In the Best Possible Taste, Tuesday Channel 4
Horizon: The Transit of Venus, Tuesday, BBC2
Grayson Perry's study of working-class tastes was insightful, moving, even funny
Sunday 10 June 2012
To be perfectly honest, I wasn't sure what to make of Grayson Perry until last Tuesday. I knew he was a transvestite potter, who goes to parties dressed as Giant Bo Peep. And, having spoken to him a couple of times, I know he is great fun and not at all big-headed, which can't be said of many Turner Prize-winning artists. But I did wonder if he was more famous for Claire, his alter ego, than for his art.
Now, after watching the first episode of his new series, In the Best Possible Taste, I think he may have found his greatest talent yet. He is one of those rare people who can talk about taste and class without causing offence. Taste, he says, is completely bound up with class, which is why he has divided his investigation into three parts.
In episode one, he looked at working-class tastes, and headed off to Sunderland. He started with the men, visiting a hotted-up car convention, where blokes gawp at each others' lowered suspensions. Later, he meets some Sunderland fans, who wear T-shirts saying "Fuck the Mags". (The mags are the Magpies, supporters of Newcastle.) Sociologists would identify themes of machismo in the first group, and tribalism in the second. But they would do so from the comfort of their university studies. Perry goes among them, and asks them to analyse themselves. "It's like a peacock showing yer feathers," says one of the car nuts. "It's about our heritage," says a footie fan. "We might have nothing now, but we've got generosity, and call centres." How right they are, but can you imagine Andrew Marr eliciting such clear-sightedness?
The second half was even more fun, when Perry tried to work out why working-class women love to dress up. He dons a skimpy number and joins them out on the town, even getting chatted up by a shaven-headed bloke. Like the car nuts, the women dress for each other, not for the blokes. Again, it's all about tribes and belonging, but as Neville Ramsay, the local hairdresser says, it's also about theatre, and performance, and acting out their fantasies: about wanting to look like an idealised version of themselves.
Perry envies their disinhibition. But, while fake tan and big hair are all about artifice, Perry also finds raw emotion, such as when he visits Heppies, a working men's club. Sean Foster Conley, the singer, used to work in a shipyard, and still sings the songs from those glory days.
Perry asks if a lot of working-class taste is about "wallowing in a kind of fuzzy feeling for something that wasn't that great in the first place". But, as Sean croons and sways on stage, holding the hand of an old woman in the audience, the performance is genuinely moving. "It's like an altarpiece," squawks Perry. From anybody else, that would sound preposterous. But he's right. Is it sentimental? Maybe, but as he says: "Do you cry a more vintage kind of tear at Glyndebourne?"
Not that you necessarily want to stay in the class you're born into. When Perry visits Neville's mum's house, it's altogether more prim and proper; her proudest possession is the picture of her daughter's graduation. Her daughter is already more middle class than she is, and she's pleased. But what of the perils of leaving your tribe? Perry doesn't answer that. Maybe he will. But these themes will be with us for a good while yet.
Unlike The Transit of Venus. This event happens once every 105 years, so bad luck if you missed it last Tuesday. It's when Venus passes between Earth and the Sun, and you can see a black dot travel across the Sun's face. Not that there was much to see – it was cloudy. And you can't look at the Sun anyway. But everything you could ever wish to know about the transit was in a Horizon special the night before.
It packed an awful lot into one hour. We learnt how Venus used to have water, but, having no gravity, it all got swept away. And how in the 1700s, they calculated the distance from Earth to the Sun to an accuracy of 1 per cent. And more. In fact, they crammed in enough stories and factoids to make a three-parter. It's a shame someone didn't cleanse the script of clichés. But then, maybe that's just a question of taste.
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