The Audience, Channel 4 - review

Fifty people following someone, making life decisions for them – this reality-TV gimmick had surprising emotional power, says Jack Seale

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The Audience, Channel 4 - review
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The Audience sounds like a gimmick, stringing out the sub-genre of reality TV that claims to change a life a week. Someone snagged on a dilemma lets 50 people watch their every move: not remotely on a screen, but in person, following them around.

It was striking and amusing to begin with, as diffident, divorced, 48-year-old Cotswolds farmer Ian Wainwright went about his business. Ian swept brown lava flows of cow-splurge across the yard. The audience pulled their jumpers up over their noses. Ian strode off to the fields where more cows were grazing. The audience shuffled after him like zombies in wellies.

When the premise kicked in, however, it turned out to be an ingenious illustration of the wisdom of crowds, and of the fact that when you know someone enough, it is impossible not to care what happens to them.

Ian had grown up on the farm, gone away, and come back five years ago. He worked alone, employed by two elderly uncles who couldn't maintain their business themselves. Ian couldn't face telling his uncles he wanted out: due to financial circumstances that were slightly fudged but didn't matter much, if he were to leave, the uncles would have to leave. The audience had five days to observe before giving their verdict.

First they questioned Ian, establishing that he was working long hours for minimum wage, didn't have a share of the farm's ownership and had never been off sick. Then they met the uncles: raddled, bumbly septuagenarians, vulnerable and limited by narrow experience, clearly desperate to keep Ian.

Nobody knew what Ian should do but, whether through clever editing or just because people are innately helpful and wise if you open up to them, the audience's queries were direct and judicious, as brutal and compassionate as a best friend.

"The audience have asked to meet Ian's girlfriend," said the narration. A classic reality-TV porky – no they haven't, the producers have told them to. But as Ian sat down for lunch with Sandy, The Audience looked like a more honest way of doing this sort of telly.

Normally people uselessly pretend the cameras, and by extension hordes of us viewers, are not there. Here, there was no effort to disguise that Ian was being watched. We were in shot, crammed against the dining-room wall or craning to earwig through the window. We might feel involved in the lives of people we watch on TV – here, 50 of us actually were involved. Before halfway we had a montage of audience members unable to discuss his problem without crying.

It sounds ridiculous – who cares who runs a dairy farm somewhere in Gloucestershire? - but this small drama had wide emotional resonance. Sandy said her previous marriage had failed because they hadn't "looked after it"; now she and Ian were going the same way because of his work. A meeting with Ian's mum added generational conflict, as she compared Ian's situation to her own past, found nothing to moan about, and mused on what sort of care home the uncles – who had brought Ian up in his father's absence - would be banished to if Ian deserted them.

The audience retired to do their 12 Angry Men bit. People we hadn't seen before made superb observations and everyone wept, but seeing Ian with Sandy had sealed it. Get out, they told him, and look after your woman. Your family don't have the right to lay all this on you. Now Ian was tearful, to his surprise: "The only time I ever cried in my life was when one of my cockerels got squashed..."

Ian broke the sad news to his uncles, then the happy news to Sandy. There was an extra twist as Ian proposed and Sandy accepted. The Audience had earned the pay-off, because when it looked like Ian would never find a way out, we'd been there with him.