A few years ago, you wouldn’t have expected Channel Four to show a documentary about a cross-dressing artist making a house in Essex on a Sunday evening. But that’s the magic of Grayson Perry: there’s no such thing as low and high culture, no such thing as people not being “into” art, no such thing as stereotypes.
If you didn’t see last night’s show, Grayson Perry’s Dream House, the hour-long programme documented a three-year project that saw Grayson work with FAT architecture to create a house in Wrabness near the Stour estuary. The house acts as a shrine to an ordinary, twice-married fictional Essex woman named Julie Cope, born in Canvey Island and raised in Basildon, who died in an accident with a pizza delivery scooter. But for Grayson, and the people of Essex he wins round to realise the project, she’s very real – she’s them, their mothers, their sisters, their aunts. Even the builders treat the Julie figures as a real woman, “it’s like bringin’ ‘er home to mum and dad,” says one as her swollen-bellied likeness is lifted in.
This is public art made for and with the public in the least patronising, gimmicky way possible, but it proves that art is for everyone. If making a show about art – and art with a meaning and a concept at that – and showing it at 9pm on Channel Four on a Sunday night isn’t democratising art, then I don’t know what is.
As Grayson’s proved in his other TV shows, he’s an utterly charming and likeable character, who’s very self-aware. He knows many people in the village might see him and his team as “a bunch of pretentious metropolitan wankers.” He knows there’s something intensely inward-looking in the project: “there’s something very pertinent in my life in Julie’s story, which will probably come along and bite me at some point,” he says. But somehow, because of his awareness and knowing his story is by no means unique, he eschews self-indulgence for honesty, turning his introspections into a sort of group therapy.
What makes this a prime time TV show is that it’s about art, but hidden in a human interest story. The narrative here is quite a feminist one, really: Julie is the director of her own narrative, and in erecting a huge, colourful shrine to her Grayson is calling on the world to celebrate the quotidian realities of life, muddling along as best we can: it’s “a temple to thwarted female intelligence and drive,” as Grayson puts it. Just as she’s the star of the project, Julie is the star of the show and becomes a vehicle to examine Essex women and in turn all British women. Towards the end of the show Grayson invites a gaggle of real life Julies and opens up to them about his feelings and his family, and they reciprocate. It’s all hugely touching.
What makes the programme work is that it’s not trying to be a high-brow culture show, instead manipulating the tropes of normal TV, complete with dramatic expositions and costume changes. At the big exposé when he finally claps eyes on the house, flamboyant drag makes way for a scruffy Worzel Gummage get-up. “I’m gobsmacked,” says Grasyon, in a statement replicating the Changing Rooms big reveal. The moment is joyfully fitting: his Julie would undoubtedly have loved the sort of shows where Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen flounces about “juhjing up” cushions.
At one of the initial local meetings about the project, as Grayson tries to win over the community, a woman remarks “coz it’s everybody’s story, isn’t it?” Her comment chimes with what seems to be Grayson’s overall aim: art isn’t just for the elite, tapestries aren’t consigned to the past, dresses aren’t just for girls. Everything is up for grabs, and the narrative of creativity can become everyone’s story.