Clutching a bouquet of white roses, her calf-length dress swinging elegantly as she walked, the bride smiled nervously as she made her way up the aisle. Familiar faces beamed up at her as she passed, her footsteps faltering, anxiety etched on her beautifully made-up face.
At last, she reached the front and, with one final glance back at the assembled guests, steeled herself to face the figure waiting for her in a navy-blue suit. A total and utter stranger — and the man with whom she was about to promise to spend the rest of her life.
Modern marriage may come in all shapes and forms, but tying the knot with someone you’ve just met is hardly the greatest advertisement for the sanctity of this ancient institution. Forget commitment, romance and a faithful, loving relationship — instead, why not put on a big, white dress, invite your nearest and dearest and make a binding vow to someone you just clapped eyes on barely five minutes before?
It’s the sort of thing that might happen in Vegas. But this was no Big White Wedding Chapel — it was a register office in Central London. And the bride and groom weren’t making a stupid, drunken mistake. Both were stone-cold sober — and signing their romantic futures away for the sake of a reality television show.
Married At First Sight is the controversial programme coming to our screens tomorrow night at 9pm. Following a format that originated in Denmark and found success in America last year, it charts the stories of single British men and women, all of whom have volunteered to walk down the aisle with someone they have never met in the hope of finding true love.
This ‘someone’ has been carefully selected by a panel of experts, ranging from a vicar to a social anthropologist, after weeks of rigorous tests recording everything from their DNA to intelligence, relationship history and physical attributes.
It sounds, for the most part, like a nightmarish social experiment. A dystopian version of the game show Blind Date, or its modern incarnation Take Me Out, in which contestants don’t simply have to go on a mini-break with their chosen mate, but vow to spend the rest of their lives with them.
This new format sees the ‘matched’ partners commit to a legal civil ceremony, attend their own reception, complete with wedding breakfast, speeches and cake, then go on an all-expenses-paid honeymoon. On their return, they move in together — and have five weeks to decide whether to stay married or to divorce.
Channel 4, which bought the rights to the series last year, describes it as ‘ground-breaking’. ‘The expert-led documentary series will question our assumptions about romantic love, ask what determines “the one” and examine why love can be so hard to find and hold on to,’ trills the promotional material.
Which is all very well and interesting — if it weren’t for the binding marriage contract. One can’t help but feel the participants are mere guinea pigs in a far bigger money-spinning game.
Criticism has come thick and fast. A spokesperson from the Marriage Foundation told the Mail that ‘the originators of this programme profoundly misunderstand the nature of commitment’.
Other relationship experts have branded it ‘ridiculous’, ‘a gimmick’ and ‘a premise that makes a complete mockery of the concept of marriage’.
Newlyweds from the Danish version of the show, which aired in 2013, have issued a warning to British participants, while one bride from the U.S. series has said it was ‘the worst decision of my life’. Channel 4 even had to put back its broadcast date due to a lack of suitable candidates.
Astonishingly, though, 1,500 eventually volunteered, from which the experts selected 15 single men and women who they felt were most likely to find successful matches. Of these, the show will see three couples paired up.
The chosen couples and the outcomes of their weddings are, perhaps understandably, strictly secret until the show airs. But much can be gleaned from the identities of those brave — or, indeed, foolish — enough to sign up.
Most seem remarkably normal. We’re introduced to them by name, age and how long they’ve been single — though most withheld their surnames and job descriptions. Who could blame them?
There’s Petra, 35, single for five years, who laments the end of face-to-face contact in the dating world. ‘You’ll be sat in a bar and you’ll all be on [dating app] Tinder,’ she says. ‘It’s terrible.’
There’s Bob, 32, single for six months.Then there’s Sam, 29, a pretty blonde who believes in ‘lust at first sight’; and Kate, 31, a giggly brunette, who’s there because she ‘really likes filling out questionnaires’ — and is surely in for a shock when she gets to the aisle.