Unusual, clever and articulate, Grayson Perry is catnip to journalists. We regard him as A Good Thing. Unfortunately, with this comes the danger that we attribute to him a great but unwarranted sagacity; that, beguiled by his ideas and his sincerity, we don’t subject him to the scrutiny we apply to others, believing he is mostly right, most of the time. Here’s an example. I watched 45 minutes of the first film in his new series, about masculinity and what it means today (Thursdays, 10pm), before I realised that, unnoticed by me, he’d moved from a wholly admirable position of tender curiosity to what I would characterise as the false certainties of off-the-shelf psychobabble.
Perhaps I’m willing to put up with his psychobabble, though. When it comes to investigating the fraught territory of such things as class, taste and gender on TV, we have no one else who comes close. Perry’s lack of embarrassment, his refusal to make a mountain out of molehill, his ability to talk to people without patronising or exploiting them: these are rare qualities. As a presenter, he is a paradox: passionate but tranquil. There often comes a moment in his films when someone confides in him. In this one, for instance, a cage fighter called Andy revealed that his adored brother, with whom he had been in care, had killed himself. Perry’s response in such situations is always the same. He goes very still, and he keeps very quiet. The seconds tick by, him blinking slowly. It is solemn, and somehow quite crisp. There’s no phoniness in it. If you then get tearful, as I did, you feel good about it, rather than merely manipulated.
Back to masculinity. What’s it for? To be blunt: whither big balls? Perry thinks it’s a bit useless, a callus on the (tattooed) hide of man. It may protect him in the short run, but to what end? Sometimes, he suggests, it is good, even vital, to let your soft bits show. Though this can be difficult, particularly if you live in a place – in the first programme, the north-east of England – whose collective memory is entirely bound up with strong men and the work they did. In an effort to unpick all this, he hung out with cage fighters, attended the Durham Miners’ Gala (“a folk-art requiem”) and talked to Thelma, whose son Daniel had killed himself 18 months earlier (the north-east has a miserably high male suicide rate). I hoped he might watch an episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? – a series almost unendurably sad, if you watch it now – which was on to this stuff way back in 1973. But no luck. Perry’s documentaries do rely mightily for their effects on the idea of personal revelation: he must see everything as if for the first time.
Following these encounters, he made some art: the trade-union-style banner titled Death of a Working Hero and a large pot called Shadow Boxing. The banner wasn’t so different from the ones on which it was modelled, for which reason its power was muted (the real things are stirring enough). But the pot made for a lovely sight, the light catching on its glaze lending it a numinous air. Generously feminine (am I allowed to say that?) in both its instincts and its proportions, it caught Perry’s interviewees off-guard, at which point it was lump-in-throat time all round. “Hard men but soft-hearted,” a man from Trimdon, County Durham, had said of the generations that had come before. This pot was the essence of that. It had been fired to biscuity perfection; the merest push will break it into a dozen pieces.
While we’re on lumps in throats, a word about Chasing Dad, Phillip Wood’s remarkable documentary about his heroin-addict father, screened on BBC1 (3 May, 10.45pm) following a first outing on BBC3. It was hard to watch, not only for the obvious reasons, but because addiction – repetitive, sleep-inducing – is frequently boring. But I kept going. I wanted to know if Phillip Sr would get clean, but I also longed to catch sight of his son, who’d left home 15 years ago, wanting no more of the chaos. Hearing his voice, sanguine and weary, wasn’t enough. I needed to catch a glimpse of him – and when it came, in the film’s final frame, it was about as heart-tearing a sight as I’ve seen. There he was, dark-haired, bespectacled . . . intact.
This article appears in the 04 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred