n the past year, The List’s personal ad columns have increased threefold. None of us can work out exactly why - it’s probably just something that builds up naturally over the years. But one thing almost everyone acknowledges is that they make fascinating reading. Our resident soul of discretion Susan Mackenzie, who forwards the replies (always unopened) once a week, reports that the success rate of our advertisers is remarkably high. Around 95 per cent get at least one reply, most receive between five and fifteen, and one recent female advertiser found she had 29 potential suitors, though of course quantity is no measure of quality.

A rewarding journey down The List’s inky lovers’ lane arises from a number of factors. Those seeking men get a bigger postbag, whichever sex is looking for them, than those seeking women, and appeals for friends or companions fare better than the less discreet ads looking just for a sexual partner.

Luck plays a small part: if there are several similar ads in one issue, all may receive fewer replies; but the other significant factor is wording. There are no hard and fast rules, but a number of approaches just don’t seem to work. The self-consciously wacky ad seldom provokes much response (in fact the most successful ads are those which project healthy ordinariness), and people who describe themselves as cars or houses a la Exchange & Mart get few takers.

Certain individual words carry strong plus or minus values. If you can reasonably describe yourself as ‘intelligent, attractive, warm, solvent, bubbly’ and/or ‘blonde’, a plump mailbag is yours for the asking. Conversely, the ‘shy, overweight, confirmed bachelor’ who expresses an overt interest in sex, naturism (in this climate?) and/or an ‘uncommitted relationship’ would be as well spending his advertising fee on jelly beans.

One word, however, appears with remarkable regularity; as the inestimable Ms Mackenzie puts it, ‘Why does everyone want to go hillwalking?’

If you want to cast your net wider than The List’s readership in Central Scotland, there is a specialist magazine called Singles. One friend who placed an ad received a number of replies including a remarkable one from Italy. Written over several pages in quaintly imperfect English, it included, among sundry passionate entreaties, some song lyrics of the author’s own devising, and the offer to perform these and 0 Sole Mio at the time and place of the addressee’s choosing. It would all have been rather sweet had it not been for the accompanying photograph (in which the gentleman concerned was depicted wearing a Saturday Night Fever suit in an unappealing shade of ultramarine and a highly unconvincing wig) and the fact that the entire letter was a photocopy.

For those lonely hearts seeking a high-tech approach, a preferable source of companionship may be computer dating. After nearly 25 years in the trade, Dateline is the world’s largest

computer dating agency, with a membership of around 38,000.

According to Dateline’s Pamela Lloyd-J ones, hundreds of successful matches write to the organisation every year to express their gratitude; and it is ‘absolutely no problem’ to find happy couples to beam coyly out at us from Dateline’s rather sickly press advertisements. She sees the boom in dating agencies as being a natural development of the ancient craft of matchmaking, but says that ‘because of the computer, the net is bigger.’

Perhaps because of the increasing divorce rate, computer dating has itself developed in recent

times. ‘Six or seven years ago, 60 per cent of our membership used to be under thirty; but now 60 per cent is over thirty, and the prime age group is 30 to 45.’ The balance of sexes is fairly even, says Pamela, though not necessarily in the same age group. Predictably enough , she admits that members of some professions are more likely to join than others, citing engineers and teachers as examples.

As a tip for success, she recommends light-heartedness above all. ‘Don’t be desperate: try to approach it all with a sense of humour. Desperation can be frightening for others.’

The desperate should certainly not appear on Blind Date, which after six years has yet to make a long-term happy match. ‘We’ve put people together and they’ve gone out for a while , but none of them have actually survived,’ admits London Weekend Television’s Zoe McIntyre. ‘But one good thing about it is that people will come on and see it as a good day out and a new experience. We’ve had nobody so far who says they’ve regretted doing the show.’

One volunteer for Blind Date is Julian Clary, though as he pointed out recently on Star Test— ‘it would have to be gay, of course.’ I’m afraid Julian is in for a disappointment. ‘There’s absolutely no chance of us doing a gay Blind Date,’ our 206 avers. ‘We go out at 6.30 on a Saturday night, it’s mainstream entertainment, and it’s straight boy-meets-girl. Call us old-fashioned, but it’s a winning formula.’

Winning it certainly is, with viewing figures of 15 million, (only topped by racy, romantic Coronation Street), Britain’s highest ratio of cross-class, cross-race viewing and according to 206 - a big following among Tory MPs. But what do you have to be like to win a place on one of those coveted stools? Zoé says that the successful candidate will be ‘bright, bubbly, unmarried, and any age group at all, but they’ve got to have a sense of fun and enjoy life. The main secret is to be honest with the researchers and not put on an act.’

I decided to put this to the test. Passing myself off (not entirely dishonestly) as a freelance

copy-editor, I attended the recent round of preliminary interviews for contestants at Edinburgh’s Caledonian Hotel. The applicants, mostly under 25 , but not without the occasional grey hair, were shown into a function room, where there was a form to fill in, with such questions as ‘What is your favourite hobby or interest?’ (scuba diving a complete lie), ‘What do you consider to be your best and worst qualities?’ (friendliness and laziness sad but true) and ‘Who would be your ideal blind date?’ (Sinead O’Connor— a choice approved by the Irish researcher). After a quick pose for the Polaroid, we were interviewed alongside two members of our own sex - a relaxed and rather enjoyable experience, until we were asked to respond to a couple of sample Blind Date questions. I couldn’t help noticing a discrepancy between the spontaneity required at this point and the blatantly prefigured responses customarily given on the programme. To everyone’s disappointment (and no one’s surprise), Cilla was not herself in attendance indeed she does not meet the contestants until she arrives on stage. And would we hopefuls ever come face to face with Merseyside’s mirthful matchmaker? The researcher was unequivocal: ‘Forget all about it. We keep you on file for up to two years. Ifyou get a call, it’ll be a nice surprise.

. I’m not holding my breath.

The List8-21 February 19919