If a Saturday night without the Generation Game seemed unusual, what about one minus Blind Date? In November 2001 it had been the saviour of ITV’s Saturday night after the ill-conceived Premiership experiment. However, despite digging ITV out of a hole, its viewing figures were continuing to fall. With no replacement forthcoming, it was easier to simply keep on bringing it back for another run. ‘Safety first’ seemed to be the maxim, with rumours about updating the format failing to translate to the screen. Bar the replacement of stills of the date with a proper video, the only changes in the entire run had been purely cosmetic. Finally, though, Pop Idol had shown the network didn’t have to rely on Cilla to keep their weekends together.
And so the new series of Blind Date that began in October 2002 saw the biggest changes in the programme’s history. First came a shift in the show’s timeslot – while it had previously been bolted to 7pm, it was now shunted forwards an hour to teatime, with the latest music reality show getting the much-coveted peak slot. And at last, the format itself had undergone a major overhaul. Legendary voice-over man “Our” Graham had been shown the door, having provided the summaries for every edition, to be replaced by a younger model. The titles and set changed, but there was also a radical revamp of the mechanics of the game. Now the pickers would have a number of choices to make, dispatching one hopeful midway through the questioning, then at the end taking part in the ‘Date or Ditch?’ challenge – giving them the chance to change their mind, with their friends offering a second opinion.
According to Alan Boyd, the changes were designed to “re-energise (Blind Date). Give it a more “today” feeling to reflect today’s lifestyle. It’s about rejection now. Remember, Big Brother rejects people.” A spin-off show broadcast on the digital channel ITV2 – Blind Date: Kiss and Tell – was an attempt to tap into the multi-channel viewing experience pioneered by Big Brother. However, viewers
“The signature point is the thing you turn on for,” agrees producer Michael Leggo. “If you take Noel’s House Party, people liked either the Gotchas or NTV, or Wait ‘Til I get You Home – you’re turning on for that bit. And that’s the signature point. If you take Blind Date, what’s the signature point? It’s looking at the three behind the screen and being wiser than the person who doesn’t know and shouting at them not to pick number two.”
“The decision was made in the particular case of Blind Date prior to what turned out to be its last season, that it was worth having one throw of the dice, with a significant alteration to the format,” remembers Paul Jackson. “That was done largely as a result of conversations with ITV network centre, but also based on extensive research, which said: ‘we love the show, we love Cilla, we would still like the show to be on, but it’s a bit tired.’
“So that gave us the impetus to say well if we could freshen it up some way then that might be worth trying. I think what actually happened was, we were limited as to how much we could freshen it up by the very fact that Cilla was at the heart of it. That’s not a criticism of Cilla, the point was you can’t completely twist that show and still have Cilla at the core of it … So what we ended up with, I think, was an attempt to revamp it, which was probably less of a revamp than it should have been “
To launch the new series, the first edition of the run featured the band Blue taking their place in the seats to surprise one of their biggest fans, and again at Christmas, celebrity contestants replaced the usual punters. It was a major relaunch and one that, it was hoped, would spark a little more enthusiasm in viewers. However the new style was not a success. Previously anyone could get to grips with the format – you simply had one girl/boy having to choose one of three girls/boys without seeing them. The new rules complicated the matter. Everyone knew that much of the show was contrived – the recent repeat of the first ever episode illustrated why they started scripting the answers in advance – but now the show drew attention to its mechanics. The format started getting in the way of the contestants. Furthermore, one of the major draws of Blind Date was seeing a picker lumbered with an embarrassing date; under the new format there was less chance of this happening, in a stroke getting rid of one of the main selling points.
Reaction was poor, but the innovations kept on coming. In January, the programme was broadcast live for the first time, allowing the viewers to offer their opinion on proceedings – another attempt to liven up the old format. This edition was memorable, but not for the reasons the production team had expected. At the start of the show, Cilla Black announced that she was quitting the programme and wouldn’t be making any more after the end of the series. This was a major shock – especially as it later transpired she’d failed to tell anyone before making the announcement. “As a revamp, I don’t think it was that successful,” says Paul Jackson, “and I think [Cilla] knew that and that’s why she took the decision she did and called it quits. She said, ‘You know what? Enough is enough, I want to go out while I am still winning,’ and it was the right thing to do, she was absolutely right to do it.”
It was unsurprising that Cilla was calling it a day. The new series hadn’t performed well and few would have been surprised had it been dropped at the end of the run – and Cilla knew this. She had also suffered the ignominy of Trisha Goddard claiming in an interview that ITV had offered her Cilla’s job, something that was hastily denied by the broadcaster. Still, it could be considered good for ITV that Cilla did decide to quit – the lengthy runs of the mediocre Moment of Truth suggested a reticence to axe her and it was perhaps felt she had become bigger than the channel. The increasing amount of times she went ‘off-message’ – telling the press how displeased she was that Graham had been dropped, for example – only seemed to confirm she was now becoming a liability.
Cilla had certainly spotted the failings of the new Blind Date, though, as she would later suggest. “When I heard about the changes they wanted … I wondered, ‘who am I making this show for? Am I making it for the public or making it for the advertisers?’ You were constantly hearing ‘The advertisers don’t want this or that’. Well, hey, why aren’t they in television instead? … Quitting wasn’t a decision I took on a whim. I’d spent about six months thinking about it.”
Officially, ITV claimed that Blind Date was definitely going to continue without Cilla, and Claire Sweeney and Davina McCall were two names rumoured to be in the running. However, with ratings continuing to decline for the rest of Cilla’s stockpiled shows, this was a largely pointless exercise. There was a three-month gap in the run in early 2003, with ITV continually finding other series to run in its place – hardly illustrating how important the show was to the network. When it finally returned, in May 2003 it was in the unhallowed 5.30pm slot, where the final episode went out to little publicity or interest. Eighteen years on, Cilla took her leave with one of her lowest audiences ever. By this time, ITV had come to decide that the programme wouldn’t return in the autumn.
“The show has stood still while the world has moved on,” commented Channel 4’s marketing MD Polly Cochrane. “(It’s) positively creaking with its overly contrived format, tourist board dates and cheesy music and sets”. It is questionable as to whether Blind Date could have continued to run. It’s certainly the case that the final revamp was a mistake – there were too many changes made and it diluted the winning format. But it shouldn’t have got to the stage where it needed radical surgery. From the mid-90s onwards, it was suggested that Blind Date would become more romantic and more exciting, yet this never translated to show itself on screen, with each series carrying on in identical form to the previous umpteen. Had change been implemented gradually, it could have avoided the drastic overhaul that alienated both the audience and the host. Nobody’s heart seemed to be in the final run – it was obvious to all that this was a revamp carried out in desperation rather than genuine excitement.
That said, what other changes could have been made to the format? One of the great joys of Blind Date was that anyone could understand the concept – it was one of those classic, simple ideas that light entertainment thrives upon. There was a glorious simplicity about it. How could it have possibly been improved? Adding ‘Date or Ditch’ came across as contrived and drew attention to the artifice. It may well be, therefore, that there was a finite amount of time that viewers could stomach it. Maybe Cilla was the weak link – a new host after a decade or so could have revitalised the show, much like Larry Grayson with the Generation Game. Yet Cilla hung around and the show had got old with her.