All hail My Mum, Your Dad: great TV – and Britain’s overdue love letter to older, single parents

<span>Photograph: ITV/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: ITV/Shutterstock

Love isn’t just for the young and taut of buttock. That’s the obvious yet still somehow revolutionary premise of My Mum, Your Dad, ITV’s new dating show, in which a bunch of twentysomething children oversee their nervous middle-aged parents’ attempts to find love in a country house stuffed with fellow singletons.

Originally billed as a kind of geriatric Love Island, the first few episodes are shaping up to be something much more interesting, not least because the format is surprisingly kind by the standards of reality TV: think the gentle solidarity of the Bake Off tent, rather than the psychologically twisted Big Brother house. The emphasis is firmly and rather touchingly on the vulnerability of the fiftysomethings venturing uncertainly on to the dating scene, in some cases a good three decades after they thought they’d left all that behind for good.

But what really makes the show is the addition of their adult children as a kind of fiercely protective Greek chorus, fondly observing via hidden cameras the singletons’ rusty efforts at flirtation and working benevolently to steer events from afar. The opening scenes, trailing the overgrown kids as they pack their nervous parents off to their new digs with a few last soothing words of advice, could not more closely mirror the ritual of dropping your firstborn off for freshers’ week if they tried – except this time the roles of parent and child are well and truly reversed. (“Nothing like you’ve gone for in the past,” says 24-year-old Tia firmly, as she hugs her mum goodbye. “We’re going for nice men.”)

As connections start tentatively to form, the relationship between the watching children meanwhile morphs into that mix of mutual supportiveness and vigilance familiar to anyone who has ever stood in the parental huddle at soft play, half-waiting for the first four-year-old to cause a scene by pushing someone else’s child off the slide.

The whole thing is, in short, an unexpectedly tender reworking of the unmistakable turning point in family life where parents suddenly find themselves meekly submitting to the guidance of their child, who appears to have become a functioning grownup overnight when nobody was looking, while those children experience the blinding revelation that their parents are not just people in their own right but ones occasionally in need of looking after.

Adult children watch their parents from the Bunker surveillance room in My Mum, Your Dad.
Adult children watch their parents from the Bunker surveillance room in My Mum, Your Dad. Photograph: ITV/Shutterstock

When that switch is flipped too early it can of course be disastrous, forcing teenage children to become responsible for chaotic parents before their time. But done right, there’s something intensely moving about this particular rite of passage, and perhaps particularly so in single-parent families.

For at its heart this show is that rarest of hen’s teeth: a love letter to lone parenthood and to the intense bonds often created when it’s just you and them against the world. Again and again, adult sons and daughters talked affectionately to camera about parents who had uncomplainingly put their lives on the back-burner for years while bringing them up, and who didn’t deserve a lonely old age in return. The most moving thing about filming the series, its host, Davina McCall, has said, was the idea “that as a child you can’t move on with your life until you feel that your parent is happy”.

Related: My Mum, Your Dad review – Davina McCall’s ‘middle-aged Love Island’ is hilarious ... and excruciating

There’s a danger in overly romanticising that worry, of course, when the children of happily married parents can take off into the world without a backwards look, blithely assuming they’ll simply look after each other. Some will wonder, too, why single parents should ever have been expected to mothball their lives in the first place; why women in particular seem so often to be harshly judged for breaking what the writer Stacey Duguid, in her new post-divorce memoir In Pursuit of Happiness, calls the “ultimate taboo”, and putting themselves first when they still have children at home.

But that doesn’t change the reality now for a generation who often did feel they had no choice but to put their lives on hold, and who are now empty-nesters struggling to pick up the threads of their old selves in a world brutally transformed by dating apps and shifting sexual expectations. This is just what middle age is going to look like for millions, in a country where 41% of couples who married in 1996 didn’t make it to their 25th wedding anniversary, according to those old romantics at the Office for National Statistics. They deserve better than a culture that all too often treats the idea of fiftysomethings falling in love as a freak show.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist