Does Don’t Tell The Bride actually contain the secrets to a happy life?  

DTTB is a British phenomenon, attracting millions of viewers and running for nine series. Lisa Owens analyses its appeal and finds a surprisingly sensible leitmotif

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By Lisa Owens on

“If my old-man-to-be sent me here for a hen night I’d lynch the bugger,” declares an onlooker as a row of pink-clad women glumly stamps bingo cards in a half-empty Mecca hall. Their table is strewn with balloon phalluses and glitter cowboy hats. “And I wouldn’t marry him,” she adds, firmly. 

When Don’t Tell The Bride first aired in 2007, the idea of the groom taking charge of the big day was, if not groundbreaking, at least (in reality TV terms) inspired. Yes, it relied on tired gender stereotypes, but then, the wedding industry is hardly even-handed in this regard. 

Nine series on, and while attitudes towards traditional roles might have evolved, the format of Don’t Tell The Bride remains virtually unchanged – yet it’s as popular as ever. What is the secret of its enduring appeal? Its very predictability is an integral part of the magic. The programme’s structure mirrors, aptly enough, the classic three-act arc of the romantic comedy: set up (boy meets girl), confrontation (the relationship is threatened), resolution (the obligatory wedding). Every episode tracks this framework to the letter – though in the case of Don’t Tell The Bride “boy meets girl” becomes “boy’s dream wedding meets girl’s worst nightmare”. It’s the perfect model for the show: a familiar and comforting formula that allows each couple to play out their own unique drama, while reassuring the audience that all will – probably – end well.

It’s the “probably”, the element of doubt, known in the entertainment business as the jeopardy factor, which makes it so addictive. How will the bride whose heart is set on a glamorous champagne-fuelled hen party react when her fiancé sends her to the bingo? What happens when the longed-for blingy, WAG-style wedding turns out to be a zombie apocalypse-themed extravaganza staged in a disused psychiatric hospital?  The gulf between sky high expectations on the one hand, and underwhelming, or outlandish reality on the other, makes for deliciously compelling viewing, and the producers know exactly which buttons to press to keep the audience on tenterhooks. 

What happens when the longed-for blingy, WAG-style wedding turns out to be a zombie apocalypse-themed extravaganza staged in a disused psychiatric hospital?

“The queen of the castle,” breathes one maid-of-honour, her head tipped knowingly to the side as the bride-to-be gazes upon an opulent banquet hall, before the camera cuts to her fiancé trawling grey London streets in search of a local boozer to serve as the Queen Vic for his Eastenders-themed knees-up, complete with Barbara Windsor lookalike. 

This artificial suspense is evident in every single episode of Don’t Tell The Bride I’ve ever seen (and I have seen a lot). So why do I keep going back for more, despite knowing I’m being manipulated at every turn? I’ll admit I’m partly drawn in by the spectre of true disaster that hovers over each couple. Just enough episodes down the years have seen grooms crash through the barrier of manufactured tension and into the realm of out-and-out catastrophe, where the future of their relationship seems to genuinely hang in the balance. Who could forget the time the bride, photo-ready in full gown and make-up, was told she’d be getting married underwater in the swimming pool of her local leisure centre, or when the punchy location choice – Las Vegas – meant the budget couldn’t stretch to a flight for the bride’s brother?

I have to confess though that the opportunity to indulge my sadistic streak isn’t the whole story. It certainly doesn’t explain the sudden prickle in my eye nor the involuntary shiver that courses down my spine every time a bride wearing a dress she said she didn’t want, comes beaming down the aisle of a venue she said she would hate, to the strains of a saccharine ballad I can’t stand. What on earth is going on there? Could it be that beneath all those staged highs and lows, Don’t Tell The Bride has a positive – even life-affirming – hidden agenda? 

Most of the brides featured claim to want the same thing: a traditional wedding in a stately home. Not one of them has ever expressed a wish to roll down the aisle on skates in the “Wembley of roller-hockey”, or to tie the knot on an open-top bus, in a car park, in the rain, yet when they are thrust into these scenarios by their fiancés, they almost always come through the ordeal delighted and truly proud of their new husbands. 

Time and time again these brides prove themselves to be made of far bigger-hearted and more open-minded stuff than anyone gave them credit for

“It’s not what I would have picked, you know, I expected a sit down meal,” says bride Amy, having disembarked the bus and descended into the dank, grungy music venue her husband Josh has tricked out to look (not wholly successfully it must be said) like the Costa del Sol. She starts to laugh. ‘I mean, I am sitting down – on a bench – eating chips, underneath a pile of kebab meat. Which I will get through,’ she adds with relish, looking far happier and more relaxed than she has all episode. 

“He’d better get it right,” is a common threat uttered by the brides in relation to just about every aspect of the day. The unspoken “or else” doesn’t do much to challenge the insidious Bridezilla cliché the show is seemingly premised on. But their response to the groom’s efforts is ultimately what counts, and time and time again these brides prove themselves to be made of far bigger-hearted and more open-minded stuff than anyone gave them credit for. The details they’d spent so long obsessing over were, they realise, merely a distraction from the main event: namely committing to a lifetime with the person they love most.

It’s a lesson that clearly bears repeating and one that resonates far beyond the frothy world of wedding-planning: letting go a little and living in the moment might just be the key to living happily ever after.

Lisa Owens' novel Not Working is published in April.


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