Sarah Sands: If you're fat or dowdy, please just stay at home

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The Independent Online

The England football team may be disappointing but their supporters can do no wrong. The London Evening Standard reports that local police are struck by the polite attractiveness of the crowds. More hedge funders than hooligans. More latte than lager. A couple of princes thrown in and this is the Wimbledon of World Cups.

One might argue that savage selection by wealth deprives us of genuine football fans. It is a socio-economic form of ambush marketing. But since football itself is big business, why worry about the authenticity of the fans? Bring on the Dutch blondes.

In the same way, it is hard to be shocked by a report that the X Factor is screening its audience, allowing only the pretty ones to sit in view of the camera behind Simon Cowell. The X Factor is more stage-managed than the Red Square parade. The contestants' back stories, the judges' rapt faces when someone hits a note, the pride, the emotion; all of it looks preassembled. So why shouldn't the audience be made over as well?

Every producer frets over the audience. With BBC current affairs, it tends to be gathering the perfect representative mix of gender, age and race. Sometimes, an audience member makes hearts spill over with joy.

Take Joel Weiner, for instance. a bright, personable 17-year-old boy selected by Question Time to ask Nick Griffin about his views on Holocaust denial. Then Joel pops up again at the first of the leaders' television debates with a question on education. The audience was supposed to come from a 30-mile radius of Manchester, but the organisers were so desperate for Joel they offered to pay his transport from London and put him up in a hotel.

So why shouldn't Cowell be permitted rows of little Cheryls behind him? If the audience is too dowdy it might chase away young viewers. X Factor anyway is a piece of old kitsch that could have been on television any time since the 1930s. Its popularity among the young – a particularly fickle demographic – is a stroke of luck.

Audiences for most entertainment are older than producers would like. If you think female presenters on television are bullied off the screen the moment they reach 40, what about the poor theatre audiences that are constantly attacked by actors, directors and funding bodies for being too old and too white?

The most unpopular audiences of all must be the Proms audiences, especially those who dress up for the last night. An arts executive I know sighed recently that Radio 3's Roger Wright had heroically borne the horror of last night Proms audiences but not conquered them.

I gasped with indignation. Cheerful, braying men in penguin suits have a right to exist, too, you know. Yet my offended, liberal friend felt that it was somehow unfair on the performers that they were stuck with loyal and unrepentantly patriotic audiences. She wanted an entire blood transfusion of the audience so that you suddenly had shining rows of cool, multiracial youth stretched out before you.

It is only what politicians do anyway. I attended an Obama election rally where the young and attractive were placed behind him and the fat and the frumpy out of sight of cameras. The pre-election Tory conferences did not look very representative to me. Tony Blair was the master of crowd choreography. The message for those of us who don't make the audience cut is to watch everything on telly in the unseen and forgiving privacy of our own homes.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'