Part 1: All In The Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry,
Even before the opening credits began to roll, a siren was sounding in my mind.
Channel 4’s new three-part series, presented by the Turner Prize winning artist and transvestite, Grayson Perry, was an hour-long “safari through the taste tribes of Britain,” kicking off from “the bottom up” in the industrial city of Sunderland.
From the get-go, I imagined a row of media-minions, all lining up and hunching over as their paper capes, fashioned from old tabloids flapped in the wind. As the credits rolled and arms, wrists and fingers prepared to point and fire, I foresaw a torrent of classist abuse, spooled around some superficial and impalpable idea of ‘taste’ that would fly and swirl in the air like confetti that fails to fall. Fortunately however, I was wrong. I was really, really wrong.
The first episode in the series previewed on the final night of the Queen’s diamond jubilee weekend. But Perry and his posse of guys and girls were immeasurably more fun than Her Royal Stuffiness. If we weren’t going to be made privy to some goose-bumpily shots of England’s reigning monarch in a paper thong awaiting her jubilee spray tan, then Perry was glad to fill her shoes. Donning a plastic shower cap and lifting his arms on cue, the artist introduced us to some of Sunderland’s pre-boozing, beauty rituals, all the while laughing and declaring, “Naturalness, it’s so, I don’t know, boring, isn’t it?”
Perry’s hour-long search for a working class taste mostly wound up focusing on style, appearance and home décor. As he ducked and dived through changing rooms, salons and tattoo parlours, he explored the significance of religious tattoos, the quasi-sacral role of men’s cars and the impact celeb culture has had on Sunderland women’s appearance. Throughout, Perry’s gift as a narrator was unequivocal and his central role in the programme painted him as a chameleon of sorts, as he happily jumped ship from male-centric, football-obsessed Sunderland to the girly world of lashes and tan.
Undercutting the fun of his physical transformations however were Perry’s own musings. As the people of Sunderland invited him into their homes, Perry in turn gave the viewer an insight into his own world, explaining how, “as somebody from a working-class background, I’ve spent most of my life in the very middle-class background of contemporary art.” He later reflected that his art was the only place that his working class roots still bloom.
At last, turning to his loom and depicting his trip up North, Perry told the first part of his tapestries’ story, introducing us to his central character, Tim Rakewell. Rakewell, he explained, was going to be a modern spin-off of William Hogarth’s Tom Rakewell, from Hogarth’s eight-part series, A Rake’s Progress. Would this be a modern-take on the classic tale of a wealthy merchant’s son, who lived it up and spent it all and wound up mad?
Outside of the pseudo-anthropological take that ran throughout the programme, the highlight of course was seeing how the ideas outlined in the show were trickled out and distilled into two carpet-sized works that referenced ideas of taste as much as they referenced major works in the history of art.
The end of course was about the big reveal. And, yes, it wound up being a bit sentimental. And no, of course no one turned to Perry and said, ‘Well, I think you’ll find my arse is nowhere near that size,’ although admittedly there were few side-portraits. But in all, Perry’s first TV entry was an exciting introduction to one of the three ‘British taste tribes’.