Dating the Enemy

Sunday, November 19, 2006 by

Being honest, did we ever want the Blind Date couples to live happily ever after?

The bickering on the plane, tantrums on the veranda and the pre-mediated verbals on the sofa with Cilla, it was Cupid’s misses that made the show a hit, with the occasional happy ending only there to help maintain the illusion that we watched the thing for these magic moments.

ITV1′s Dating the Enemy ditches the Blind Date pretence and gets straight down to business: a couple are deliberately mis-matched on the basis of their being the complete opposite of their stated ideal partners, and have to endure three days in each other’s company. The aim at the end of the 72 hours is to see if the wooing by one half of the couple is enough to convince the other to – well – “date the enemy”.

The show starts with “ambitious Chelsea socialite” Melanie, a cross somewhere between her namesake Melanie Griffith and Geri Halliwell. To illustrate her go-getting nature an Apprentice-esque sequence shows the hard-working girl’s lifestyle: conducting business in the back of a cab (“On my way to a very important meeting”) on her BlackBerry, being extremely professional with clients and, er, sniffing a bunch of roses at a flower stall.

Melanie is candid about what she can’t tolerate in a man – scruffiness, dirt, lacking ambition, and not being a gentleman. However, while she listed her beau no-nos, these were intercut with shots of her date-to-be waking up with three-day stubble, munching toast in the middle of the afternoon (and not using a plate, so doubtless getting crumbs over the carpet) and belching.

For “slacker and proud of it” Mark, knowledge, experience and love are the essentials of life, stating that, “at the risk of sounding like an old hippie [and probably smelling like one], I would say that I can unashamedly defend why my way of life is the way of life to live”.

So the successful Sloane and the scruffy slacker – surely the perfect match for a lorra, lorra laughs.

As Melanie makes her way to Brighton (BlackBerry constantly on the go), Mark ruminates on how he can convince her he’s more than just a slacker (having a shave would have been a good start). At 36, with “neither academic or career success”, and working in a comic store, clearly he has his work cut out. Philosophising over his lack of occupational progress (“On paper I look like a bum, maybe, but to me it’s more a career of life than work”) Mark decides on a back to basics approach to win over Melanie: a night of camping under the stars. After all, as the scruffy one notes, “what’s not to like about tenting under the sky – it’s all good”. Well the potential for getting wet and dirty for one, things we discover Melanie will not tolerate (“I don’t want to go anywhere dirty”).

The love train pulls in to Brighton, and the odd couple meet, with Melanie confessing later in the show how gorgeous she found Mark (“He’s just like a tall Orlando Bloom”). Mark decides to reveal the evening’s plans by holding up the tent bags and asking, “What are we going to do?”, perhaps under the delusion being such a hard-working city girl means Melanie has never seen a tent before.

After finding a suitable clearing, things don’t get off to the best start as Mark realises he can’t pitch his tent (“I’m absolutely buggered”). Fortunately Melanie, the novice to this camping game, is on hand to point out why he’s having such difficulties (“It’s inside out”).

But three hours later, with the tent up and the campfire burning, the two swap notes on how their lifestyles contrast. Melanie always has a plan and her diary is constantly booked-up, with something on “every day, sometimes two things on at night”. In contrast, Mark confesses he’s more “a sitter and a thinker than a mover and a shaker”. But at least he looks like a tall Orlando Bloom while he’s lazing around.

After surviving the “coldest night’s sleep she’s ever had”, Melanie travels with Mark to the Isle of Wight to meet the parents. She is looking forward to the encounter, and over the dinner expects an insight into Mark and his background. On hearing the description of them as “aging hippies” she’s under the impression they’ll be “fun and light-hearted”. But before she’s received her first course at the Horse and Groom this proves not to be the case.

After telling Mark’s dad she organises events and parties for a living, and the next is a fashion event for the British Red Cross, he retorts with, “So lots of anorexic young ladies walking up and down in overpriced clothes, with the odd celebrity turning up?”

Being a professional, Melanie takes this in her stride, and responds with an anodyne question to deflect the awkwardness (“Why did you move to the Isle of Wight?”). However, I’m quite sure she wouldn’t have asked this if she knew what was going to be the response …

“If you go to these new towns in the south of England, everyone aspires to the same boring shite. Not everyone’s aspiring to a four-wheel drive, and the availability of spirituality over here is more accessible, and I do like being away from the human species. I don’t like people very much. It’s a nice place and the trees are nice, but people are a bit revolting, ain’t they, don’t you find?”

While this made for great TV, it’s hardly polite dinner conversation.

The charm offensive continues (Melanie being charming and Mark’s father offensive), with patter asking Melanie if his misanthropy has “given you an insight into maybe changing your perception of life?”, although by the expression on her face the only thing she seems to want to change right now are her dinner companions.

Taking refuge in the ladies (or “fillies” as daintily signed on the door), Melanie lets off steam about Mark’s dad and how he’s “quite rude to put me down and what I do”, which is perfectly understandable. It’s one thing to question someone’s way of life, another to completely disrespect it. To add to the dining debacle, Mark confirms to Melanie he share’s his dad’s views, which means he’s managed to be both dirty, scruffy and ungentlemanly within the first 24 hours of their date.

On their final day together, no doubt as a response to her treatment by Mark’s father, Melanie turns the tables on her date, considering him to be “all talk and no action”. Over lunch at a cafĂ© (appropriately called Belchers) Melanie asks him if he has any plans to perform some of his poetry at the reading evening (“This is your moment to shine”). The mere thought of it has Mark blushing so much he has to remove his jumper (Melanie: “Are you feeling flushed because of the pressure?”).

Melanie continues her probing as the pair engage in some pottery painting at a workshop. She asks Mark if he’s prepared to display his porcelain Elvis in his house for people to see, and if so, why the difficulty in reading his poetry in public …

“I don’t get embarrassed about showing things I’m slightly able to do, but if it’s something I want to do …”

“Or you have more to lose?”

“It’s difficult for me to expose the raw inner feelings, and that is what I put into the things I write …”

This becomes evident in the show’s climax at the poetry evening, when Melanie meets some of Mark’s friends, purportedly along to offer support. Rather than challenge his preconceptions of how an audience may react, they reinforce his negative views, with one opining on how “soul-destroying” a single heckle would be. Melanie proffers that she’d think the same but consider it a “risk worth taking”, a phrase clearly unfamiliar to the men as they have to ask her to repeat it.

As Melanie is by now fully aware, Mark’s slacker ideals mask a basic lack of confidence and self-belief, reinforced by an absence of parental encouragement (he later admits that Melanie has given him the “verbal kick in the pants I needed 16 years ago”) and his friends’ meekness. His statements about “a career of life rather than work” reveal a belief system that gives him reasons to get away from attempting new things or achieving anything. It’s not a case of him rejecting ambition, but being scared of it.

But after watching a reading by a relaxed poetess, he confounds his friends and Melanie to get up on stage and do a reading, and an accomplished one at that, of a “very well-known poem” (Desiderata by Max Ehrmann). This leaves Mark’s friends “gobsmacked”, and Melanie taken aback (“After the last 24 hours I never expected him to do it”). In addition to this, the organiser of the Brighton Poetry Society encourages Mark to attend their next meeting, where he says he’ll “do one of mine”. But has this minor show of ambition been enough to compensate for being dirty, scruffy and his early ungentlemanly conduct and convince Melanie to “date the enemy”?

Unfortunately, not.

Although Mark has gone up in her estimation due to his public performance, and that he no doubt looked like a tall Orlando Bloom as he did it, it wasn’t enough. Her verdict was that “on a piece of paper he’s perfect, but there’s a thing inside of him that won’t move him forward”, which leads her to doubt Mark will actually go through with the performance of his own work – despite his invitation for her to come back to Brighton to watch him.

The show’s heart-warming moments came not from the potential of any romance between the two, but seeing Mark’s personal development thanks to an infusion of Melanie’s carpe diem spirit (“There’s a Mark way of doing things and the slightly more effective way of doing things”). He didn’t get the girl, but he got some of his confidence back.

As they parted with a hug and a song by the appropriately named Embrace, on reflection, maybe Mark could have chosen a different poem with which to enchant Melanie, as Ehrman’s lines clearly state to:

“Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.”


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