The Week In Radio: The appeal of Perry's trip is all in the mind
Thursday 04 November 2010
One of the programmes I most miss from radio past is In the Psychiatrist's Chair. It is a mystery to me why this format, which gave a riveting insight into the minds of numerous public figures, has no effective replacement today. No-one who heard them could forget the sessions with David Irving, say, or Les Dawson. And it's not as if no-one needs a shrink, as any radio phone-in will testify. Could it be, perhaps, that we just know ourselves too well? Take as evidence Grayson Perry and his teddy bear.
In common with many admirable people, Grayson continues to cherish his teddy bear, Alan Measles, but less commonly the celebrity potter also dresses in the style of a young girl called Claire, with baby-doll dress and hair ribbon. Marry these elements to a pink motorbike and a road trip to Bavaria and you have what must have seemed a Radio 4 scheduler's dream. Except, curiously, it wasn't.
Posited as a reflection on the nature of art and pilgrimage, Grayson on his Bike sounded like a shrink's fantasy. But perhaps because Perry is married to a psychotherapist, this programme was more like Honey, I Shrunk Myself. Everything about it was knowing. The bear for example, was "my surrogate father, on to him I projected all positive male qualities, the carrier of my own manhood in my childhood years". The trip was not just a jolly but "a work of art". Then there were other problems. Alan Measles, while no Aloysius, was given an aggressive mockney, which made him less endearing. The crew had a silly chant. It rained a lot. It was difficult to work out what was going on.
Yet on the great big elephant in the room – Perry's transvestism – there was less psychological insight. Changing out of his leathers into something more comfortable, in this case "a nice little floral number", our hero ventured out. "It's always a thrilling moment, stepping out of my hotel room in my frilly frock," he said. "I'm always surprised how pleased people are to see a 50-year-old man in a little girl's dress." Realistically, the admirable thing about cross-dressers is the way that they provoke and endure the outrage of others. So if Perry really thinks the gawping hordes are merely "pleased" to see him, his powers of insight are falling short. A baffled German bystander was more to the point. "Is British humour, yes? A joke?"
Not that dressing up in ridiculous costumes is exactly alien to Germans, as can be seen at the Oktoberfest, for which millions of Germans don lederhosen and dirndl. In Oktoberfest! John F Jungclaussen, UK correspondent for Die Zeit, whose velvety voice I could listen to all day, gave a fascinating account of how young Germans are increasingly relaxed about wearing the trademark costume. "People from all over Germany now revel as Bavarians and for me that is a sign they no longer associate the celebration of folklore with their Nazi past," he said. "It's simply great fun."
Less fun were the experiences of the concert pianist Lang Lang, whose Desert Island Discs should be required listening for any child moaning about piano practice. Taken by his father to Beijing in conditions of extreme poverty, it seemed the nine-year-old's genius would go unrecognised. "I had a teacher who said, 'You simply won't make it. You have no talent.' My father went nuts. One day he asked me to jump off the building. I tried to destroy my hands, beating the wall. I didn't talk for a long time."
Guiding him through this trauma was Kirsty Young, plainly aghast but unflappable as ever, and perhaps the nearest thing to a radio shrink we have.
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