Last Night's Viewing: The Audience, Channel 4 Wartime Farm, BBC2


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The Independent Culture

The Audience may be the maddest idea for a reality show since Big Brother was first conceived. It can certainly boast the maddest visuals, with regular establishing shots designed to reinforce the essential set-up, which is that a decision about a serious life crisis or personal dilemma is outsourced to 50 complete strangers. What you see is one solitary figure, back bowed by tribulation, being followed along a road by a shuffling retinue of observers, notionally there to conduct surveillance on his life.

In the barmiest moment of yesterday's opener, Ian, a dairy farmer, who's absolutely sick of tugging at udders for minimum wage, sat down for a quiet lunch with his girlfriend, Sandy, as the audience (they are always referred to as a collective entity) crammed around the French doors trying to eavesdrop on their "routine" conversation. No one involved seemed to have heard about the observer effect, or to give a damn about it if they had.

Ian's plight was rather neatly summed up by a close-up of the farm sign – "Home Farm". The associations were cosy but it was mildewed and neglected, a nice emblem for the trap of family obligation in which he finds himself snared. Raised by his uncles after his father left his mother when he was very young, Ian now does pretty much everything on the farm for very little reward, prevented from leaving by a sense of duty. His mother – who frankly looks to be quite comfortable off herself – also encourages him to stay, effectively paying off a debt she incurred when she threw herself on her brothers' mercy. Meanwhile, his uncles treat him like a child and his girlfriend is getting increasingly testy about the fact that she never sees him.

Among the people assembled to weigh up this intractable tangle of emotion, economy and thwarted ambition were Tiger, a stunt woman, Paul the plumber and John, a cabaret artist, who one can only hope didn't typify the general level of knowledge about agricultural life: "One picks up a lot from The Archers about farming," he said. But, although the hive-mind initially seemed to react as if they were responding to a soap opera, getting so indignant about Ian's treatment that you feared they might march on the uncles' farmhouse with pitchforks and blazing torches, subsequent revelations about the family's history left them more ambivalent and sympathetic.

The structure is carefully manipulated to make them dither, tugging sympathies this way and that. But when it finally came down to it, the collective wisdom decreed – after a few tears for the camera – that Ian should put his foot down and leave. Ian, who seems to have an instinctive flair for the narrative appetites of reality television, then put a cherry on the thing by proposing to the long-suffering Sandy in front of his delighted advisers. Whether his decision will stick – in the face of a family's continuing ability to work the levers of guilt – I don't know. But either way, Channel 4 should get another series out of it in five years' time when it goes back to find out whether the mob ruined lives or improved them.

Wartime Farm (the latest instalment of the BBC's re-enactment history lesson) doesn't look very different to Home Farm, rather underlining Ian's complaints that his uncles had got a little behind the times in their methods. But what was intriguing here was the reminder that, provided there was a sense of shared adversity and common purpose, minimum wage and long hours needn't be incompatible with happiness. Five years passed in a flash, said a former land girl, because they felt useful and were having so much fun. Not sure I will ever be able to apply the instruction we received in constructing a silage clamp, but I very much like the idea of a pig club. You chip in with garden waste and the dividend's paid in fresh pork.