Whilst I fully applaud the efforts of our national broadcasters to improve diversity and represent people of all ages, ethnicity, sexuality and ability there are occasions when this can so easily backfire, and risk the reputation of the ‘real people’ who are essential to today’s diet of reality television.
Last week my husband and I were cosying down to watch some essential Valentine’s Day television with Channel 4’s First Dates special. We saw an attractive ‘older’ black woman, Elaine, being introduced to a similarly aged dapper black man. I resisted a comment about stereotyping and remarked that the man looked like our good friend Steve Salvari and… surprise, it was!
After the shock of seeing somebody we know so well on the programme and discussing why he had not told us about it, our attention, along with that of millions of other viewers, was drawn to ‘the paying of the bill’. This seemingly awkward moment has now been shared thousands of times across media platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Buzzfeed and discussed in the Daily Mail, the Sun, Telegraph and Guardian.
For those few who have not seen or heard about it, Steve committed the ‘mortal sin’ of suggesting that he and his date ‘go Dutch’ and, when he couldn’t find enough cash to pay the bill he asked his date if she could ‘put in another tenner’. The editing of this moment was brutal and I am guessing that unlike Jeremy Kyle, there is no counselling for the hapless victims who throw in their lot to the media lions.
I caught up with Steve and asked him how he was approached to take part in the programme. “Someone from the First Dates production company called a friend of a friend of mine asking if they knew someone black who maybe had a bit of personality who would be prepared to go on the show,” he explains. “That person called my friend and asked him the same question. He replied that he did and called me. I said, yes, as it sounded a bit of a laugh and hey, I might get lucky and meet someone nice.”
The production company liked the sound of Steve and he was invited to an interview. He had never seen the show so went online to do a bit of prep beforehand. “I watched about five to 10 minutes, never seeing anyone pay for the food, and went to the meeting.
“When they asked me if I’d seen the show I replied yes. At no time did anyone tell me that I had to pay for what I ate. I thought I was just going on a TV show.”
Steve is a lovely man, a true gentleman and for those of us who know him we realised that his date was not a good match. It was a strange interlude in a programme that otherwise depicted mainly white, younger couples, straight and gay, who all seemed to get along famously and featured in the success collage shown while the credits rolled.
I asked Steve what really happened when he and Elaine were asked if they were ready to pay the bill.
“On the day I was handed £25 which I thought was for my expenses so I was shocked when they brought the bill to the table. It totalled £111 and I only had £60 in my account because my card was blocked as I had been rinsed by a scam. When my ‘date’ finally put down some money it was only £20 of the £25 she had also been given, Hence the request for the tenner. I then put in the rest.”
I am shocked that the First Daters are not fully reimbursed given the viewing figures and the amount of ‘dining out’ the programme does at the cost of its participants. In addition Steve has been left to endure a barrage of abuse ranging from a simple “tight git” to a judgmental “He’s a player anyway! You can tell! Music producers aren’t relationship material!” Not true, I have been married to my music producer husband for over 28 years.
Then there is the even more tricky diversity issue. Steve ticked the boxes on two major counts – colour and age. I am astounded that the producers played to the stereotype and put two black people of around the same age together. The joy of a programme like this is to mix it up a bit. ‘Could do better’.
Elaine came across as entitled, spiky and vulnerable whereas Steve says she was good company even though she clearly wasn’t his type. Sadly, the camera never lies but editing can distort the true reaction of a woman who felt that it was her right to have the bill paid for her and a man whose credit card is out of commission.
Hey ho, every cloud and all that – Steve has acquired an agent and did a gig last week and the audience threw tenners at him!