fri 19/12/2014

The Audience, Channel 4 | TV reviews, news & interviews

The Audience, Channel 4

Reality turns surreal by inviting 50 strangers into the life of someone facing a big decision

Should he stay or should he go? Reluctant farmer Ian plus audience in 'The Audience'

Don’t say this hasn’t been on the way for a while. For years now we’ve had the public working on television for free. They sing for free. They juggle and ventriloquise and suck up to Simon Cowell for free. They even live in glass houses for free. Meanwhile, back at home, the audience makes the key decisions about who stays and who goes. One blue-sky thinking-outside-the-box lightbulby brainstorming roundtable session later and you have the bizarre metatexual freak that is The Audience.

In The Audience, the audience is no longer monitoring events from the sofa. Well, it is, but it’s also up there on the screen calling the shots. The concept is back-of-an-envelope simple. The subject of each film is caught on the horns of a dilemma and has a life-changing decision to make. Rather than make it themselves, they outsource it to 50 members of the public. The eponymous audience first spends four days following the subject about, asking questions, meeting various parties, weighing up the pros and cons. Armed with the relevant information, they make their collective judgement. And the subject of that decision seems to have to abide by it.

In such circumstances, what sensible alternative is there but to have it all out in front of a few million viewers

Who on earth volunteers to put themselves through such a mill? In this opening episode, it was a man in his late forties called Ian. Ian was parked in a rut, running the Cotswolds farm where once upon a time he’d been brought up by his now elderly uncles after his father had abandoned his mother. The work was miserably paid, and the interminable hours allowed him to spend almost no downtime with his hairdressing girlfriend Sandy, his wife having long since traded him in for another bloke. Deep down Ian knew he should tell his lovely old uncles where to get off, but guilt and loyalty kept him chained to a life that looked barely distinguishable from forced labour.

In such circumstances, what sensible alternative is there but to call Channel 4 and have it all out in front of a few million viewers and a gabbling parliament of life coaches? Plucked from every conceivable walk of life all the way from cabaret artist to fashion stylist, the audience in The Audience reflected the multicultural society Channel 4 in higher-minded times was set up to represent. Most looked decidedly new-fangled and urban, against which the loamy rural accents of the uncles spoke as if from another age. Not a lot of them knew one end of a heifer from another, even after one opened its bowels. But they soberly reported for duty shortly at 5.15am and started following him up and down country lanes, asking pertinent questions.

Though no one quite articulated it, this was a film about a seismic cultural shift. The generational gulf between Ian and his uncles – unmarried presumably because there was no time or money - neatly encapsulated changes in the agrarian economy since the war. The small family-owned farm is the stuff of county museums, and Ian was propping up a surviving example like a reluctant Atlas holding up the world.

So the interesting question was the extent to which the past should be allowed to govern the present. Visiting Ian’s controlling and self-pitying mother (see, it's catching), the audience soon twigged that they were witnesses to an Oepidal drama. Why, the mother and the girlfriend even looked more or less identical, although no one said that. Ian was clearly incapable of defying his mum, who was all for not making hasty decisions, without a little outside assistance.

In that sense The Audience did him a favour. Released from his manacles, he even proposed to Sandy in front of his 50 deliverers. The scary thing is the grammar of utter intrusion all seemed somehow normal. We've got used to it, much as television audiences once had to get accustomed to nudity, swearing and Simon Schama. So yes, on the one hand, it was surprisingly thoughtful and oddly uplifting: everybody cried, on screen and no doubt at home. On the other hand, the surreal image of someone opening their door to a lot of strangers arbitrarily empowered by televisual decree brings us face to face with our relentless voyeurism, entitled sense of self-regard and unhealthy hankering to dabble in the lives of others. And that's exactly why The Audience is going to be a massive hit.

Follow Jasper Rees on Twitter

The audience soon twigged that they were witnesses to an Oepidal drama

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