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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 February 2006, 23:36 GMT
Love on the web
By Terry Messenger
BBC Money Programme

Comic Susan Murray loves the cheers and applause she receives at the end of her shows. She's a rising star on the UK comedy circuit. But when she leaves the stage, she's alone and, she admits, a little bit lonesome.

Susan Murray
Ms Murray may look confident on stage, but she is also lonely

Ms Murray, 36, is one of the millions in Britain who are single but don't want to be. She has plenty of friends but she wants that someone special in her life.

Now she's decided to do something about it.

She's signed up to a variety of dating agencies.

"The life of a stand-up comedian just renders you being single," Ms Murray says.

"You're just busy working, working, working all the time, and I never meet people at work.

"All the comedians I know are mad, ugly or married - or all three."

Online solution

Ms Murray is one of 12 million unattached people in Britain.

That is a figure which has grown dramatically in the last few decades.

Candid self disclosure becomes common as it is the only means of getting to know each other and is protected by a degree of anonymity

Divorce rates have rocketed and, with today's busy working lives, there is little time left to search for a soul-mate.

Since the 1960s, the number of people with no-one to go home to has quadrupled.

But where there is a problem, there is always a business to sell you a solution.

According to recent surveys, no less than two thirds of single people looking for love have signed up to dating agencies.

Making money

There have always been matchmakers, according to Karen Mooney, who runs Sara Eden Introductions, a dating agency for professionals based in London's West End.

Couple kissing
The lucky ones...12 million people in Britain are unattached

She cites the machinations of characters in Jane Austen novels, desperate to fix up relatives with "suitable" suitors.

In the 1930s, marriage agencies sprang up to send out English wives to colonials, starved of the company of their female compatriots in far flung outposts of empire.

The 1960s saw the advent of Dateline which used primitive personality testing to pair people up.

Ms Mooney started up her agency, Sara Eden, in the 1980s, when many were too busy making dosh to make love.

Sara Eden is a small, traditional and select agency, which matches people through personal introductions and charges between 700 and 5,000 depending on the level of attention required.

"I wanted to appeal to people like myself, like my friends who couldn't meet people, not because they were social misfits or because they were quiet or shy, but because they were actually spending more time on their careers," Ms Mooney says.

She claims a Sara Eden success rate of between 75% and 95% depending on the level of service signed up for.

Eureka moment

But until recently, there was still a stigma attached and many thought dating agencies were a last resort for the desperate.

The real leap forward came in the 1990s, with the advent of the internet.

It's becoming as common as meeting someone in a nightclub and in some ways it's a much more reliable way of meeting people because at least you're sober when you first get in touch with them
Susan Murray

On web dating sites, people post photos and profiles listing their likes, dislikes and romantic requirements.

They can choose and be chosen from a selection of literally millions of other singletons.

Darren Richards is the founder of the UK's most popular online dating service Dating Direct.

Before embarking on the love business, he made a good living in the mid 1990s, importing electronic virtual pets.

Spending night after night alone on a computer, scouring the world for his little electronic beasts, he knew in his heart of hearts that their companionship was somehow not enough.

They may have been lucrative but they were no substitute for the love of a good woman.

He looked on the net for UK dating sites and found that there were none.

"That was the Eureka moment," says Mr Richards.

Along with IT expert, Andrew Pike, he started Dating Direct.

And as people have become ever more accustomed to using the net to find what they want, more and more love seekers signed up to Darren's company.

Nate Elliot, an analyst with JupiterResearch explains the appeal.

"The sites give people an opportunity to see a lot of other singles in an environment that's very comfortable for them.

"There's not a lot of risk and there's not a lot of stress involved in browsing profiles from home."

Common method

In total, 3.5 million people have posted their profiles on Richards' site since the company was founded in 1999.

To use the site for dating, charges range from just 4.99 for three days to a 60 special offer for six months.

But does it actually work? Online dating operators generally reckon that it does in about three-quarters of cases.

Vehicle rentals manager Steve Kershaw, 28, was optimistic when he signed up.

"A lot of your friends say 'what do you wanna do that for?', 'why don't you just come out with the boys?'

"It's like, yeah, but we've done that already and I'm still in the same situation I was before, so why not have a go?"

Ms Powell agrees.

"It's becoming as common as meeting someone in a nightclub and in some ways it's a much more reliable way of meeting people because at least you're sober when you first get in touch with them."

Not for me

However, Ms Murray - who, while genuinely looking for love, was also using her quest as comic material for a new show, The Eternal Optimist - was soon put off by internet dating.

She joined rival sites to Mr Richard's and did not always like what she found, for instance married people looking for dates.

"A hand should come out of the computer and say 'what do you think you're doing?'," she says.

Medical saleswoman Julia Brocklehurst, 42, who tried online dating after tiring of pubs and clubs has also been disappointed.

Following two very disheartening experiences with dates from Dating Direct, her verdict is downbeat.

"I just don't like how clinical it all feels.

" I just think that it's not natural and the more I do it the more of a nasty taste it leaves in my mouth.

"Internet dating is not for me - in fact, it's crap."

Romantically involved

But whatever some customers may think, Mr Richards is doing just fine and he hopes for even greater things.

Man on the phone using the internet
Millions of people use internet dating websites

He is spending all his profits on advertising, including a whopping 1m this year.

"When people think of internet dating, we want them to think of Dating Direct," he says.

It is a gamble he reckons will pay off.

Mr Richards has clocked the runaway success of big dating agencies on the Continent and predicts that "there are some European dating agencies that have similar turnover, similar profit, who are worth in the region of about 250 million. It isn't beyond the realms of possibility that in 18 months time we could be in a very similar situation".

Not only that, Mr Richards did find love on the net after all.

He has been romantically involved with two women from his own site, including his current companion.

Select clientele

Ms Mooney's upmarket conventional agency is riding high too.

Far from being wiped out by the web, she argues that "the internet's been brilliant because it's actually brought dating into people's homes and it's taken away a lot of the taboo".

Adds Mr Elliot: "The traditional dating agencies can have a very good future.

"Online dating doesn't replace the traditional offline dating agencies. It offers a different service for a different audience.

"The offline agencies are catering to a much more select clientele."

So down to earth Brummie comedian Ms Murray thought she'd go upmarket.

She joined Sara Eden and arranged a rendezvous with a chap from Chelsea.

In the meantime, she also tried her hand at a couple of the many niche companies which have got in on the act as the industry booms.

She went to Dance Dating, that's dance lessons for daters, run by Laura D'Arcy in central London. The salsa music stirred passions for others but not for Susan.

To improve her chat-up patter, she took flirt lessons from Jean Smith, whose company Allure teaches the subtle arts of seduction, using the streets as a classroom.

She was encouraged to approach men in busy Covent Garden.

But men were nonplussed, bewildered even. They all hurried by, she says.

Discouraged, but still determined, Ms Murray beautified herself in readiness for the evening out with the chap from Chelsea. But to cap it all, just as she was applying the final touches, he cancelled on her.

He claimed, strangely, that he had to stay in because his central heating had broken.

"He's got cold feet," she quips with a cheery charm.

Married with a baby

As for Mr Kershaw, his date was with bank clerk Sarah Powell, 28, who had found herself lonely after moving hundreds of miles with her job.

And it went rather well.

What was the appeal for Mr Kershaw? "When I saw Sarah in the flesh it was her smile, straight away, her beautiful smile," he says.

"I took the chance and it fizzed."

And what did she see in him?

"It was his cheekiness that came through but also there was a warmth.

"Steve was everything he'd said on the internet, so it was great."

That was two years ago and now they are married with a baby daughter, Catherine.

It can take many years to find your perfect love, however you try.

And Eternal Optimist Ms Murray is realistic enough to know that.

She's vows to soldier on with the dating agencies.

"What else are you going to do? I don't meet people at work, where else you going to meet them? I'm not into picking people up at bus stops."

The Love Boom. BBC Two at 1900 UK time on Friday 3 February.


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