Blind date matchmaker. Nina admits it can be hard. “I can’t match someone 100% of the time on what they say in that first email,” she says. “Some give you loads of information, but with others it’s just two lines. I have to get them in, see them for myself.” Daters are invited to have their photograph taken before their date – individually, of course, or where’s the surprise?
Sometimes applicants are too similar; the column is always running short of straight men, older couples and people outside the M25. While there may seem to be a Blind date “type”, anyone is welcome to take part and the goal is to make the column as diverse as possible.
Is there ever a risk of being set up with someone who is merely available, rather than a decent match? Nina shakes her head emphatically. “No, there has to be something there.” Some daters wait quite a while – up to a year. “I do feel bad for unmatched people still sitting in my inbox, but I never forget them,” she says.
The meal is on the restaurant, in return for the honour of being featured; daters get three courses and one bottle of wine. Regular readers often bemoan dates that happen on a “school night”, which often prevents anyone getting too hot under the collar, but this is partly dictated by daters’ schedules and the restaurant’s availability. Even once the date is under way, there are fires to fight. A restaurant once accidentally offered the daters a very expensive tasting menu that they then asked the couple to pay for; on occasion, couples have twisted the rules when it comes to the free wine.
No-shows are rare, although one poor guy seemed to have the worst luck. “His first date stood him up, so I set him up again,” Nina says. “The second girl was a bit flakey and wouldn’t commit to a date.” So she took one for the team. Nina laughs: “Well, I was single at the time… I asked him out myself.” It didn’t last, and Nina is now spoken for, but she has been asked out by potential matches more than a few times.
Once the date is done, Nina sends out a questionnaire. The answer she looks forward to seeing the most? “The kiss, obviously! Just to see if I was right to match them – we do want people to get on. But I also like ‘Will you meet again?’” The editors have been known to cheer when news of a good date reaches the office.
Since the column began in 2009, 542 couples have judged each other’s table manners. The first “Impeccable!” came early, in the very first date, while the first score of 10 came two months later – although it was not reciprocated. In fact, we waited almost five years for the first double 10, from students Josh and Biko, who answered “Did you go on somewhere?” with a baffling trip to M&M’s World in London. But to my mind, the first truly emphatic 10 – one of them even gave a bonus point for “taste in films” – came from Lizzie and Tomas in May 2017, who are getting married later this year. And yes, Nina and I are invited and will be making sure they don’t share their main course.
Perhaps the biggest Blind date of all, published in January this year, belonged to Joanne and Morgan. This raucous duo really went for it – sinking endless bottles of wine, snogging ferociously, gatecrashing a party and, upon being ejected, discovering one of them had left their knickers behind. The encounter went viral; the next day, Joanne was on BBC Radio 5 Live explaining herself (see next page to find out what happened next).
But before anyone loses their underwear, lovers must be matched. Nina’s cupid powers come into play at the photoshoot, where participants are photographed before their night out. It’s a tightly run production line, as I found when I joined her last month. Daters are escorted from the Guardian’s reception to a small studio and given 15 to 20 minutes to make the magic happen. Nina attends all the shoots, asking questions as she watches, her mind a Rolodex of potential matches. “You’ll see for yourself,” she says, as we wait for the first person to arrive. “Sometimes, something just clicks. But yes, there’s also a spreadsheet.”
Without exception, each of tonight’s six daters appears shellshocked. Suddenly, this becomes very real. Today’s photographer is the Guardian staffer Linda Nylind, who tells me she loves guessing how people will get on. Our first dater, a guy in his early 20s, is a natural and keen on doing a James Bond pose. More nervous individuals have to be encouraged out of their shell, perhaps surprising in the age of endless selfies. I enthusiastically join in with the directions, shouting out “drop your hip” far too many times than is appropriate.
Once a few shots are taken, the subjects get to see the results. While they can point out any definite nos, they are reminded they don’t get to choose the final picture. After all, who knows what their match’s best pose will be? One subject, Hannah, wears red shoes and a matching skirt and immediately sticks in my mind. We ask her preferred type. Quick as a flash: “No posh boys. I’ve dated a few and… no.” Another woman tells us she is looking for what her friends would call “an intellectual hunk”. “Yeah, I get a lot of requests for those,” deadpans Nina.
Towards the end of the shoot, we meet Peter. We watch him pose – he is very enthusiastic and funny, but struggles when asked to touch his beard, going full Gunpowder Plot conspiratorial scratch. Then the cogs start to turn. Nina and I exchange a look. We glance through Peter’s details again, then Hannah’s. Is this happening live?
Once Peter is gone, Nina, Linda and I get our heads together. We consider for a moment whether each would be better with other people we photographed tonight. Nope, it’s definitely Peter and Hannah. The feeling of matching someone up is euphoric. Guys, I’m sorry if it goes badly… this one’s on me.
It’s a 10 from me: Justin Myers looks back on five favourite dates, and hears what happened next
Lizzie and Tomas, May 2017
Tomas said “She looks extremely cool.”
I said “This is, basically, saying ‘I fancied her’ two questions in without coming across like someone who bought a top hat in 2011 just in case they got married some day.”
Tomas said “We talked about vomit, urinal etiquette, nude cycling.”
I said “I have this feeling that when Tomas proposes to Lizzie – next autumn, at a place that meant something to her as a child, using the engagement ring of a relative or an antique bought with a legacy from a favourite godmother – he’ll hide the ring inside a pudding or a pebble or something. Please don’t do that, Tomas.”
Lizzie said “It was really hot in the restaurant, so I kept fanning myself like a delicate Dickensian woman.”
I said “I don’t think she was fanning herself because of the temperature in the restaurant, do you, readers?”
Lizzie and Tomas’s date was published in a dark week, just after the Manchester Arena attack. This pair melted my icy heart because they were so unapologetically into each other. Every answer fizzed off the page with bubbles of joy, and their date was an emphatic double 10. What happened next?
“When I saw he’d scored me a 10, I felt all warm and fuzzy inside,” Lizzie says now. On seeing his 10, Tomas claims he thought: “She is a great judge of character.”
Lizzie had been inspired to apply after reading through all the past Blind date columns on a Megabus journey home from Bristol. “I hoped I’d meet my true love, but never for one second thought I actually would,” she says. Both read my blog, so buckled in for a roasting there. “We were spared,” Tomas says. “It made the Blind date experience even more joyous.”
Lizzie adds: “It really summed up our feelings towards each other. By the third date, I wanted to be with Tom for ever. No messing about.” Wow. There appears to be something in my eye. She wasn’t wrong – the pair got engaged in April 2018, and the wedding is this winter.
But if we are searching for downsides, even this romantic bliss has a dark cloud. “I wish I’d done something with my hair,” says Lizzie of the Guardian photoshoot. “You don’t realise that, if the date goes really well and you end up getting married, that bad hair day will follow you through the rest of your life.”
So, Lizzie’s advice: get your hair done. And from Tomas? “Apply! It’s great fun and you never know where it might lead.”
Benjamin and Mark, June 2015
Benjamin said “We talked about our shared desire for a Georgian terrace house by Highbury Fields.”
I said “Did you go to the top of the page, as I did, and check their ages again? You turn up on a date with some smooth-skinned honey in their 20s and all you can talk about is wanting a house?”
Mark said “Introduce him to my friends? I don’t think the opportunity will arise.”
I said “Can anyone smell roasting flesh? Because, baby, that burns.”
Benjamin said “Mark in three words? Smart, musical, cute.”
I said “I am trying to imagine these two ‘doing it’, but all I can picture is two John Lewis gift cards sliding around on top of each other.”
Benjamin, a 27-year-old composer, and Mark, a 21-year-old editorial assistant, did everything they could to destroy my theory that Blind dates involving two men were always more raucous. Two old heads on young shoulders, they talked of Björk, operettas and property. At least they shattered a few stereotypes along the way.
Looking back on it now, Benjamin concedes: “The evening was spark-free and chemistry-light.” He feels Mark may have been taking the date a lot more seriously than he had been expecting. “No one really goes on Blind date to find true love, right?” Mark’s take was more vinegary. “I could tell fairly well how it had gone,” Benjamin says, “but his first adjective to describe me was ‘punctual’ – brutal.”
Mark confesses he regrets his words a little. “I came across as cold and cruel, which was definitely not the intention,” he insists. “I had a good time, but clearly struggled to convey that.” He concedes that the friends quip was “savage”.
The thing to remember about going on a Blind date is that people you know will see it. And so will your mother. Mark said that reading my review of his date out loud to his mother was quite the experience: “I can hardly describe her face when you called me ‘something young and malleable’ and ‘a smooth-skinned honey in their 20s’.” Sorry, Mark’s mum.
Mark and Benjamin didn’t opt for a second meeting, but Benjamin is now happily settled with his boyfriend. “We’ve been together four years,” he says. “He’s wonderful, although I’m not sure what score he’d have given me on our first date.”
Best not to ask, Benjamin.
Martin and Almaz, June 2017
Martin said “She was elegant, with a natural brightness and upbeat aura.”
I said “Elegant is a man’s way of saying a woman is tall and slim without wanting to sound like a judge on Miss World.”
Almaz said “I thought he was joking when he said he’s a Cliff Richard fan.”
I said “That noise you can hear is Almaz’s taxi outside. She called it before Martin even got to the second syllable of ‘Richard’.”
Almaz said “Did we go on somewhere? It was a Sunday night, so no.”
I said “Yes, I am positive the only thing holding you back from a wild pub crawl of the capital’s low joints with Martin was the fact it was a Sunday night. You’re 28!”
You could be forgiven for thinking there had been a mix-up, that Almaz and Martin were actually on two different dates. Martin was sweet and kind, perhaps too pure for this world, while Almaz was keen to make it clear he wasn’t her bag – and all credit to her, really, because there is no time for messing on a Blind date.
Reflecting on it now, Almaz admits: “There was definitely no chemistry. Martin wasn’t trying to flirt with me, which really shocked me, because that’s what you want on a date, isn’t it?” Despite some of Almaz’s beautifully withering answers, the date itself wasn’t too bad, she says, and they found plenty to talk about; she admits to a pang of guilt when she realised how different their final scores were. Almaz rated the evening a 6. “I thought he might score me a 7 or 8, so I did feel bad when I saw I got a 10.”
The pair didn’t swap numbers – although Almaz wishes she had given hers to the hot waiter after they “shared some intense looks”. The experience may not have found her a boyfriend, but it inspired Almaz creatively: in 2018, she launched her own website, Kayleigh Daniels Dated, writing raunchy dating stories as a fictional character. Now that is a plot twist I wasn’t expecting. “I just really love dating,” she says. “Any chance to go on one, I will take.”
Tom and Emily, October 2016
They said “We talked about which supermarket makes the best hummus, the importance of lamps, and Lancaster University, where we both went.”
I said “I’m calling it right here and now that these two will end up together, for the origin story alone.”
Tom said “In the panic of the hello I forgot Emily’s name.”
I said “I reckon you could take a look at Emily from across the aisle at your favourite Waitrose and guess she was called Emily, but we’ll let you off, Tom.”
They said “We got the number 52 bus (we live just down the road from one another).”
I said “See? This is a silver-wedding anniversary anecdote waiting to happen. I can practically hear the light thud of grandchildren plonking themselves down into an overstuffed armchair to hear this story.”
Sometimes, when you know, you just know. Tom and Emily’s date was romcom perfect: he accidentally shaved a patch out of his beard that morning and Emily turned up with paint all over her hands. Imagine those little disasters in a montage with Clean Bandit’s Rather Be playing over it.
Tom had left his application email sitting in his drafts for days and says he was stuck in a rut until he hit send. “I felt like this small act of recklessness might snap me out of it.”
And it certainly did. Tom and Emily are still a couple: they have moved in together and adopted “a big ginger cat called Gordon”. By the time their date was published, the pair had been on further dates, but Emily had refused to divulge her answers – or her score – which Tom admits was “slightly worrying”.
Emily was pleased to discover that Tom awarded her an 8, but felt “simultaneously terrible about the score she gave in return”. Says Tom now: “That 7.5 cut deep.” Emily struggled to answer the “What do you think he made of you?” question. “I knew I was going to struggle to hit the middle ground between totally self-delusional and toe-curlingly falsely modest,” she says.
That said, she would definitely recommend the Blind date experience. “At the very least, you’ll have a good anecdote for your next Tinder date.” Both Tom and Emily agree – as do I – that the column needs older couples to apply. “I like the way they approach their answers,” Tom says. “I feel incredibly lucky to have met someone in this strange and slightly terrifying way.”
Joanne and Morgan, January 2019
Joanne said “We got kicked out of the house party we crashed. And I left my knickers behind.”
I said “The LGBTQ crew deliver. They’re taking life in both hands and squeezing it harder than your window cleaner wrings out his chamois.”
Morgan said “She is obscenely fun.”
I said “Where would these women be if one of them had said no thanks to that fourth negroni? Home, separately, knickers on. It’s no kind of life.”
They said “She’s a 10.”
I said “It doesn’t matter what happens next. We will always have today – this one perfect, bawdy date, which ended in a fat round 20, with no knickers on. And nobody can take it away from us.”
It’s no understatement to say that Joanne and Morgan’s date became the stuff of legend. “I was really quite surprised,” Joanne says now, “because it was just an honest account of a fun night.” She has been reading the column this year and enjoys the “little nods we’ve been getting here and there” from people who have appeared since.
They were certainly a hard act to follow: you couldn’t blame subsequent daters for feeling inferior if their own date didn’t end as raucously. Joanne admits that, if she had known she was going to go viral, she might have rethought the outfit: “Morgan was too kind. I was wearing a pink beret, Justin.”
Joanne, who is bi, despite being tagged a “hilarious millennial lesbian” by fans of the date, enjoyed the positive reaction, but nothing further happened between her and Morgan.
She urges all Blind daters to make the most of their moment. “I can’t believe people still do the whole ‘it’s a school night’ thing,” she says. “Guys! It’s free! Free food! Free booze! But what do I know? I’m still single.”
She also warns that, if you get Blind-date famous, there is a chance it will follow you for ever. “I’ve had a couple of dates mention it,” she says. “I hope they’re not too scared. I promise them I like to go to the park and just hang out as well. But then, just last night, my date said: ‘Well, there’s been no knickers left behind. Has it been a bad date?’”
The answer to that, of course, is yes.
• Click here to find out how this week’s Blind daters, Hannah and Peter, got on. We are always looking for daters, however old you are, whatever your orientation, and wherever you live in the UK: please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
Blind date data by Pamela Duncan and Katherine Purvis. Additional reporting by Hibaq Farah. Justin Myers’ novel The Last Romeo is published by Piatkus at £8.99. To order a copy for £7.91, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846.
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