The artist's TV bid to discover the 'real' England is only a caricature
There is a rich, but uneven, English tradition of cosmopolitan artsy types shouldering their travelling pack and setting out to take the temperature of the provincial realm. It is part of a noble-minded attempt to depict and understand its political-cultural fabric on behalf of the capital. All too often, these pen portraits turn into caricatures. Grayson Perry — the artist best known for his ceramics, cross-dressing and barking laugh — is the latest to take up this challenge, in his new documentary series, Grayson Perry’s Full English.
The first episode, which aired last night, was less a study of Englishness than of grainy, superficial stereotypes. Perry’s first move is to hire himself a white van man (Kirk from Bradford) as his driver. He makes immediately for Dover, where he meets Jeremy, a wedding DJ, oddball and WW2 obsessive who cruises the Channel trying to deter would-be migrants (in defence, Perry editorialises, of “whiteness itself”). He then LARPs as a deer spirit with some knock-off druids. He takes afternoon tea. He picks out clothes and baubles with someone called Pearl Lowe (me neither — apparently the wife of the drummer from Supergrass).
This is thin gruel, and one might by this point ask, are we here for Perry’s education or entertainment? We certainly aren’t getting much of either for ourselves. These characters don’t represent anyone, nor do they truly illustrate the themes Perry portentously proclaims as his subheadings: “history”, “class”, “place”. Instead of tackling Englishness at its core, he is content to skulk and prance at its eccentric frontiers, skirting any confrontation with its real paradoxes and atavisms.
Perry made a similar post-referendum tour in 2017, and more recently explored the American continent on a motorbike. Both programmes were characterised by a cheerful yet attentive curiosity, which treated the political divisions of each country with subtlety and respect. Much of his recent works, in ceramic and tapestry, have formed social narratives and surveys, such as his “Divided Nation” Brexit vases.
So he should have been well suited to this task. Like Orwell exploring the North with both an Etonian accent and a tramp-like dress sense, Sir Grayson has roots within and without the metropole. He is Essex-born, the product, he has said, of a violent and tempestuous home. But he is also the avatar of a different aristocracy, one which attends Tate openings, prizes its coffee table tomes and will sagely admire Perry’s work for its fluid and colourful interest in form, gender and sexuality.
But the opportunity to treat English identity with the nuance it deserves has been wasted here. Much of Perry’s analysis, delivered through punchy narration, makes too straightforward a contrast between the multicultural Englishness of the present, and the nostalgic leftovers of the past. There is little recognition that the future will have to involve a synthesis of these perspectives. The climax of the programme sees Perry join “Right to Roam” protesters dressed in animal onesies at Richard Benyon’s Englefield estate: another “national” perspective which is laughably fringe.
Over his career, Perry has made a successful transition from artist’s artist to aspiring public intellectual and applicant “national treasure”: Turner Prized, Reith-lectured and, as of 2023, knighted by the King. But perhaps making a modern, national appraisal of England will often wind up this way. The kaleidoscope is shattered, the argument goes. Any attempt to inspect its shards will feel incomplete.
This was the assumption of Defoe, Cobbett, Priestley and Orwell in their own times, but they still had the confidence to grapple empathetically with Englishness in a representative, universal sense. Despite his aspiration to be a modern Hogarth or Gillray, in this series, Perry is a poor substitute. The product of his travels will not be something true, but something vivid and two-dimensional — something that looks good on a vase.