The artist Grayson Perry has been mining a profitable seam for a while now, making documentaries that in essence ask the English to explain themselves. Profitable in the widest sense, I mean – though obviously I hope and presume he is paid a fair wage for his work. The interrogations of class (in All in the Best Possible Taste With Grayson Perry), masculinity (All Man) and other forms of identity (in, for example, Divided Britain, which interviewed leavers and remainers about Brexit), in unhurried programmes directed by Neil Crombie, have all been fresh and illuminating. They are full of insights – provided by the endlessly perceptive Perry himself or by the interviewees who open up under his warm curiosity and direct, unaggressive questioning.
In the opening episode of the latest offering, Grayson Perry’s Full English (Channel 4), which is produced by Crombie but has a new director, things seem to have gone awry. Partly, I suspect, this is due to a growing sense of old ground being retrodden. Perry’s mission is to explore what people mean by “Englishness” through interviewing denizens of the north, south and the Midlands (collecting their donations to a planned exhibition on the subject that he will create when he gets home). “Is it an identity binding us or a fantasy keeping us stuck in the past?”
These are questions that have already been at least partly addressed in his previous films. Of course it is a fertile field and you can see why they have returned to it for a less oblique study. But a hint of overexposure is there, and it taints a brand like Perry’s that is predicated on him being an outsider – not part of the usual presenter gang who are known for A Thing and are prepared to squeeze every last drop out of it.
There is also the matter of his lacklustre partner, Kirk, who drives him around in a white van and seems cowed into near silence either by his passenger or the presence of the cameras. What could be – and were presumably meant to be – a robust exchange of views (or at least banter) as they go from venue to venue instead comprises Perry throwing out ideas and getting little back.
Perry’s first port of call is Dover, where he meets wedding DJ Jeremy and what I suspect Jeremy likes to think of as his flowing mane of white hair. When not wedding DJing, Jeremy patrols the waters in his boat, keeping an eye out for “people arriving here who shouldn’t be arriving here” and updating his social media accounts with news of what he sees. “They’re human beings,” he assures us. “We’re not out to sink them.” Perry remarks that people coming here in search of a home don’t seem too threatening to him. “They have homes,” says Jeremy. “They want better homes.” He patrols and informs, he says, because he loves this country and wants to protect it as generations of his military family did before him. “It’s in my blood. There are people here illegally, who are awaiting trial for rape, murder.” He acknowledges that we have our own rapists and murderers too, but we are soon into his objections to “children being taught that whiteness is bad” and so on.
Unlike his approach to less emotive subjects such as class, taste or masculinity, however, Perry barely probes deeper into the matter. But surely he is there to question what many would call a racist’s psyche, and either dismantle their arguments or grant the existence of an occasional kernel of truth (some people do come for a better life rather than simple succour – why, how and should that change things?). If he is not here to mark the difference between the second option and the rabid froth that gathers round it, what is Perry’s job?
He is much happier meeting modern druids (for me the most beautifully and purely English thing on display is the faint air of embarrassment that hangs around their reenactment of ancient ritual, and the fact that they are led by Greywolf, whose real name is Philip). The same applies to those trying to re-establish “the culture of the commons” – general access to the thousands of private acres accumulated by a handful of families since enclosure began. These moments function as nice little recaps of history, but again: it’s the discussions Perry has with ordinary people that we come for, not that. He does manage a little of that in Full English, primarily with Black football fan Jay, who takes him round Lambeth to show Perry his England, complete with strong Caribbean vibes and West Indian influences, “even if it isn’t around the rest of the country”.
I suspect things will improve as Perry moves north and, as his publicity interviews suggest, a stronger sense of regionalism and less discomfiting nationalism takes over. But the first episode leaves you wanting more – in a less positive sense than his outings usually do.