Grayson PerryTheir art club on Channel 4 inspired millions last year. On the eve of series two they talk about hitting their 60s, lockdown, therapy and Graysons missing alter ego
Interviewing Grayson and Philippa Perry is a bit like sticking your hand into a basket of kittens: theyre playful and fascinating but you can never be quite sure where one ends and the other begins, or whether theyre going to nip. Its the run-up to the second series of Graysons Art Club, and theyre sitting side by side in what must currently be the worlds best-known artists studio.
More than a million people a week tuned into the Channel 4 series last year, and Ive joined the couple on Zoom to talk about the imminent second season. Grayson has positioned himself half off screen and Philippas hand keeps popping into view, trailing a red thread. What are you doing, I ask? Lets say Im doing the mending, she replies, briskly.
After a little more pushing, Philippa admits that shes actually stitching a tapestry for the series. Give us a glimpse, I beg her. Absolutely not, she insists. Grayson gets her off the hook by flourishing a DayGlo pink Post-it note covered with squiggles. Its now worth a fortune because Ive been doodling on it, he says. Ive never actually sold a Post-it note, but I think I might. Thats the weird thing. I call it the Picasso napkin syndrome.
Fans of the show will know exactly what hes talking about, because one of Picassos doodles a little white twist of napkin with cigarette holes for eyes featured in an episode, to underline the value of spontaneity. The series invited anyone, of any age and from any walk of life, to send in artworks for the six themed programmes and 10,000 people did, with the favoured ones appearing alongside pieces by the Perrys themselves and by a succession of arty celebrities.
While Grayson is well known as the cross-dressing potter who won the Turner prize, Philippa has led the quieter life of a psychotherapist. Have they worked together before? Well, we live together. I ask Graysons opinion about things. He asks my opinion about things. We brought up a child together that was BIG, fires back Philippa. Anyway, Im not sure that I actually even work. I just sit there doing a little bit of pottery and saying the odd thing. So thatll be a no, then? Not formally, no, she finally agrees, as he chortles away in the background, with a gravelly heh-heh-heh that echoes through the programmes.
If I were Philippas therapist, I might tell her off for belittling herself. She is actually a key presence in the show, as a self-styled Sunday afternoon artist who dares to show her work on telly, thereby encouraging others to do likewise. More than that, she demonstrates that amateurs can be good, producing a series of pieces including four very desirable plant pots, decorated with her favourite quotes from participants which absolutely earned their place in an exhibition of art from the series. Thank you, she says, when I compliment her on them. I was very pleased with those as well. But what usually motivates me is making something I actually need, and we have some fancy shelves in our backyard that I want some fancy pots on, so I made them to go there.
For now, though, the backyard will have to wait, because the pots are currently sitting in the dark at Manchester Art Gallery, as part of a ghost exhibition of work from the show. Scheduled to open last November, it hasnt yet happened, because at the very moment that it was being hung, Boris Johnson announced the second closure of public spaces in the UK. Its the Mary Celeste of art shows, mourns Grayson, as he is filmed watching the announcement in the gallery; in person hes more optimistic, daring to hope that it may still be able to open in time to be advertised through the second series.
With Graysons plate portrait of Philippa from last years art club. Photograph: Andrew P Brooks/Channel 4
A range of cute merchandising was lined up to accompany it, from We shall catch it on the beaches face masks (a Covid-era nod to Winston Churchills wartime rhetoric) to Chris Whitty Is Watching You mugs. One interesting feature of Graysons Art Club is how it tuned into the collective psyche and the chief medical officer, face of so many televised Covid briefings, turns out to be the pandemics poster boy-in-chief. The first series channelled this psyche through the weekly themes of portraits, animals, home, fantasy, Britain and the view from my window. The second will subject it to family, nature, food, dreams, work and travel.
Which were the Perrys personal favourites? Oh, I liked the portrait theme because I was centre stage and I like the attention, says Philippa. A touching thread ran through it, of Grayson gearing up to paint her portrait on a large yellow plate. He was nervous because hes not a portraitist, but also because it made him face up to his relationship with a woman to whom he has been married for 30 years. In a way I have an idealised relationship with you and its very hard to confront the reality I havent put your eye bags in yet. Heh-heh-heh. The media doesnt offer many templates of happy, long-term relationships, he points out. It doesnt show you that happiness is not swimming with dolphins, or climbing Machu Picchu; its having a drink with your partner, a nice summers evening, walking the dog thats happiness.
When the finished portrait was revealed, Philippas eyes filled with tears. How much of it was genuine and how much a performance for the camera? Im not a very good actor, she says. Turning to her husband, she explains: What I really liked about your portrait is it showed a side of me that I hadnt seen before, but then I recognised: a sort of faded beauty of the 1970s who seems a little sad that shes now a bit crumbly and wearing denim. I never saw it at the time, but I could see in that portrait that I might have been once.
Yeah, chips in Grayson. Phil was a real babe. Heh-heh-heh.
Were used to seeing him out and about all dolled up as his alter ego Claire, but his response here gives a glimpse of a less familiar side of him a working-class motorcyclist from Essex, who used to compete in mountain bike races and is still very competitive, though I was always the bloke that came fifth in the veterans race.
Philippa and Grayson Perry in 1992. Photograph: Courtesy Philippa and Grayson Perry
Philippa, in contrast, was born in Warrington into a cotton mill-owning family, and went to finishing school in Switzerland after dropping out of school at 15. She took up pottery as a mature student doing a fine art degree before meeting Grayson, she points out. She was divorced, and on the lookout for a baby father, when they found each other at a creative writing evening class in 1987. He was a struggling artist in a red leather biker jacket who paid the rent by making sandwiches in a hairdressing salon. Their daughter, Florence (Flo), was born in 1992.
It was clear from the start of their relationship that Grayson and Claire came as a package though perhaps not how many rooms her frocks would take up decades later, both in their house and the studio. For years he has issued an annual challenge to fashion students at Londons Central Saint Martins to design new costumes for Claire, which he would then buy and wear to red-carpet events.
I tell them Im concerned Claire might be having a hard time in lockdown she hardly appeared at all in the first series. I think it would be distracting, you know, says Grayson. A lot of the time in my TV career, we thought: Oh, sure, Claire can come along to this. We thought wed take her to America, but it becomes a sort of barrier between me and the audience. Plus the fact that I dress up when other people dress up, when you want to look your best. If Im in the studio, why would I? Its filthy in here, everything gets covered in dust. I always laugh at the kind of people who wear black all the time. They come here a lot and they always walk away with a white bum.
His favourite theme of the first series turns out to be fantasy. When it was suggested, I thought: Oh, no, thatll be cliche week. Itll be all unicorns and rainbows. But when you edited all that out, you see that fantasy is a place of refuge. Hes not so keen on the idea of dream week (its an overused word, like passion), though thats the one Philippa is most looking forward to. My speciality as a psychotherapist is working with dreams, she says. Im revving my engines up. I cant wait to get stuck into what people send in.
I operate on anger quite a lot. Its what gets me up in the morning to make art. Well, irritation at least
Might she end up being tempted to analyse their dreams? No, the best person to analyse dreams is the person whos had them, she says. But I can help people uncover the meaning of their dreams, and I love doing that. Sometimes when somebody innocently tells me a dream, they dont realise that theyre actually getting undressed in front of me.
She doesnt work directly with individual patients any more, but has an agony column in a womens magazine, gives public talks and writes books (most recently, the bestselling The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will be Glad That You Did). I see myself as sort of an outreach worker. I like to make public the very useful lessons that psychotherapy can teach us, she says.
Everyone should try therapy, Grayson agrees. I was very resistant, because I thought I was carrying such a lot of pent-up anger from my past that I would explode and turn into this raging monster if I really talked about what was going on inside me. But curiously, exactly the opposite happened: in my group therapy they used to call me the ice-cream man, because I just melted.
Graysons Art Club was conceived as a quickfire reaction to the pandemic, with Grayson repeatedly emphasising the creative potential of boredom and confinement. Im intrigued that it doesnt touch on fear. God, theres a weeks theme, isnt there? he says. Its television. Were trying to put over something distracting and positive. But you know, fears there. All the emotions plug in. I operate on anger quite a lot. Its what gets me up in the morning to make art quite often. Well, irritation at least. So what makes him angry? A particular thing on social media, he replies. People having nicer hair than you, riffs Philippa. Yeah, he picks up. There are an awful lot of people who know best, who say You should do this thats what gets me up in the morning.
In 2013 he delivered the BBCs Reith lectures, one of which was titled Democracy has bad taste. Has this latest adventure changed his mind? I think that democracy has a lowest common denominator thing going on, so it might be the best of a bad bunch of political systems; but as a way of making art, actually, its not always that great, because it boils everything down. Artists have their very distinctive voices that theyve developed over a long period. It takes time to find your voice, your vocabulary of images, or whatever it is.
Were not saying make art like a professional, were saying get stuck in and lose yourself a while. Photograph: Pal Hansen/The Observer
Does he feel the series has uncovered any career artists? No, he says promptly. Well, perhaps one. But thats not the point. Were saying the finished thing doesnt have to be good, but the process has to be genuine. And it has to be heartfelt and enjoyable. Were not saying make art like a professional, were saying get stuck in and lose yourself a while in it.
But thats not to say hes an ivory tower elitist as anyone who has ever seen his ceramics and tapestries knows. Their classical forms and beautiful glazes teem with ribaldry and rage. His Art Club contributions include a large, Wicker Man-esque effigy of his childhood teddy bear, Alan Measles, who becomes the guiding spirit and centrepiece of the shows, bristling with old tools and sticks, with rusty bottle-tops for eyes.
He recalls a seminar he once gave to an arts leadership group. I told them: Just remember, youre in the leisure business. Most people go to art galleries on their day off. They dont want homework. And thats something Im very keen on: I am trying to democratise art, but Im not saying it means a drop in quality. It just means upping the accessibility and entertainment. Entertainment and humour are often denigrated, but they take just as much skill as the so-called intellectual level of high culture.
The real Alan Measles is a mothy old bear with one ear missing, who cuts a forlorn figure these days. Im slightly worried about him disintegrating before my eyes, but thats sort of part of his charm in a way. Id quite like it if he turned to dust in a few years, maybe about the same time as I do, says Grayson. Its a reminder that, despite their energy, and Philippas edgy styling of large red glasses and badger-streaked bob, the Perrys are both now in their 60s. Proximity to the family home was a key factor when he recently changed studio, he adds. I made sure it was within the battery life of a mobility scooter, so I dont have to move in the future. Im planning ahead. Heh-heh-heh.
Maturity does have its compensations for a couple as successful as both are, in their different ways. One of the reasons Graysons not in mourning for party-going Claire is that Im 60. Im kind of on the downward curve of needing to do such things. Hes very chuffed about the time he stopped at a temporary roadworks on his bike. While the light was red, the guy working on it popped his head out of the hole. And he looked at me and said, Oh, shouldnt you be wearing a dress?
At the final exhibition on last years Graysons Art Club. Photograph: Andrew P Brooks/Channel 4
Flo is now in her late 20s and lives nearby. One of the sadnesses of lockdown, says Philippa, is not being able to meet up with her. Philippa found the two-metre rule so upsetting when they were together that she prefers to chat online. My body just feels like theres something very wrong. Part of our communication isnt the words we exchange, its being near someones bodily presence, she says. Im not talking about hugging or kissing, Im talking about the sort of unconscious communication that you have when you go to the cinema with a friend: you sit next to them and you dont talk much, but you keep company. I thank God I can sit next to Grayson on the sofa.
Does she feel the nature of peoples problems has changed in the pandemic? No, she says. It just magnifies whats there. Of course, the content can change a bit, but the human condition remains very much as it was. Whenever you get a stressor in life, and you think, Oh, this is completely new, you react in your normal way of reacting to it. So the patterns of human behaviour dont necessarily change. But people might find out more about themselves.
They paint a homely vision of lockdown life: Grayson with his six oclock beer, swearing away at Twitter, while Philippa makes dinner, and Kevin the cat which has its own Instagram account and joins them in Art Club purrs around their ankles. Phils a great cook, he says. Im a feeder, she responds. I love being the sort of mother hen whos always asking if youd like a second helping. We have some sort of fancy sauce every night.
Theyre united in their enthusiasm for food week in the new series. Food is such a multi-dimensional subject, says Grayson. In lockdown we realised all of a sudden how important all the people that supply it to us are. And then theres food poverty. There are the cultural aspects, and the Proustian memory aspect of it. Its not immune to the problem of cliche, he concedes: But if your immediate thought is that its about a still life of some apples, then think again: theres the whole world in what food means, in its lovely, often unconscious way. Its a fantastic subject for art.
Put that in the article, says Philippa, then we might get less apples. I will, I promise them, I will.
Graysons Art Club series two starts on Channel 4 at 8pm on 26 February. Series one is available on All 4

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