The unexpected thing about Grayson Perry is that you could tell him anything. He wouldn’t (doesn’t!) flinch or glaze over. He wants to know about humanity in all its oddity and sadness. This is not a universal quality in people of such fame and apparent eccentricity. This is a man who has won the Turner Prize and garnered international sales for his art, a Bafta for his Channel 4 programmes, acclaim for his Reith lectures for Radio 4.
A man who insouciantly dresses up as a woman – “Claire” – whenever it suits him, and went up the Mall for his CBE in a midnight-blue two-piece and feathered hat. “People send me hats,” he says now, flopped for a chat in his studio. “And look, here’s a plastic handbag shaped like a chicken someone bought for a pound at a jumble sale. Their friend said, ‘Who on earth would want that?’ and this person said ‘I know who…’ A happy cackle.
Maybe it is that ease and self-acceptance, hard-won over a life not always smooth (a father who left, a tricky stepfather, transvestism in a less accepting time) that makes him the ideal interlocutor for his new Channel 4 series. It explores how people define their identity at moments of crisis. He questions a Northern Ireland loyalist marcher, meets the disgraced ex-minister Chris Huhne before and after prison, hears the inward doubts of a Celebrity Big Brother contestant, listens to a Muslim convert, a transgender teenager, a couple living with one partner’s Alzheimers – “which is very poignant. Part of you dies with them.”
As he listens, he sketches, and produces an artwork about each subject. “Pots, tapestries, prints, sculpture… with some of them the medium is the message: their physicality, tradition, narrative of their identities. At the end of the programme we will show it to them.” The day I meet him he hasn’t done that yet, and is frankly worried about reactions for his subjects. They may not have seen themselves that way, and certainly not in one of this diverse media: “People think a portrait is something in a frame.”
This business of how people see themselves is close to his heart. “After doing the series about taste [In the Best Possible Taste, which aired on Channel 4 in 2012] I was interested in the things that hover in our unconscious and inform our opinions and mood. I still can’t trot out a watertight explanation – it’s about what makes us who we feel we are. The reason for fixing on moments of crisis is to talk to people whose sense of identity has been disrupted, just as neurosurgeons learn about the brain from what happens in brain damage.”
Among his subjects is one who was spectacularly disrupted: the former minister Chris Huhne, who lied about his speeding fine and was sent to prison for perverting the course of justice. That interview must, I venture, have been a rich seam of self-doubt and mental reorganisation as the man confronted disgrace?
Grayson laughs. “No, that confidence! I don’t think he has uncertainties. He’s Teflon!” He had wanted this subject particularly because “making the series, from the word go we were looking for differences of race, religion, sex. But I said that I was also interested in the people in charge: middle-class, middle-aged, male – they’re a group too. They hide in a suit and they don’t think they’re an ethnic group but they are. It’s like people who speak RP and think they have no accent. I needed a guy who is all those things but then has a big disrupted moment. Prison!”
Clearly the artist was hoping that it would have changed Huhn’es perception of himself. “But no- Teflon!” A sense of disappointment, tinged with his constant gentle humour, hangs in the air. I try to find out what the Huhne portrait is like, but it is a tightly guarded secret, as they all are. Glimpses of the interview so not particularly suggest mutual affection…
Often, though, Grayson’s warmth is apparent. Where there is a clash of self-image and loyalties he homes in, fascinated and empathetic. “There is one family, deaf parents and children, where the parents are politicised, feeling strongly about the deaf community.
“One moment when that crystallises beautifully is when two people have a conversation – they’re Jewish, but the daughter feels isolated in the Jewish community because her parent was more aware of deaf culture than of Jewish culture. I am always super-tuned to things that jar, that need further probing. I spent several days of meetings with each person.”
The most intense was, he says, the Ulster loyalist. “We had to have hazardous-circumstances training. He was a former convicted terrorist and an impassioned, very clear interviewee – you have to unpick the complications when he says, ‘Grayson, you’ve got to realise I was 16, illiterate, told Catholics were enemies’. He was set on rails, so where do you go after that?”
Sometimes, the subjects have gone through a deliberate change in their self-identification. “There’s one convert to Islam, a 27-year-old woman. She’s being offered an alternative to the sexualised, commercialised, arms race of consumerism: a certainty, a sisterhood. Certainty and community are themes.” More perilously adrift is Rylan from The X Factor, and later Celebrity Big Brother. “Fame… he’s had it thrust upon him, and it will become him.”
But what about Grayson Perry’s own individuality? What’s that made of? He leads me to a marvellous self- portrait, a huge, intricate map like a dark version of a children’s fantasy book illustration. “It’s myself as a walled town. Look at the empty central plaza, there’s a tiny little man in there kicking a can.” It is a jagged shape, as if the walls have been built to exclude or draw in a dozen different things; around it outside is a river, wild woods, mountains.
Labels express everything – a street of masculinity, river of imagination, puzzles, fears. And always those walls: spiky, thrusting outward and retreating. Go and see the portrait, A Map of Days, in the final exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery: not to learn about Grayson Perry but because the very act of looking at it makes you reflect – as he wants you to – on your own private walls and barriers and secret inward streets. It is mesmerising.
The question of Claire comes up, because this is a wall of convention he has breached for many years, answering a private need and not a merely artistic, exhibitionist whim. “I am, genuinely, a fully fledged transvestite.” Right now he is in working clothes, dishevelled, unquestionably male, a husband and father. But Claire is a part of him (he once brilliantly described her as “a 19th-century reforming matriarch, a middle-England protester for No More Art, an aero- model-maker, an eastern European freedom fighter or a 40-something woman living in a Barratt Home, who eats ready meals and can just about sew on a button.”)
Now he says of his forays into female finery, “If one is confident and accepting of something in oneself, this is communicated and people don’t mind. I stopped being self- conscious about frocks – which I was, I really was – and now the only time I feel it is when I’ve made too much effort. When other people are underdressed and I feel I’m inappropriately done up.” Sigh. “But then my wife says, ‘Look, everything in your wardrobe is inappropriate!’”
He did not set out to make a point about accepting straight men’s transvestism. “I’m very glad if so, but I don’t want to be a minorities advocate. Look, the important thing for everyone is that sanity is just bringing together all aspects of your personality.” He grabs the tapestry I am sitting on, an intricate computer-woven confusion of images and colours. “Look at the front – everything is distinct, brought forward moment by moment as you look at it. But look at the side,” he shows me the edge. “All the colours are there, all the time. Same with us. It’s all there. We bring forward what we need to show.”
We hit on the topic of British identity, sharp at this moment of referendum. “People want one answer, warm fuzzy images, Mo Farah wrapped in the Union Jack like a comfort blanket, refugees being told they are in a safe country. It goes from huge things like the rule of law, down to The Archers.” And for him, what is Britishness? “Humour has a particular place: Italians define themselves by food, we do it by humour. But,” he adds firmly, “I hated the talk of ‘British values’ in the school debate. Made me cringe. We don’t have a monopoly on justice and fairness! OK, we might have first dibs on parliamentary democracy and the Industrial Revolution, but the important things are universal. I think Britishness was always inclusive by nature, it took in Wales and Scotland. Diversity is one of the great goods.”
We talk of tolerance, and people who disapprove of transvestism, gay people, or other religions. This fires him up. “Private feelings are not empirical reality. Say ‘I don’t like it and I don’t like you’, and that’s fine. But don’t incite hate. There are things I don’t like – light aircraft, chewing gum, people who don’t use their indicators. The other day I was mountain-biking on the South Downs on a narrow path and a car came towards me, heading for this boutique-y festival. And the driver was doing his quiff in the mirror before he arrived, and I thought ‘Right, OK, I’m about to die because of this quiff…’”
A happy cackle of laughter. He survived the near miss. Good. We’d have missed him.
Grayson Perry: Who Are You? is on tonight (Wednesday) at 10 pm on Channel 4