TV preview: Dates

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Apart from an appointment with a doctor for ‘personal problems’, the first date is pretty much as awkward as it gets.

The nervous wait in the bar; the all important first impression; the nagging feeling that this date, like so many others, will end in disaster, humiliation, rejection or all of the above.

Whatever your thoughts on the subject, it’s a universal truth that first dates are rarely plain sailing. While some are notable only as the source of hilarious stories, they are always one thing – memorable.

This compatibility-defining ritual seems a perfect fit for TV, a point finally taken on-board by Channel 4, who have enlisted Bryan Elsley, the director behind E4’s Skins, and an ensemble of fine actors to bring the cringe-inducing subject to life.

Part of the channel’s Mating Season, the nine-part drama Dates takes a step into the social minefield – a place where confessions, lies, crises of confidence and sexual confusion come together with dramatic and hilarious effect. The key ingredient in the project is the acting talent, which includes Andrew Scott, who played the sinister Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock, Neil Maskell, who played a cold, measured killer in Channel 4’s Utopia and Sheridan Smith, who is in pretty much everything.

Talking of awkward moments, Smith, who first made her presence known as Antony’s girlfriend in The Royle Family over ten years ago, remembers one disastrous first date involving a drunken suitor who’d had one red cocktail too many: “He took me to the bus stop, and we got on the night bus, and there were no seats, so we were stood up, and as we’re swaying about holding on to the bar, I could see him turning slightly green. And before I knew it, I had red sick all down my dress.”

It’s the stuff of nightmares, and the kind of story we’ve heard countless times from friends, but when it comes to her character Jenny, a lonely school teacher, does she have any more luck? “The first one is with Neil Maskell, who’s an amazing actor... when I heard he was in it, I was thrilled. And he was so lovely. Not like his character, put it that way! And then in my other episode, it was with Andrew Scott, who’s a friend of mine who I’ve worked with before. There’s a lot of laughter in that episode, and thank goodness, because we literally could not stop laughing.”

A mixed bag, then, which sums up her choice of roles in recent years. From comedic outings in Benidorm and Gavin and Stacey, to serious roles like that of Charmian Biggs, wife of train robber Ronnie, in the ITV drama Mrs Biggs – for which she won a Bafta – it seems she succeeds in everything she does. A point proven by the fact that Dustin Hoffman gave her a role in his film Quartet after being moved to tears by her performance on stage in Flare Path.

Buses and vomit aside, Smith is clear on how her perfect first date should go: “I’m animal-mad, so my ideal date would probably be something involving going to see animals. And it’s always nice to be swept off your feet a little bit. But my big thing is, make me laugh.”