Grace Dent on Television: The Audience, Channel 4

They say that the audience is always right. I didn't believe them. I was wrong

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The Independent Culture

During your life you'll often be told what “they” think. “They”, that mysterious, bolshie bunch of anonymous souls who provide commentary on the world's doings.

 “They say everyone swallows six spiders during a lifetime!” a friend may tell you, name-checking “they”, this omniscient body, who among many other things are leading spider-based statisticians. “They say divorce is as stressful as a death”, and “they say Bob Holness the bloke from Blockbusters played sax on 'Baker Street', it's true, that's what they say.”

“They”, whoever “they” are, are verbose but often vastly misled. With this in mind, the new Channel 4 reality show The Audience, where your severe life-problem is solved by a gang of 50 ordinary folk who've followed you for a week, fascinated me from the off. Here “they” are in full view: “they”. The gobby gits. I've been reticent about meeting them since my mother told me “they'd” be awful in that London and never speak to me at bus-stops and if I was beaten on the Tube would all look the other way. “They” didn't seem nice at all.

Yet the crowd of public busybodies on The Audience are a sweet and amiable bunch. In fact, The Audience, despite its surreal, seemingly flawed, set-up is actually one of the freshest, most absorbing TV shows I've seen on for a long time. This show will be copied and mimicked to hell, which is a worry as production company The Garden (who also make 24 Hours in A&E) have made a delicate, sensitive job. No screaming presenter, no psychobabble experts trying to give weight. A little like how Big Brother felt in the beginning before a decade made it all wrong.

In the wrong hands The Audience could be bleak, exploitative stuff. The show's trailer alone is so odd it's tough on first view to suppose this isn't a massive leg-pull on behalf of a comedy troupe. We see a man wandering along a British high street, pondering his worldly woes, following behind him, a silent horde, monitoring his every step. He pops into see his mother, his girlfriend and his boss with the rabble following close behind, swarming into his house, pushing their faces through windows and letterboxes like a jocund and orderly zombie attack. They line up along corridors, craning to hear what's being said. After one week pondering his problem, the trailer told us, the audience will deliver a verdict. “What a load of old rubbish,” I said, in less publishable terms on the 347 times I watched it in ad breaks.

But then week one met 47-year-old farmer Ian Wainwright, a man literally stuck in a muddy, urine-splattered rut. His problem was whether to continue running his family dairy farm for his aging uncles, two ruddy-faced village elders who governed his waking moments from armchairs and kept him loyal via guilt-trips over his childhood and how the farm had been in their name for a century. Or Ian could walk away – be his own man – and start a new life. He could remind himself we're here for a good time, not a long time, he could seize the day, he could tell the old manipulative buggers who were paying him the minimum wage and wouldn't let him implement his own ideas, to stuff it.

I've listened to enough episodes of The Archers – oh the long half-hours listening to a twentysomething shouting at his father about the profitability of organic goats' yoghurt – to not consider myself somewhat of an expert on inter-generational agricultural disputes.

And that's the crux of it, I who know nothing still feel I have a gut instinct about Ian's dilemma. We, the human race, on the whole are a remarkably instinctive, empathetic and nosey people, which is why I think The Audience might be a winner. I love that “the audience” hears the problem, but then hears the other people cited's sides of the story. Ian's girlfriend, uncles and mother were questioned about his depressing plight, except his mother and uncles clearly thought he didn't have a plight.

“But I'd like to go on holiday,” Ian said to his mother. “I didn't go on an airplane until I was in my sixties!” shouted his mother back. Maddening, out of touch nonsense. Oh, there I go again with my opinion. I'd have followed Ian for a week to tell him. The Audience wasn't impressed by her level of sympathy either.

“Your uncles took us in when you were small, you owe them,” his mother said. “Um, how long does Ian have to work to repay this debt?” shouted one of the Audience. “But the uncles will be lonely if he leaves!” said his mum. “So why doesn't she move them in with HER then?” said one woman, hoisting her bosom westward in gorgeously shameless judgemental tones. I won't spoil the end as it's up on 4oD for your leisurely perusal but it would cause a tear in the glass eye of a rocking horse. I'd give it a go if you have spare time. They say it's pretty special.

Grace's marmalade dropper: I'm back in love with ITV1's This Morning – last week we had “the man with world's largest penis”, this week, a man with bloated stomach and sore nipples, saying he had morning sickness.