Class definitions seem to have become the en vogue subject in documentary-land of late. We’ve had Andrew Neill moaning about Eton, Melvyn Bragg going back to his roots and now Turner Prize winner Perry Grayson is having a go. Defining people’s position in Britain’s social strata has always been a popular subject with TV producers (dating back to Seven Up during the sixties) but it’s not difficult to see why our fascination with it has been rekindled of late. With the economy on the slide, these class lines are being drawn more heavily by the day.
Yet Perry Grayson gets closer to the truth than most here and he does it all by considering how ‘taste’ changes according to class. Like many before him, the transvestite potter finds that nailing any class-based question down – let alone answering it – is a hard task on its own, but once I got over the fact that this documentary wouldn’t be featuring Daniel Radcliffe in drag, I found that the artist’s holistic approach to class analysis opened some new avenues.
The first group to go under the microscope in his three-part mini-series are the shit-shovelling proles from Britain’s heaving working class, so Perry makes a beeline for Sunderland (where presumably, anyone with an inside toilet is considered an aristocrat) to quiz the locals. Apparently the blokes like souping up their cars, getting tattoos and watching football. This won’t be news to many of us, but what is really striking is the way Perry points out how much cash they’re willing to shell out on these things. One lad admits to spending £40,000 on his wheels, a figure which would probably leave his working class ancestors gob-smacked. Perry then speaks to a bloke who spent nearly a grand on one arm-long tattoo and muses that proportionally, he spends more income on art than a banker who collects paintings.
If anything, this simply highlights the fact that class is almost a mirage which is determined by money. Every bloke wants to do better than his neighbour, the only difference is that some judge that margin in speaker systems, while others measure it in stately homes.
It’s also interesting to see how sentimental the residents get over their ship-building heritage and heady nostalgia clogs the analysis for a while. I’ve not seen the episodes of the next few weeks, but I suspect that Perry will find the middle and upper class bods he talks to look at their own history with the same dewy-eyed fondness. Inevitably, the issue of class mobility soon gets washed into the debate and this is where our host comes up with his most interesting theories. “People who sneer have usually been on the journey that has been denied to so many working class people over the years,” he says. “It’s not just about distancing yourself from other people, but about distancing yourself from who you used to be.”
The tapestries he creates at the end are also excellent..