It is the morning after the night before at the First Dates Hotel and I am searching for evidence of hanky panky. The hotel is a spin-off from Channel 4’s successful match-making series, First Dates, which films dinner dates in a London restaurant, followed by awkward sessions in a confession booth.
For First Dates Hotel, pre-matched couples are flown to a luxury hotel in Provence and, after a meal together, have the option of allowing their love to blossom in further encounters over the next day or two.
“People are more relaxed on holiday,” says the famously smooth-tongued First Dates maitre d’ Fred Sirieux, who has also travelled to Southern France to ensure the guests have a comfortable, ideally fruitful stay.
“For most people it works, because it puts them in a situation where they feel completely off-guard. So it’s just easier for them to be able to open up and trust others.”
The setting, therefore, is crucial.
Whereas the First Dates restaurant is actually the swanky Paternoster Chop House near St Paul’s Cathedral, for First Dates Hotel the producers have taken over all 32 rooms of Le Vieux Castillon, a four star establishment in the medieval village of Castillon-du-Gard, where rooms cost up to £400 a night.
A crew of 120 has rigged the bedrooms, terrace, poolside and restaurant with more than 80 cameras. Walking around, you’re aware that they’re filming but among the cypress and olive trees, the charming stonework and view across the pool to the vineyards of Provence they quickly recede. Even as the production team scurry around adjusting cameras and making plans for the dates (64 have been filmed in all), it is a tranquil and yes, even romantic setting.
“The most important thing we give people,” explains Sirieux, “is time. They come into the hotel, have their date, but then they can come back at night, have a drink at the pool and it’s like a follow-on. Then afterwards they go back and do their thing.”
Perhaps it’s my grubby mind, but I assume that by ‘their thing’ he’s referring to one thing in particular. And admittedly, some recent TV dating shows haven’t exactly been bashful about such antics, with Channel 4’s own Naked Attraction encouraging potential lovers to look at each other’s privates before they even get to see their faces.
Touring the First Dates Hotel, I note a few discarded wine glasses in a courtyard. But when I try to access the bedrooms I’m told the daters haven’t emerged yet – whether together or alone, I know not.
Sirieux is appalled at my prurience. “We are not… trash!” he exclaims, in a French accent nearly as thick as the huge coffee he is slurping (and which he insists be served in a bowl). “No, no-no-non! You have to remember what is the vision of First Dates. We want to bring people together and help them to find love. We bring them to a table and we get them to meet. It’s for them to forge that connection.
"People who come here want to find love. We are not interested in what they do in their rooms. Our intentions are pure.”
Kelly, 25, a fashion stylist and model who appears in episode one, was one of the first daters to sample the delights of the hotel. As with the original series, each date begins with a meal in the restaurant - all whitewashed wooden beams and flowers, fairy lights and bare filament bulbs. Kelly was paired with an estate agent, Lawrence.
“You just forget about the cameras on the table, and the microphone that’s on you,” she tells me. “The only time I thought about it was at one point when I realised I was slouching. I was like ‘Oh my god, I’m on TV, sit up!’ I was so relaxed, enjoying myself.”
Indeed. other daters may have enjoyed themselves a little too much – “There were people that were getting drunk,” adds Kelly, “But everyone was just being themselves. It felt very natural.”
Kelly and Lawrence hit it off. But not like that. “We slept in our own rooms - please! After we had our dinner in the restaurant, we sat outside and had a drink. You could see thousands of stars. It was the most romantic first date I’ve had in my life.”
First Dates Hotel doesn’t only offer romantics the chance to get away from it all and relax: because they are in situ a second date, should one be required, is easily arranged. During their meal, Lawrence happened to ask Kelly what she did in her spare time.
“I said that I love cycling around Chelsea. The producers must have listened, because the next day they got us these rickety bikes and our second date was a ride and picnic in Provence. Lawrence couldn’t cycle on the cobbles. It was so funny.
"But it helped us get to know each other. Having so much time – on the first day we were together from 1pm to 11 at night – really helps.”
Tom, 33, a fashion PR, appears in the second episode. “I seem to be eternally single. I’ve tried everything, every dating app; I’ve been on more than 500 dates in three years. I thought, why not give First Dates a call?”
Initially, he says, he thought that the idea of a Hotel du Love sounded dubious: “I made a snap judgement, as many people would, that the idea of adding bedrooms to First Dates is just to get people to sleep together. But what was really clear after speaking to the producers and directors was that it’s very much the same heart as First Dates - and that isn’t a salacious show. If I was plied with booze and shoved in a situation, then I wouldn’t have done it.
“I did stay in a bedroom with cameras and you do feel a bit self-conscious. But everything was handled with tact and maturity.”
Not quite everything.
On the day of my visit the first thing I see is Sirieux standing by the pool sporting a pair of near-indecent Speedos. He is there with his familiar TV staff; receptionist Juliette, waitresses Laura and Cici, and mixologist Merlin (for whom a bar has been built in the restaurant, where the daters meet).
Fred is being filmed, a little gratuitously perhaps, showing off his 44-year-old and frankly irritatingly ripped body.
“With the girls, we have been doing sports every morning,” he tells me later, now dressed in his trademark three-piece suit and doused in aftershave. “I have a routine, which begins when I get up with 325 push-ups and then goes on to boxing. The girls are quite sporty, so I said, “Come on, let’s go...”
“Fitness is a part of my life because for my job you’ve got to look good. But then you need also to love yourself a little - I think that first of all if you want to find love, you’ve got to find love within.”
First Dates Hotel begins tonight (Monday January 2) at 10pm on Channel 4