ITV’s new reality show My Mum, Your Dad has been billed as “a middle-aged Love Island”. It could have been titled Love Handles Island, but we live in times too tremulous and fearful for such humour to be countenanced. A wasted opportunity, for sure, but the show manages to grasp other opportunities offered by the casting of reality contestants who have got a bit of reality under their belts before being ushered on to our screens to live a heightened version of it for 10 episodes.
Set in a “stunning countryside retreat”, it’s overseen by the middle-aged-but-with-invaluable-cross-generational-appeal-that-must-have-ITV-execs-weeping-with-gratitude Davina McCall. No one does it better – and in this case I suspect no one else could do it at all.
The setup is familiar, even if you haven’t seen the US and Australian versions. Four single mums and four single dads have been nominated by their adult children to enter a show in which they are hoping to find love. The twist is that the kids are – unbeknown to the parents – watching everything from a surveillance room.
It was unbeknown to the kids until the last minute, too; the horrified expressions when McCall tells them are a sight to behold. “Do we have any sickbags?” asks one, speaking for all. Poor bairns. It sends a shudder down my spine, too. Nobody wants to see their parents in flirt mode, and nobody wants to see someone see their parents in flirt mode, either. By the end of the first episode, things are still bearable, but I can see it easily becoming excruciating as “connections” – the euphemism flying around – are made.
Still, it soon becomes clear that, unlike Love Island, humiliation and hate-watching are not the goals here. Unlike the usual contestants, these people have real stories, real baggage and, as a consequence – get this! – real emotions. I have screamed and vomited while watching the plasticised Love Islanders press their bronzed bits against each other and try to form thoughts then words that match them, but My Mum, Your Dad is full of genuinely poignant (and genuinely funny – as when one of the dads wants to know if Davina is “off the table”) moments that had me laughing and crying more than once.
As ever when real-real people are involved, the division between the sexes is fascinating. The women’s histories are largely composed of unfaithful-and-worse men, a subsequent lack of self-esteem and an unwillingness to hurl themselves back into the dating pool now that they have accumulated so much empirical evidence that it is not worth it. Their sons and daughters have generally sent them in with instructions to break the pattern: “‘My type’ has not served me well in the past.” Oh God, I hope the vetting has been beyond rigorous …
The men seem mostly just not to have got around to settling down yet. The notable exception is Roger, who was widowed only a year ago after being with his wife for nearly 40 years. His children nominated him as a way of showing that they would be happy if he started looking for someone new. He is handsome and charming and clearly still heartbroken. If he is ready for another relationship, I am a perky-breasted twentysomething.
By the end of the first episode, they have all been forcibly paired up and sent on a date. Ebullient Clayton charms the quieter Natalie. Quick-witted and kindly Elliott is gentle and gentlemanly with sweet Sharon. Monique does her best with patently nervous Paul. And lovely Caroline listens while Roger tells her about his wife’s death and the love between her and their daughter. “I used to just get a drink and watch them and think: wow.” Tears fill Caroline’s eyes as I howl unashamedly on the sofa.
The difference between My Mum, Your Dad and Love Island – indeed, between it and almost all other reality shows – is that it is fundamentally kind. The people are fundamentally decent – or at least they seem to be so far, which is more than you can say of most reality shows. It feels more like balm than a harrowing of the soul in pursuit of social media buzz and other low-denomination rewards. And, while representation of different demographics is always laudable and welcome, it is this for which I feel most grateful.