GRAYSON PERRY : WHO ARE YOU?    . Channel 4  series – episode 1

Jazz and Grayson Perry.

Jazz and Grayson Perry.

Grayson Perry, the first transvestite potter from Essex to win the Turner Prize, is not a man to be afraid of public ridicule.

Last year he delivered the BBC Reith lectures in a series of elaborate frocks and collected his CBE from Prince Charles in what he called an ‘Italian mother of the bride outfit’.

In a highly competitive  art world in which everyone is clamoring to get noticed, his cross dressing is a calling card that has served its purpose well.

A further advantage of his overt eccentricity is that he earns a degree of trust when interviewing those who have made similarly unconventional life choices. He knows what it’s like to be and feel like the odd one out.

This sets him apart from run of the mill journalists who are mostly just seeking out salacious details to make a good story. Perry genuinely wants to understand what makes people tick and you never get the impression that there’s a hidden subtext to his questions.

Who Are You? is essentially a tweaking of the formula of All In The Best Possible Taste , which he made for Channel 4 in 2012, and I have no complaints about this whatsoever.

In episode one Perry examined four diverse characters:

  • Rylan Clark – winner of Celebrity Big Brother and chosen as a prime example of a “paper-thin celebrity who is famous for being famous”. Clark is well aware of the superficiality of his fame, candidly admitting that everything he does is fake.
  • Chris Huhme – ex-Lib Dem MP who was forced to resign and served a short prison sentence for perverting the course of justice after trying to dump penalty points for a speeding offence on his soon to be ex-wife. Although publicly exposed as liar and a cheat he’s the kind of politician who never apologizes or admits to being wrong.
  • Jazz – a 24-year-old who was born a girl but wants to be a man.
  • Kayleigh – a 27 year-old single mother of four from Ashford, Kent who has given up a life of loose living to become a Muslim.

With each of these, Perry invites them to answer variations of the question ‘who are you?’ . such as “How is your identity sitting with you now?   He then has each of them sit for a portrait with the resulting art work being displayed at London’s National Portrait Gallery. He expresses the hope that these portraits will reveal a truth that a thousand selfies never could.

For these encounters, Perry dresses soberly, presumably so as not to upstage his subjects, but I wonder whether he’ll be able to maintain this self discipline for the other two shows.

While his previous series was ostensibly about personal taste, this one investigates identity but both are really about how class impacts daily life and culture in British society. Perry introduces himself as a working class prole (“an oik with a chip on his shoulder”) and seeks to cut through snobbery and affectation with straight questioning.

The toughest nut to crack proves to be Huhme who he labels as “a prime example of a white male middle-class, middle-aged member of the power elite”. The swarmy ex-MP displays no hint of remorse for his misdeeds and shows no hint of vulnerability – appropriately, Perry’s art work is a cracked vase.

Rylan Clark rendered as The Earl of Essex

Rylan Clark is a symbol of the dumbed down world of digital culture and the portrait of this narcissistic ‘metrosexual’ is rendered as a i-phone sized enamel on plaster of paris entitles The Earl of Essex. The miniature is inversely proportional to Clark’s ego.

Perry sees Kayleigh’s conversion to Islam more as a rejection of the capitalist model than as a matter of faith. Her new life is in stark contrast to her thick-as-two-short-planks brother who defines freedom as being able to go out, get pissed, eat pork and get a girl pregnant.

The meetings with Jazz are the most revealing and touching of the four mainly because it seems that Perry can relate to this girl’s struggle to come to find a sexual identity she is comfortable with.

This young black (wo)man comes across as well adjusted and articulate. A specially arranged talk to a class of teenagers at his old school reveals why narrowly defined gender stereotypes are often the root cause of personality disorders. Perry’s sculpture is influenced by Greek art and presents Jazz as a heroic Peter Pan figure.

Who Are You? is that rarest of commodities; an intelligent documentary series that celebrates individuality at a time when most entertainment packages offer only vacuous homages to the cult of personality.