Grayson Perry: Who Are You?, Channel 4 - TV review: Potter asks age old question with the help of Chris Huhne and Rylan Clarke

The Turner prize-winner unveils his portraits of the politician and X Factor star on camera

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The Independent Culture

"Who are you?” It’s the oldest question ever posed, reckons Channel 4’s artist-in-primetime-residence in Grayson Perry: Who Are You?

And if the crack squad of Daltrey-Townshend-Moon-Entwistle couldn’t answer it through artistic endeavour in 1978, then maybe the 2003 Turner winner can in 2014.

Quite a bold conceit this. Exploring notions of modern identity and personal meaning through art. It’s all a bit BBC4. Or perhaps the original Channel 4. It certainly helps that it’s Grayson fronting this experiment. His previous three-parter for C4 looked at notions of taste among the British class system and was rightly beloved by critics – though didn’t exactly set the ratings on fire in its summer 2012 slot.

Here, Grayson – as Grayson, rather than alter ego Claire – looked at four modern individuals (next week, it’s families) whose stories would be told in artworks created for his show at the National Portrait Gallery, which opens on Saturday.

Grayson reckons, and reckons rightly I reckon, that the tragedy of the Portrait Gallery is its white-maleness. But first he wanted to capture the id of white, male, former minister Chris Huhne as the sort of counterweight to the very idea of putting non-white, non-male, non-establishment figures in the NPG.

What made this extra interesting was that Grayson was trying to capture Huhne at the exact moment when he was about to go to prison. Literally, the night before he was sentenced. What an odd thing to do, you think watching, on your last night outside for eight months, potentially – to spend it with your girlfriend and a celebrity potter.

But nothing much seemed to bother Huhne. Grayson told us that he wanted to find out “not so much what my subjects look like, but who they think they are”. Grayson seemed to think that Huhne is defined by his white middle-class establishment-ness, but the politician played him like a politician, suggesting that Grayson was judging him solely on the experiences that make him white, middle class and male and not the other things he’s done. And when he made that already infamous Saint Sebastian comparison (that was Huhne quoting his lawyer, for what it’s worth) it provoked a wonderful, exasperating exchange:

Grayson: “But Saint Sebastian didn’t bring it on himself!”

Huhne: “We don’t know that.”

Offering a bit more of themselves were Grayson’s three other subjects. Jazz, a 24-year-old who was born a girl but is now embarking on life as a man. We watched him as he read a poem to his family telling them how hard it was growing up. Grayson decided to depict him as a Benin bronze; dignified, powerful. Elsewhere was Kayleigh, whose conversion to Islam was told by the artist through a bespoke hijab, covered in the logos of a designer outlet near her house.

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Best of all was X-Factorer Rylan Clark – a man “experiencing fame in its most extreme, modern manifestation” and whom Grayson wanted to depict in an Elizabethan miniature. As Grayson poked at Rylan’s exterior (“I feel like David Attenborough looking in at the gorillas”), the singer showed an authoritative self-awareness of his own construction. When pressed, he told Grayson: “You have your alter ego, I have mine.”

It was quite an hour or TV. I’m not sure quite how much I gleaned from it. But Grayson is a fine, thoughtful host and anything that can skirt between a behind-the-scenes look at one of modern politics’ grubbier moments and X Factor Existentialism deserves a wide audience.