Channel 4 is renowned for its zany and often controversial documentaries, dramatizing often unimaginable corners of human existence. Last year brought us the “74-stone babysitter”, the story of the woman accused of sitting on her nephew and crushing him to death, as well as “Mummifying Alan”, the tale of a man who donated his body to trying to recreate the lost Egyptian art of preserving the dead. The list continues, “The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off”, “The Boy Who Was Born A Girl”… It seems that the British public is fascinated by the minority and watching other people’s lives which are entirely different to those lived by the majority for whatever reason, you only have to look at the viewing figures for “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” to see that this is true.
But Channel 4’s latest series of documentaries, “The Undateables”, a show which follows people with disabilities on their quest for love, seems to have really caused a stir.
So the title credits may picture cupid shooting the ‘un’ and removing it to leave the leave “the dateables”, perhaps representing the way the programme is supposedly trying to disprove the preconceptions against people with disabilities having sexual relationships. However, this seems to be a small token considering that Channel 4’s advertising campaign for the programme partly consisted of blowing up pictures of disabled and/or disfigured participants of the show and placing them on billboards, brandishing the words “The Undatebales” at their sides; hardly a message to be sending the kids in our supposedly equal, tolerant 21st century.
There are moments where the producers seem to slightly ridicule or patronise the participants, a cameraman coughs and sarcastically asks if 37 year-old Richard, who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, is wearing enough deodorant after he uses nearly a whole can in anticipation of his upcoming date. And it hardly seems coincidental that in the first episode the dating agency matches 2 out of the 3 participants with other people with disabilities. Wheelchair user Penny is matched with another wheelchair user even though they don’t appear to have that much else in common and Richard is matched with a lady described as having “slight learning difficulties” whilst the agency assure them that they have been paired together due to a mutual interest in 80s music. Is Channel 4 trying to suggest that disabled people are dateable but only from the perspective of other people with disabilities? One trailer features a girl saying that sometimes it’s a case of sleeping with someone purely for a “fascination fuck”; not exactly a shining beacon for equal opportunities.
However, despite its flawed marketing and slight glimpses of patronisation, I was actually surprised by how touching and sensitive the show seemed to be. The documentary is insightful and genuinely moving, for all the right reasons. The title is obviously meant to provoke controversy – it means higher ratings for Channel 4 - but however disrespectful and untrue the title may be, the programme does seem to raise some of the everyday issues that surround the participants, especially on the dating scene. But only if you watch the show will you see how those involved are voluntarily offering up honest, insightful, first-hand accounts of their own experiences, lack of experiences, and the problems they face. All those featured, at least in the first two programmes, are lucid, free-thinking individuals who understand their own conditions and the challenges that accompany them. It is however difficult to see how the average person would be able to gain all of this from driving past a billboard, instead a link between the images of disabled and disfigured people is more likely to be forged with the concept of being “undateable” in their minds.