Davina McCall was bored. She was fed up of watching bikini-clad, spray-tanned twentysomethings search for love on reality TV dating shows. She asked: what about single parents searching for a life partner? And then she had an idea: what about commissioning Love Island, but for middle-aged people?
The result is My Mum, Your Dad, which is essentially Love Island meets The Parent Trap (with a bit of Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents and Gogglebox mixed in there). The setting, a Sussex country mansion, resembles that of The Traitors. It follows a group of single parents who have been nominated by their grown-up children for what ITV calls a “second chance at love”. But there is a twist: the parents have no idea that their children will be watching their every move from a surveillance room – aka the bunker – down the road. There, the incognito group of “relationship experts” will witness their parents’ journeys to find love and get an opportunity to play matchmaker as they decide on the romantic fate of their mums and dads.
But the series has had an uncertain journey to the screen. Last year, McCall had sent an email to ITV, in the hope that her concept would be a hit with producers. “I wrote an email to Amanda [Stavri, commissioning editor of Reality] at ITV like, ‘Hello, It’s Davina here,’” explains the 55-year-old presenter, speaking on a panel at ITV’s studios. “I said, ‘I think we should do this show, like a Love Island but for mid-lifers. So I wrote out five bios of friends of mine, like one friend who had lost her husband in Afghanistan. I really went to town and I just planted it there.”
But unbeknown to McCall, someone had beaten her to it; the format for an almost identical show had already aired last year in the US and Australia.
“I was like, oh f***,” says McCall. She was told by ITV that they were “looking at” another format and would “keep her posted”. So, she waited. “I thought, OK, I’ll keep annoying them.” Perhaps in an attempt to keep her occupied, ITV sent McCall episodes from My Mum, Your Dad Australia, which she binged in its entirety with her mum. They watched four 90-minute episodes in one sitting. “My mum was like, ‘I’ve got to go to the loo!’ We could not stop!” she says.
As she waited on a response from ITV, a very eager McCall spent months raving about her idea for the series on social media, on a podcast and by telling all of her friends. Eventually, ITV told her that they were launching a new dating show format for middle-aged single parents and wanted her to host it. “I really did believe in it so much,” says McCall. “It made so much sense: mid-life love. It’s so important because there are so many people who are second-time rounders, or who have lost someone, or have gone through life unsuccessful [in love].”
My Mum, Your Dad’s lineup of single forty and fiftysomethings are a group of emotionally bruised yet hopeful people. During the first episode, most seem hesitant and shy – many of them are grappling with low self-esteem. And almost all of them are absolutely petrified to be entering the world of dating again. For example, we watch postman Rodger, 58, navigate the complexities of meeting someone new after losing his wife to cancer one year before, with the blessing of his daughter, Jess, 28. Safeguarding and welfare officer Sharon, 53, confesses that she has been “cheated on her whole life”, so she struggles to let her guard down on dates. And decorating company owner Paul, 47, has a tendency to freak out when things get serious. Other parents have just never found the one. But, quite hearteningly, their children are absolutely rooting for them to find a new love.
The show is classy. Unlike Love Island, the contestants in My Mum, Your Dad don’t line up by a fire pit and get booted out through a public vote. There are no evictions, no hideaways and definitely no nighttime cameras in the bedrooms. It’s not even a villa; it’s a retreat. And most of all, the prize is not a £30,000 cheque or a Pretty Little Thing brand partnership. (Though all the parents are ridiculously pruned and good-looking.)
“The prize, really, is love,” says McCall, her voice cracking. “I just wanted to see mid-life represented in terms of dating because this second-time-round thing often happens in [your] forties and fifties where you’ve got children and life is complicated. But, more than ever, you feel that you are at a point in your life where you deserve to find love.”
“It’s about opening the door and coming home to someone,” she says. “It’s hard to find it [because] we’re of that generation who are like, [dating] apps are weird. Like, what do you mean you’re dating 17 other people?!”
McCall and the team at ITV were insistent on keeping the show tasteful. The “mid-lifers” don’t parade around in their bikinis or complete challenges where they have to regurgitate food into each others’ mouths like their younger Love Island counterparts. And the parents aren’t being watched by cameras once they’re in the bedrooms.
McCall says that it was crucial that the emphasis wasn’t placed on sexual intimacy but on an emotional connection. “It was important that there were no cameras in the bedrooms because, for me, personally speaking, I’d rather watch the hint of love, the hint of something coming. A moment of tenderness that’s so exciting… instead of jumping into shagging,” says McCall “[Because] once you’ve seen it, it doesn’t mean anything.”
But it doesn’t seem like any of the parents want to leap into bed straight away. When McCall arrives at the retreat on their first day, they all quiver and tense up when she delivers the news that they are to pick someone to go on a date with.
McCall says that some of the parents have needed lots of encouragement throughout filming the series, as many of them navigate confidence issues that have built up from past breakups and rejections. The presenter remembers one instance during filming when she had to spontaneously step in, ignoring the producers’ advice not to intervene. “We had one moment where a person was in a proper crisis,” she says. “They are so lovely and they just couldn’t see it for themselves. I had to go in and tell them, ‘We chose you because you are brilliant!’”
Even though there will be no Love Island-style evictions during the series, contestants will inevitably come and go – but it’s up to them to decide when the time is right. “It’s not like we’re going to chuck anybody out, but it’s more of a decision of [if] they don’t think they’re going to find love and it might be time to leave,” explains McCall.
Most of all, though, the show is a testament to the bond that can grow between single parents and their children. It’s an unspoken one that sees the children know exactly what type of partner their parent wants and might need. When the children sit down in the bunker in episode one, some instantly know who their parents will be attracted to. We see the adult children cry, debate and cringe as they watch their parents step back into the world of dating, but ultimately, they are determined that their mum or dad will walk away with a new partner.
“It’s so hard for the child because they feel like they can’t move on until their parents find love,” says McCall, sighing. “The kids were extremely fair, magnanimous, calming and thoughtful. Some of them would be quite outspoken and say, ‘No, I disagree… I think my parent deserves this!’”. Well, there has to be some drama – it is reality TV after all.
‘My Mum, Your Dad’ begins on ITV1 and ITVX at 9pm on Monday 11 September