Imagine: a Love Island for middle-aged, tired, soft-bodied people. I’d watch it | Lucy Mangan

ITV’s new show The Romance Retreat sounds more ‘real’ than the antics in Casa Amor. But just how true-to-life will it be?

There is a scene in Tina Fey’s comedy show 30 Rock where the small-screen diva Jenna Maroney must reluctantly accept that she has been cast in a YA show not as one of the main characters, but as the ailing mother. Her final line? “I’m 41 now,” she says, falling back on the sofa. “Time … to die.” Tina Fey also appears in the famous Last ***kable Day sketch, from Inside Amy Schumer, in which various female actors d’un certain age gather over wine to mark the passing of the days of being cast by male directors.

The cultural obsession with youth – especially in any kind of visual medium like film and TV – is a widely recognised, if not widely addressed, phenomenon. But it is at its most unbending when it comes to the reality show genre. There, in whatever sun-kissed villa or island the participants have been put into in order to discover their soulmates and/or a new strain of chlamydia, anyone over the age of roughly 25 can expect to become den mother at best, or left out in a bathchair in the broiling sun at worst. It is an unspoken rule that anyone over 30 approaching the love palace is shot on sight.

Thus the news that ITVX is launching a new dating show called The Romance Retreat, in which the participants will be single parents nominated by their grownup children, has caused something of a stir. It has quickly come to be labelled “middle-aged Love Island” and one can only hope that it lives up to that brief. Forget those tanned young things, apparently made of sinew and plastic, informing each other loudly of their emotions-simulacra, while bursting out of their boxers or bikinis; imagine, instead, slightly tired, sweet, soft-bodied people offer to make each other cups of tea, try to follow a crime drama on the sofa together, and bang only if they really like each other and can be bothered – two completely separate requirements.

If ITVX has the courage truly to run with this, it could be great: a show filled with sexual tension but also real, normal people who can hold conversations, make proper jokes and bring … well, something other than chlamydia to the party. The mere idea brings home how conditioned we have become to accept the format itself as immutable and – beyond that – to bow down at the altar of youth.

But reinventing a genre is tough, especially at a commercial channel that must not frighten too many advertisers. And the casting call for “vibrant” single parents is cause to suspect that the channel might not be entirely committed to holding a mirror up to nature. Not that single parents – especially of grownup children, who presumably don’t still need fish fingers and chips shovelled at them every 20 minutes and sports kits found that should be hanging over the chair because that’s where the child was told to put them every time they came home – can’t be vibrant, of course. But it does suggest that it plans to remake exactly what has gone so many times before, simply with a slightly higher age bracket.

There is an opportunity here to do something fun that genuinely hasn’t been seen before – except in isolated glimpses on First Dates, where Fred Sirieix’s Gallic charm ushers a very fair sampling of demographics along the path to hoped-for happiness. But I can’t help but feel that a truly middle-aged Love Island couldn’t exist. Even if you keep up the gym work, the years strip us of the artifice upon which “reality” shows depend. The joy of ageing is that you stop posing, you stop people-pleasing, you stop lying to yourself and to others. You stop pretending emotions you don’t feel and start expressing those that you do. It’s absolutely wonderful in real life. But would it make great telly? Perhaps not.

But, oh, how I would love for someone to try. Someone to make a reality show that is not just free of narcissists and sociopaths but full of people who don’t just care in a wholly different and entirely healthy way. Whose interactions would be muted, but genuine. Who would invite the audience to lean in and listen, rather than merely goggle at the spectacle.

It probably won’t happen this time. But who knows to what highs – or, rather, gentle inclines, navigated in comfortable shoes – it may lead?

  • Lucy Mangan is a Guardian TV critic


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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