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August 03 2012

Tea with Grayson Perry. Or is it dinner, or supper?

What you call the evening meal reveals a lot about where you come from – and maybe even where you're headed…

Grayson Perry

When I was 19, I went out with quite a posh girl. Not only did I lose my virginity with her while watching Life On Earth on the telly, but I also received a crash course in dining and class mobility. On evenings when I was to visit her, I would eat my tea with my family first. Tea, in this case, not being Earl Grey and cucumber sandwiches, but the working-class evening meal, served perhaps between six and seven o'clock. After tea, I would ride my motorbike over to her parents' Elizabethan manor house and there I would partake of supper. This was good news to a growing country lad who could easily eat five large meals a day.

Supper, as in "kitchen" or "country", is upper class. It implies that this is just a casual family meal, maybe with close friends. It may involve a simple starter, wine, and cheese and fruit to follow, but would probably not involve a white tablecloth and starched napkins. Supper is elegant sufficiency. It has overtones of Billy Bunter's midnight feasts, Hogarth prints or officers on campaign. The real significance of supper, I think, is that it implies the user is familiar with an altogether grander style of meal held in stately halls, the formal dinner with copperplate invitations, waiters, silverware, port and speeches. The word supper, I think, implies a subtle rebuke to the aspirational classes who are gauche enough to hold dinner parties at home.

Noel Gallagher

Me and my kids call it tea. My wife calls it dinner. She went to uni, I didn't. She's middle class, I'm not. As for supper? What is that, exactly? As a kid, I ate Irish stew. As unemployed teenagers, it was something with beans. After that, until I left home, it was, "Make it yourself!" That's when it started to get tricky. I still eat shit, to be honest. You can move the boy to London, but he'll always be a northerner.

Helen Fielding

Growing up in Yorkshire, breakfast was a fry-up at the start of the day, dinner was at lunchtime (often a cold collation of what, in hindsight, was probably slices of giant sausage made from BSE) and tea was at the end of the day – a lard-based feast of something like suet and mince roly-poly with gravy and carrots, followed by treacle sponge topped with cream, ice-cream and custard. Supper was Ovaltine and a biscuit at bedtime.

When I descended to the south and Oxford, in the first week my tutor invited me and my tutorial partner, who was also from the north, to dinner. We duly turned up in the middle of the day to be greeted by kindly astonishment and a gracious attempt to explain how things worked in the sophisticated world we were about to enter.

Emboldened by this new knowledge, the next time I was invited to dinner, this time by fellow students, I arrived at the appropriate time – the evening – but wearing a long gown, admittedly one from C&A, but somewhat in the style of pictures I'd seen of Oxford drinking clubs and summer balls. Unfortunately, my worldly-wise hosts were wearing jeans and serving spag bog on a kitchen table decorated with candles in old wine bottles.

Things got better for a while, but when I moved to Los Angeles, the whole nightmare started again. People wanted to have power breakfasts in the middle of the night – 6.30am! – meet for lunch before noon and the earliest I was ever invited to dinner was 5.30pm. Even then, it didn't seem to be quite acceptable actually to eat anything. The concept of "supper" doesn't really exist in LA, as far as I can make out. People don't seem to cook very much, so either it's dinner in a restaurant or a posh, carb-free dinner in someone's house done by a cook, but again, quite often ridiculously early and all over by 9pm. The closest thing to a Cameron supper is going round for "take-out" or "carry-out", which means you just hang out informally and eat something that arrived in a van.

Back in London, I find myself using the word "supper" quite a lot, usually to suggest the sort of informal, just-a-bunch-of-incredibly-cool-friends-round-the-kitchen-table soirée I aspire to, with something I've knocked up from the Ottolenghi cookbook. In reality, I'm more likely to spend the evening eating spoonfuls of odd things out of the fridge while watching telly in pyjamas. But at least you don't have to call that anything.

Rachel Johnson

I remember my parents giving dinner parties in Brussels, in the 1970s, during the tragic Ice Storm period of my childhood. My mother would cook. My father would carve, occasionally with an electric knife, like a baby buzzsaw. They divorced when I was 14. I learned from my mother that the best parties have nothing to do with "fine dining" – I have to this day a horror of hushed tones and chinking cutlery – but lots of wine, rowdy guests, and rough peasant food with plenty of things to pick at even after pudding. It's a model I try to follow myself, although for some reason even "kitchen supper" can take three days, not counting all the time one spends convening exactly the right cast, and clearing up. I still do "kitchen suppers", but have long banned "dinner parties" as both exhausting to give and to attend: they're like taking a four-hour exam in someone you don't know and may never see again. I've noticed a new trend, though: often, the host will ting a glass and want guests to sing for their supper, and get a "general conversation going". Being highly competitive and noisy, I enjoy that (the last dinner I went to, we had Stephen Hester talking about banking). If it's in Notting Hill, "kitchen supper, just locals" can be a £200-a-head catered dinner for which the whole mansion is transformed into a souk and there will be at least two household names present as trophy guests. A "country supper" is eight people, something killingly calorific and crumbly out of the Aga, followed by drunken driving through country lanes. No one gets invited to dinner parties any more: that's déclassé thanks to Come Dine With Me. It's always supper, sometimes even "sups", but only if you're really grand. It's at "sups", of course, that you're most likely to get the Lynch-Bages or the PM.

Joe Dunthorne

There was a constant war between my sisters and me for the best seat in front of the TV. This meant that dinner became, in essence, nothing more than a race to finish first, so that we could run from the dinner table and claim prime position. With the good seat came the remote control and with the remote control came dominion over one's destiny.

We always ate quite late, at eight or so, which was proof that we were authentically middle class. Sometimes, the names of the dishes my parents cooked sounded unsettlingly exotic – ratatouille, moussaka – and I would long for parents like those of my mate John, who lived on the hill. When I went to his, we ate tea early, at 6, sometimes even at 5.30, and had proper food: fish fingers, pizzas, crinkle-cut chips.

After school, knowing that I would have a long wait for our evening meal, I always put two chocolate muffins and half a tub of custard in the microwave. Then I'd eat them with a spoon in front of Neighbours. I didn't know it then but I was having high tea.

David Lammy

Breakfast was always rushed - a slice of toast and out of the door. Lunch was terrible – baked beans and two chicken nuggets from the school canteen. Dinner, however, was something to look forward to. This was always real Caribbean food: chicken rubbed with allspice and scotch bonnet peppers, rice and peas, yam dumplings and plantain. Sometimes, we'd set out the table, but more often than not we'd sit in front of the TV with our dinner trays (mine was a tacky metallic one commemorating Charles and Diana's wedding).

The first few weeks at university brought some culture clashes. Newly made northern friends talked about "tea", but to me "tea" was just a warm brown drink that my teachers enjoyed. My family never had it. The closest we got at home was Ovaltine, and that certainly wasn't a meal.

I was first introduced to "supper" at the inevitable visit-your-new-friends-at-their-homes that follows your first term at university. It was more ritualistic than our dinners ever were. Supper was something you anticipated, that you perhaps got changed for. Inevitably, it was a faux pas minefield: multiple courses, a plethora of cutlery and alcohol (which, until then, was something I had only ever had in a park or a pub, never in front of a consenting adult).

This was all new and novel, but it was mundane and stuffy, too. As I've grown older, friends who have "supper" make their children have "tea" with different food, at a different time and on a different table. I don't see the point. I find it hard enough to see my kids as it is, and even harder to make them aware of their Caribbean roots. That's why we have dinner. The four of us sit down at the table and we eat food their grandmother would approve of.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

There is no such thing as a "country supper" in culinary or sociological terms. Or at least there wasn't, until now. What there is, is "supper", the meal that posh(ish) people eat at home most days in the evening – when they are not going out to or hosting "dinner" – a meal of some formality designed to entertain and impress your social peer group. You can invite someone to "supper" and know they will not expect tablecloths or candles or more than perhaps half a dozen guests. They might expect to chat to you in your kitchen, though, while you prepare the meal in question.

Then there is "the country" – not to be confused with "the nation", but a posh shorthand for what might more generally be described as "the countryside". It means anywhere with more fields and hedges than streets and lamp-posts. It's a word used in such sentences as "I live in the country, but I have a flat in London", or "I live in London, but I have a cottage/farm/stately home in the country."

To me, therefore, the term "country supper" is specific. It can be meaningfully used only by and between people who regularly eat "supper" in each others' houses, and have (at least) two residences, one in a rural location. (Though, being a Devon man, I'd call Chipping Norton suburban. Or at best "home counties".) On that basis, although "country supper" is a hot buzz-phrase right now, I doubt it will permanently enter the lexicon of either gastronomy or class analysis.

I know all this, of course, because I am reasonably posh myself – and if there really was such a thing as a "country supper", I would expect to have been invited to one.

Bee Wilson

In 18th-century London, supper was posh: an insubstantial final snack eaten by the upper classes long after dinner – cold beef and punch, perhaps, nibbled to sate the appetite before bed. But growing up in the 1980s, supper wasn't grand. It was just what we called the seven o'clock meal, whether it was toad in the hole, cottage pie or that exciting new discovery, the M&S ready meal.

I'm not sure why we called it supper rather than dinner or tea. Our Oxford household was thoroughly middle class, but also eccentric, very bookish and Anglican; the Last Supper was much discussed. My mother was a Shakespeare scholar, so she may have been talking in Elizabethan English when she called us in for supper: "Men sit down to that Nourishment which is called Supper", as it says in Love's Labour's Lost. Or it could have been an affectation from my grandmother, who tried hard to shrug off her roots in a Devon post office, referring to "the drawing room" and going so far as to ennoble Marmite with a French pronunciation: to her it was always "Mar-meet". She would never have dreamed of calling the evening meal "tea", which meant small cakes and china cups at four.

Personally, I don't find "supper" snooty. It is only when you add an adjective that it becomes pretentious: country supper and kitchen supper are both phrases used by people like David Cameron, who normally eat dinner, but are slumming it. My husband's family, much posher than mine, always eats dinner, implying candles and several delicious courses at 8pm. The joy of supper, by contrast, is that it carries no particular expectations besides nourishment. It could be anything from fillet steak to poached eggs and Mar-meet toast. Supper is simply the comforting end point to which the whole day has been leading.

Tom Parker Bowles

Dinner party: two words to strike fear into even the most open-minded of hosts. It comes barded with sneers and marinated in petty snobbery, an event that seemed less about eating and more about a smug sense of belonging – Debrett's with fish knives and a par-frozen bun. They have tea, you have supper, I have dinner. Visions spring to mind of jellied tomato rings and overcooked soufflés, an excess of velvet and the degradation of a perfectly good meal.

But, really, it's a simple matter of semantics. There are few things more civilised than having friends over for supper or dinner. It matters not which word you use, so long as you don't go and call it a dinner party. I can think of nothing worse than asking people to clad themselves in black tie or, worse still, "smart casual" before coming over to eat. Or to subject them to the half-witted, smeared and foamed approximation of a three-star Michelin chef. Good food, well cooked, and plenty of grog, shared with people you love. That's not a dinner party, rather having dinner, at home, with mates.

As children, we had tea – sausages, fish fingers, whatever – at about 5pm. Then my parents had dinner at about 8.30. I was always rather jealous of those mums and dads who had "supper". It seemed far cooler and laid back, resolutely more modern. But whatever it was called, there was always comfort in falling asleep to the clatter of knives and forks, and the easy hubbub of well-watered good times.

So yes, the dinner party, with its forced dress code and fussy food, stilted conversation and whiff of self-satisfaction, is something to be feared. But then, so is any meal possessing these horrible qualities, regardless of whether it's branded "supper", "dinner" or "feast". All that matters is the shared pleasures of the table, time to eat, drink and be merry. The dinner party might be dead, but the fundaments of domestic edible pleasure will endure for ever and ever.

Peter York

I'm not a foodie, but I know foodies, and I find their dinner parties most alarming. I want meat and two veg spread in an orderly way on the plate. And a pudding that contains something nice like meringue.

Dinner parties have changed a lot since I wrote the Sloane Ranger Handbook with Ann Barr in 1982. There still exist in corners of the country meals of almost stunning simplicity, usually involving something I hate – game birds – produced with a certain amount of fanfare. Horribly red stringy things. But at least you know exactly where to start, which is the main course, and what's the end. And there is all sorts of silverware.

At a foodie supper, the sequence is disrupted, and it's done with the utmost of casualness. I remember eating at a foodie neighbour's house 25 years ago and thinking, which bit is which? What goes first? Is that a pudding or does it just look like one? For a person of conservative habits, it was very disconcerting.

Now you can see it in full bloom. There used to be five kinds of cheese from about three nations that one could take to a dinner party. Now there will be Colombian drug smuggler's cheese and something sourced from a farmers' market in Aberdeen.

Of course, I don't give dinner parties. Mostly I eat out, but when I'm at home I have kitchen suppers in the most literal sense: "This delicious thing I found in Tesco, let's just put it in the microwave." I'm not northern, so I don't call it tea. And I don't call it dinner, because it's not dinnery. So it's supper, I'm afraid.

Jeanette Winterson

Dinner parties make me feel like a desperate housewife on Come Dine With Me. I grew up in Lancashire in the 1960s. Dinner was eaten at 12 noon and it was pie and gravy. Except on Sundays, when we had a joint of beef or lamb, the remains of which would be put through the Spong mincer on Mondays for a week's worth of aforementioned pies. My first dinner party happened to me when I went to Oxford. I never wanted it to happen again. The real issue is that I like food and I like to eat my food, not try to shove it in my mouth while talking to someone I hope never to meet again. My girlfriend is Jewish, a great cook and seriously social. When we got together, I said, "I will do cocktail parties and I will do supper with friends. Never make me go to dinner." She tried, twice; the first time I refused to eat and the second time I refused to speak. We haven't tried since.

I love suppers with friends. Is there a class thing? Yes, for sure, but if you are a writer or an artist of any kind, you can avoid class. You can mix wherever you want to and say what you like. That helps. I have to say, though, that the best dinner party I ever went to was thrown by an eccentric member of the Guinness family in a crumbling house in Dublin. The dining room hadn't been decorated since 1840 and, as the room was colder than the fridge, we left the champagne out to chill. Food was cooked on a burner of the kind road-menders use to melt tarmac. I was sitting next to Neil Jordan and we both ate in silence until we had eaten enough to be able to speak.

Oliver Peyton

I'm rarely invited to dinner parties these days – being a judge on Great British Menu, as well as a restaurateur, people just assume I'm the guest from hell.

Maybe that's also why, when I have people over for dinner, they're often surprised by my food. They turn up expecting some sort of whizz-bang gastronomic experience, only for me to serve up a fish that's been covered in herbs and salt, and shoved in the oven. Dinner parties, to me, are about family, friendship and fun, not networking or spending all night in the kitchen.

That attitude's probably a throwback to my childhood in Mayo – mealtimes were extraordinarily important, and we wouldn't dream of not sitting down to dinner together. And it's "dinner" or "tea", by the way – I'd never even heard the term "supper" until I came to England.

When I was young, dinner parties didn't focus nearly so much on the food. They were more about staying up all night, and if there was any actual cooking involved, it usually got burned anyway. Perhaps it's just an age thing that the dinner parties I go to now aren't like that at all, but I kind of miss those days.

• Interviews: Charlotte Northedge, Bob Granleese, Becky Barnicoat.

The guidelines: Tea

When? 6.30pm, or whenever Dad gets home from work.
What are we eating? Fish fingers, chips, beans. And then a yoghurt.
Who's coming? You, your siblings, your parents, possibly a friend, so long as they've checked with their mum first.
Topics of conversation Shhh… Hollyoaks is on.
Tableware Not the good cutlery. That's for Christmas Day and Christmas Day alone.
Dress code Your school uniform, unless it's in the wash because you got it muddy at lunchtime.

The guidelines: Dinner

When? 7pm, or thereabouts.
What are we eating? One of those Marks & Spencer meal deals, bought on the way home from work.
Who's coming? Whoever's at home.
Topics of conversation Work, your journey home from work, that thing Joanna who sits opposite you at work does with her teeth that's really annoying.
Tableware A plate on your lap. Who has space for a table any more?
Dress code Whatever you worked in (although freelance writers may wear trousers as a point of etiquette).

The guidelines: Supper

When? 9pm, or later.
What are we eating? Something light and self-consciously rustic, usually cooked in a bloody Aga or something.
Who's coming? You, Rebekah Brooks, David Cameron and, indirectly, Robert Jay QC.
Topics of conversation Chipping Norton, NewsCorp's BSkyB takeover bid, whether or not Dave can lend you a horse.
Tableware Silver cutlery, ironed tablecloths, goblets full of children's blood.
Dress code Top hats left at the door. We're all in this together, remember.

By Stuart Heritage


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June 22 2012

The Week In TV: True Love, Punk Britannia and All in the Best Possible Taste - video

Andrew Collins falls for Margate in BBC1's True Love, revels in anti-establishment BBC4 series Punk Britannia, and returns for the final episode of Grayson Perry's Channel 4 documentary series All in the Best Possible Taste



June 21 2012

Grayson Perry signs exclusive two-year Channel 4 deal

Artist continues partnership with broadcaster and independent producer of recent hit series All in the Best Possible Taste

Channel 4 has signed the Turner prize-winning artist Grayson Perry in a two-year exclusive deal following the success of his recent series.

The first programme in the deal will see the broadcaster working with the artist on a new series made by independent producer Seneca for next year. Seneca made All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry, which finished this week.

Details of the new commission are still to be thrashed out but a Channel 4 source said it was likely to "follow themes from Hogarth's interest in modern moral subjects and look at modern manners and aesthetic values. We are extremely excited but discussions are still at an early stage," the source added.

In his recent three-part series Perry explored modern British tastes, ranging across the working classes of Sunderland, the middle classes of Tunbridge Wells and the upper classes of the Cotswolds.

As part of the project, Perry created six tapestries called The Vanity of Small Differences, which were his take on the tastes of 21st century Britain. The tapestries are currently on display at the Victoria Miro gallery in London until August.

Channel 4's commissioning editor for arts, Tabitha Jackson said: "I'm delighted that Grayson has agreed to continue the creative partnership which produced the taste series.

"His skill not just as an artist, but as an artist-anthropologist somewhere between William Hogarth and Bruce Parry, gives us a unique opportunity to really explore the texture of contemporary life and to understand it in a different way."

Perry, who is known for his work with ceramics, was awarded the Turner prize in 2003. He is also a cross-dresser and images of his alter ego, Claire, often appear in his work.

As well as ceramics, Perry has also worked in printmaking, drawing, embroidery and other textile work, film and performance.


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June 19 2012

TV review: All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry; Joely Richardson on Shakespeare's Women

Grayson Perry is a true wizard – he takes the musings of the upper classes and transmutes them into art

Grayson Perry concluded his glorious, inspired and incisive investigation into modern British taste and concomitant neat gutting and filleting of that slippery fish, the class system, with a visit to its upper reaches in the final part of his series All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry (Channel 4).

The Countess of Bathurst dressed him for drinks at Berkley castle. Did he look the part, Perry asked the guests. "You look very smart," they all told him, which is gentry-speak for "No, dear boy, not in the least." You might be able to crack the dress code in time, but the euphemisms would take several lifetimes to master.

Perry took in the shabby beauty of Elizabethan manors and Georgian mansions handed down through the increasingly impoverished generations and the modern gloss put on family seats sold to the new, celebrity aristocracy; and he grilled all their current owners about all he had seen. It was only as you watched him firing off questions – always pertinent, always perceptive, always aimed at cutting through the flummery and getting to the meat of the thing – that you realised what poor stuff the average presenter is made of. Rigorous, intelligent and intuitive, Perry never opened his mouth without either providing fresh insight himself or extracting it from his subject.

"I'm interested," he said at one point, "in how much people buy into the myth of where their place is in society." His gaze swept over the latest display of ancestral portraits and stags' heads within a gently crumbling pile and he gave one of his great dirty chuckles. "Is there a point when they actually start camping it up?" I invite you to contemplate the difference between this and anything ever uttered by Cherry Healey until your ears start to bleed. It won't take long. Watching Perry at work, I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz going from a world of black and white to glorious Technicolor. I never knew it could be like this.

This true wizard then distilled all he had learned and deduced from his various hosts about what marked them out from the middle and working classes – the prizing of old above new, the love of historical associations rather than brand names, the importance of understatement and the dread of overstatement, a custodial attitude towards, rather than proud ownership of, their homes ("The house is here," said Janey Clifford. "All we do is patch it up, really"), a desire to maintain the status quo and not indulge in self-expression – and transformed it into art. Six tapestries – two for each stratum of society – summed us all up in Perry's modern rendering of Hogarth's A Rake's Progress. For the first time ever, I became determined to visit a work of art. The man is clearly, in every way, a genius.

And while we're being cultured, let us turn to Joely Richardson on Shakespeare's Women (BBC4), part of the Shakespeare Uncovered season. It didn't actually start talking about the play's female characters until halfway through. The first 30 minutes took us through Shakespeare's own history (born – Stratford; married – Anne "not The Devil Wears Prada one" Hathaway; issue – twins! Twins like what will be in loads of his forthcoming plays!; buggered off – 1582-95, we know not where; turns up in London as actor/playwright; does pretty well before death in 1616 and brilliantly thereafter) without adding any more, I suspect, to the knowledge of anyone with even the briefest acquaintance with the man and certainly not to anyone who had watched any of the season's previous programmes.

After that, it was long on archive footage (including Vanessa Redgrave in her breakthrough screen role as an impossibly beautiful and mesmerising Rosalind in the RSC's televised As You Like It of 1961), assertions of the complexity of certain heroines (mainly Viola and Rosalind, with no mention of trickier propositions like Kate in The Taming of the Shrew) and of the surpassing brilliance and precocity of their creator's talent, but a little short on evidence. Richardson interviewed only her mother Vanessa and, briefly, actors in rehearsal for Twelfth Night and left the experts to talk to camera.

You longed for Grayson Perry to pop by for 10 minutes and unpack all the scholarship with which they clearly brimmed, with a few well-chosen questions. I suspect I shall be longing for that quite a lot from now on.


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June 12 2012

TV review: All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry is not here to sneer at the middle class – he's here to understand them

I have a tagine. You know, one of those brown dishes from Morocco with a volcano-shaped lid. I sometimes think about trying to cook something in it, but then I think again. I worry it would crack if it went on the gas. In the oven? Hmm, its volcano is so high I'd have to take all the shelves out and there'd still be no room for anything else. I'm sure they're brilliant over a stove in the souk in Casafriggingblanca or wherever, but they're useless in the modern kitchen. It doesn't even fit in any of the cupboards so it has to go on top of them, where it gathers dust, pointlessly. Why do I have it?

Having seen the second part of All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry (Channel 4), the Turner prize-winning artist's lovely examination of class and taste, I now know. It's because I'm middle class. And a certain kind of middle class – because while things are still relatively clear when it comes to nobs and plebs, the middle classes are a swirly sprawl that now engulfs two thirds of the population.

With my tagine's pleasing conical form I'm showing that I have an eye for the aesthetic. The brown colour hints at the earth, perhaps a connection to the soil and concern for the planet. It's almost certainly a Fair Trade tagine. And its Moroccanness shows that I'm broad-minded, cosmopolitan, adventurous. I embrace different races and cultures.

The fact that it's utterly useless is neither here nor there. In fact, its absurd height is a bonus. It means it can't go in a cupboard even if I wanted it to. It has to be displayed, and that's fine because that's what I really want, to show people which tribe I belong to. It's not a cooking vessel, it's a social identifier. And if I did actually want to cook lamb with bloody almonds and pomegranates or whatever, I've got a Le Creuset in the cupboard. No really, I have. I might as well just tattoo the C-word across my forehead, in a fit of middle-class angst. Except we don't do that, we do little tattoos, on our ankles ….

Grayson Perry seems more comfortable – both with himself (and herself when she chooses) and among the people (s)he meets. He was last week, among working-class people in Sunderland. Engaging, interested, never patronising. But still funny, and fun. And he is here, among what he calls the new upwardly mobile middle class in a new development called Kings Hill in Kent.

It would be so easy to be sneery; about Kate's pink champagne and cupcakes (cupcakes that aren't really meant to be eaten but simply to signal in-control, on-trend middle-class domesticity); about Jane who bought the Kings Hill showhome along with all its contents; about the Jamie At Home cookware events (sort of Tupperware parties for 21st-century Britain, looked over from above by Jamie Oliver himself, the god of class mobility). It would be easy to laugh too about the more established middle classes in Tunbridge Wells, striving for individuality and trying so hard not to be seen to be trying too hard.

Although Perry is perhaps a bit freer than he was last week, less careful not to offend (and so more fun), he still neither laughs nor sneers. That's not why he's here – he's here to observe, to find out, to understand. And then to capture, in his tapestries.

He's great at it too. He has the inquisitiveness and questioning skills of a journalist, the original thought and ideas of a brainiac, the imagination of an artist. But he also has the ability to get on with and talk to normal people that few journalists, brainiacs or artists have. The tapestry reveal at the end, when his subjects come to a London gallery to see what he's done, is a nice touch, adds the gentlest hint of reality TV to proceedings. And it's about class and taste, possibly the two most interesting subjects there are.

All of which adds up to a fabulous work of television. The only thing I'd maybe lose is the voiceover, by Stephen Mangan. Not needed.

What about the art though? Yeah fabulous ... he says, nervously, looking around, reading to see what other people have said, before deciding that liking it fits with who I am, and who I want to be. Love – and totally picked up on – the whole Hogarth thing, obviously. Where's the tagine though? Never mind, he's got my Le Creuset in there. Exactly the same, blue and oval. Nice.

Read a review of the final episode of Mad Men


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June 11 2012

TV highlights 12/06/2012

Silk | Great Ormond Street | Mad Men | All In The Best Possible Taste With Grayson Perry | Hit & Miss | Cardinal Burns

Silk
9pm, BBC1

The increasingly glammed-up Martha gets the gig of her career this week, representing a Jamaican prisoner on death row at the Supreme Court. Billy's worried she won't be able to take the pressure. Has he not seen how hard-as-nails she is in that courtroom? Speaking of which, corrupt pest Micky Joy is still after revenge for the Jody Farr case. Over in smouldering posho corner, Clive has a feeling he may not be the right man to defend Fatima Ali at her trial. Can he persuade Martha to step in and expose the truth? Hannah Verdier

Great Ormond Street
9pm, BBC2

Set your heartstrings to jerk: tonight's episode sees newborn babies at the country's biggest children's hospital undergo complex heart surgery – with no guarantee of success. Like One Born Every Minute, and 24 Hours In A&E, the makers of Great Ormond Street are focusing pretty heavily on making viewers cry. Put emotional manipulation to one side, however, and this is a great celebration of everything the NHS does best. Cameron and cronies take note. Nosheen Iqbal

Mad Men
9pm, Sky Atlantic

A more subdued affair than the previous two shock-stuffed episodes, but no less compelling as a result, tonight's Mad Men closes out a particularly strong season for the show. Lane's spectre still hangs heavily over SCDP, while Don – who has encountered his fair share of spirits in the past – is visited by the ghost of his dead brother. Elsewhere, Pete rekindles his tryst with troubled neighbour Beth, though not in the manner he might have hoped. Typically, the whole thing is rounded off with an elegantly shot montage, and an ambiguous closing shot that will have fans debating right up until next season. Gwilym Mumford

All In The Best Possible Taste With Grayson Perry
10pm, Channel 4

This week, artist Perry is subjecting the middle class to his scrutiny. Considering himself middle class, – he lives in Islington and is part of the "chattering class" – he sets off to Kings Hill in Kent, a development of executive homes where the right brands are important but everyone seems keen not to be flashy. Then he's off to Tunbridge Wells, where cultural capital – William Morris wallpaper and retro furniture – is all-important. Perry makes a good social anthropologist, paring not just class differences but the distinctions within the classes themselves. Martin Skegg

Hit & Miss
10pm, Sky Atlantic

Mia's increasing responsibility for her family – and, arguably, her reliance on them as much as their reliance on her – is beginning to cause conflict in her other role as a hit man. (Of course, if it didn't, this wouldn't be a six-part series.) When she takes the kids out on a job she places them in danger, and Eddie's scrutiny further complicates the situation. Meanwhile, Riley confesses that she's pregnant, though the identity of the father means it is unlikely to be a smooth ride. And the identity of the sinister man watching the farm is finally revealed. Rebecca Nicholson

Cardinal Burns
10.30pm, E4

Last in the series for this frequently brilliant sketch show. Tonight, street poet Switch laments his friends all going to university, the Young Dreams girls are going to celebrate their friendship at Honky Tonks nightclub and new guy flirts his way out of the office for the last time. Plus, in the sketch of the series, two cafe managers take a job interview roleplay too far. There's no question their clever brains should get a second series. And on Channel 4 this time. Julia Raeside


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June 08 2012

Matisse, Munch and mischievous tapestries – the week in art

The fruits of Matisse's manual labour are revealed, Munch takes Scotland by storm, and Grayson Perry tackles class issues in new tapestries – all in your favourite weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the week: Mantegna to Matisse

Drawings are the purest and most intimate documents of how artists see, feel, and shape the world. Old paintings may well have undergone extensive restoration, so that it is hard to tell what is authentic and what is added. Even works that are undamaged may have been the work of assistants as well as the "master" of a workshop. Drawings, however, are the direct manual labour of an artist sitting there, pressing down a point against a sheet of paper. This gallery has a tremendous collection of such scintillating survivals and if you have never had the chance to visit, go, and see its tremendous permanent collection too.
Courtauld Gallery, London, from 14 June until 9 September

Other exhibitions this week

Invisible
Art that you can't see! Those crazy curators!
Hayward Gallery, London, from 12 June until 6 August

Jo Spence
A radical artist remembered.
Studio Voltaire, London, until 11 August

Edvard Munch
The dark heart of Scandinavia laid bare.
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until 23 September

Summer Exhibition
The dark heart of the Home Counties laid bare.
Royal Academy, London, until 12 August

Masterpiece of the week

Titian's Tarquin and Lucrezia

One of Titian's most powerful and troubling works, this late painting reveals the violence and danger behind the windows of Venetian palaces. Titian was the supreme painter of sensual beauty in 16th-century Venice but here he depicts a rape. This is a true masterpiece that looks as if it was painted with smoke and blood.
• Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Image of the week

The National Portrait Gallery in London has bought a portrait of celebrated diplomat, soldier and cross-dresser Chevalier d'Eon.

What we learned this week

Why the Royal Academy has launched a new pamper plan

What Grayson Perry's new 'middle class' tapestries look like

Why Jenny Holzer has been painting the US battleplans for the invasion of Iraq

Why a catcopter has taken the art world by storm

What your art on the theme of Britain looks like – roadworks, union jacks and all

And finally

Have you seen the Guardian Art and Design Flickr page? Share all your latest cultural snaps there

Or share all of your artworks with us

Or follow us on Twitter

Like us on Facebook

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Sign up for the Art Weekly newsletter


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April 25 2012

Jeremy Hunt: Can't stop, off to Swan Lake

What has the Leveson inquiry revealed about Jeremy Hunt's taste in art? Did he get to Take That? And how big an N-Dubz fan is he?

On Monday, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeted "With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come (Gratiano, Merchant of Venice)", a celebratory quote for Shakespeare's birthday. On Tuesday, "Is this a dagger which I see before me?" might have seemed more appropriate.

Perhaps surprisingly, only two of the emails released by the Leveson inquiry this week indicated that Hunt had an interest in the arts beyond the Murdochs' BSkyB takeover bid. One, from News Corp's public affairs executive Frédéric Michel to James Murdoch, reported grabbing the culture secretary "before he went in to see Swan Lake" to discuss the bid. In another, sent later that year, Michel plaintively asked Hunt's special adviser Adam Smith whether Ed Vaizey's refusal to meet News Corp while the deal was going through meant that "you and Jeremy will not be coming to Take That on 4 July".

Between them, Take That and Swan Lake suggest that Hunt has fairly mainstream tastes – and in fact, according to the Royal Opera House, the ballet was an unusual outing; a spokesperson confirms that Hunt is not a regular. Did he or did he not see Take That at Wembley on 4 July? The band's press officer says he has no idea: "He didn't get tickets from us."

In the five years since he was made shadow culture secretary, and then culture secretary when the Tories won the 2010 election, Hunt has given the impression of someone who enjoys the arts without having a deep knowledge of – or passion for – them. To be fair, though, he seems more culturally immersed than his opposite number Harriet Harman, or the shadow culture minister Dan Jarvis.

At a meeting of the rightwing culture thinktank New Culture Forum last year, Hunt said his major policy for the arts was to encourage philanthropy. But this approach ran into trouble earlier this month, after tax relief for philanthropists was restricted in the budget. Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, said the Treasury had "completely pulled the carpet from under" Hunt's attempts to encourage rich donors.

The culture secretary appears to have an interest in pop music beyond Take That: a journalist who interviewed him for the London Evening Standard last summer (shortly before the BSkyB bid failed) reported seeing a biography of N-Dubz on Hunt's desk. "Well, Tulisa is going to be gracing our screens, isn't she?" he said, of the N-Dubz member who went on to be an X Factor judge. In 2010, he revealed his classical music preferences to Guardian arts correspondent Charlotte Higgins: "I am still early Schoenberg rather than late." He also enjoys Tchaikovsky, attending Opera North's production of The Queen of Spades and ENO's Eugene Onegin, directed by Deborah Warner.

Russian literature seems to resonate with Hunt, too. He admires the poets Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, who were dissidents during the Soviet regime, and quoted a poem by Mandelstam in his first speech as culture secretary. Then there's his passion for Japanese culture; Hunt speaks the language after teaching English there.

Like other Tories, Hunt has spoken warmly about their star signing, Tracey Emin. He attended the private view of her retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, and in his first keynote speech on the arts, cited her grafitto "I need art like I need God", sprayed on the sea wall at Margate. "Sometimes graffiti – however objectionable and anti-social it is in principle – can be very thought-provoking," he noted.

But it was culture minister Ed Vaizey rather than Hunt who schmoozed Emin. In 2009, the Guido Fawkes website reported that the pair enjoyed a three-hour lunch at Scott's of Mayfair, and she has also dined with David Cameron at No 10. All this paid off when Emin declared her support for the Tories last year: "At the moment there is a government that actually likes the arts, appreciates the arts and appreciates culture."

Hunt is an admirer of Grayson Perry, too. He went to Perry's recent exhibition at the British Museum, and has a print by the artist on his office wall – alongside a photograph of him meeting Arnold Schwarzenegger in Los Angeles. He picked another contemporary work from the Government Art Collection for his office in 2010: a Mark Wallinger painting from a 1990s series called Brown's (42 sets of silks worn by jockeys riding for racehorse owners called Brown). Alerted to this by the Guardian, the Labour-supporting Wallinger groaned: "That is a shocker. As an artist, it's very hard to vet your patrons – they generally drift rightwards as they get older anyway."

Hunt's trips to the theatre point to a taste divided between blockbusters and political theatre. He saw David Hare's indictment of New Labour, Gethsemane, as well as Lucy Prebble's Enron; the latter might have proved an uncomfortable night for a Tory, though Hunt told New Culture Forum he considered it a prime example of why theatre should keep its subsidy. He has also seen hits such as War Horse, at the National Theatre, and Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, which he attended on its West End transfer in the run-up to the election.

Hunt's most recent direct intervention in the arts world was his decision to fire Liz Forgan as chair of Arts Council England, saying that a new appointment was necessary in order to encourage greater private giving to the arts, and to help the arts sector "make the most of technological changes". John Tusa, Veronica Wadley and Peter Bazalgette have been mooted as possible successors. Whether Hunt will still be around to appoint one of them seems doubtful – unless, in the words of Take That, everything changes.

Correction 26/4/12. The article suggested that Hunt's opposite number is Labour's Dan Jarvis. In fact Jarvis is shadow culture minister. The shadow culture secretary is Harriet Harman. This has been corrected.


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April 11 2012

Grayson Perry interview – video

Grayson Perry talks about artists' dislike of craftspeople, his use of traditional techniques and why 'innovation is terribly overrated'



Grayson Perry on art and therapy: 'If you do therapy you'll win the Turner Prize' – video

Grayson Perry describes the influence of therapy on his work and talks the mistaken assumption by some artists that it will wash away their quirks and talent



Grayson Perry on being George Osborne's favourite artist: 'It's got a radical chic cool to it' – video

Grayson Perry talks about the rumour that he is favoured by chancellor and the artwork in question that is hanging in Osborne's office



Grayson Perry on finding new ideas: 'It's a bit of an imposition on the modern artist' – video

Artist Grayson Perry discusses artists' need to find inspiration in the modern, less religious age to replace the veneration of gods that went before



Grayson Perry on crafts vs art: 'I don't want to see something I could think up in the bath and phone in' – video

Grayson Perry discusses the status and value crafts in relation to fine art, celebrity artists the weird and horrifying curse of 'Picasso napkin syndrome'



Grayson Perry: watch the interview in full – video

Turner prize-winning artist Grayson Perry in conversation with Decca Aitkenhead at the Guardian Open Weekend



April 01 2012

New faces on Sgt Pepper album cover

Amy Winehouse, JK Rowling, Noel Gallagher, Mick Jagger and the Monty Python foot to feature in update of 1967 original

British pop artist Sir Peter Blake has taken inspiration from his most famous artwork – the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club album cover – to celebrate the British cultural figures he most admires as he marks his 80th birthday.

Twiggy, Amy Winehouse, Grayson Perry, JK Rowling and even Monty Python's emblematic foot all feature in a reworked version of the 1967 cover created for his birthday celebrations.

Blake, often called the godfather of the British pop art scene, said: "I've chosen people I admire, great people and some who are dear friends.

"I had a very long list of people who I wanted to go in but couldn't fit everyone in – I think that shows how strong British culture and its legacy of the last six decades is."

Singer Noel Gallagher, formerly of Oasis, was "chuffed" to be included. "To be on there with the likes of Vivienne Westwood, Mick Jagger and Paul Weller, just those three people alone, is amazing for me as I wouldn't put myself up with any of those," he said.

Rowling said: "Given that I've devoted quite a lot of time to gazing at the original Sgt Pepper album cover, you can perhaps imagine what it means to me to be featured."

Playwright Tom Stoppard said his inclusion was "an honour that outdoes delirium" while singer Elvis Costello said: "I always dreamed that I might one day stand in the boots of [Liverpool footballer] Albert Stubbins."

The original 1967 artwork also featured James Dean, Bob Dylan, Karl Marx and Marilyn Monroe.

The new version has been created for a special birthday celebration of Blake's life at Wayne Hemingway's Vintage festival at Boughton House, Northamptonshire, in July.

Hemingway, co-founder of the Red or Dead fashion brand, said: "The new artwork is a tribute to Britain's standing as the world's leading creative nation."

It was "an incredible honour" for Blake to "reimagine such an iconic work of art", he said, adding: "We are proud to be dedicating the Sunday at Vintage this year to celebrate his 80th birthday and creative and cultural legacy."

Terry Jones, the actor, director and original Python, said: "Monty Python is flattered to have had his foot selected, but there are better parts of his body available at very little cost."

The foot itself was borrowed by Terry Gilliam from Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, a work by 16th century Florentine painter Bronzino.

His Python co-star, Michael Palin, added: "It's a great tribute to a fine foot – just don't tell Bronzino or he'll want royalties."


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March 25 2012

Artists, performers and politicians on the Guardian Open Weekend

Some of the speakers at the festival of ideas and open journalism share their highlights and reflections

India Knight, novelist

"The atmosphere here is very friendly: the crowd at my event, on gender equality, were really nice, really engaged. There was a great mix of angry older women and younger ones who I was convinced were going to ask me about vajazzling. I was a little disappointed when they didn't. But I'm going to stay for the rest of the day – just mill about and see as many other sessions as I can. I'm just about to dash in and see John Lanchester in the Question time: what is the future of capitalism? session. I'm a great admirer of his."

Grayson Perry, artist

"I'm wondering if I'm playing to the paper or the audience when I do the live G2 Interview with Decca Aitkenhead. It's different when you are on your on your own with an interviewer – you just have to worry about them. I just saw Jim Al-Khalili because I love him on the telly. I have to keep up with my daughter, who is a scientist. This is the nearest to a festival I'll get. I hate camping, mud, fancy dress, and circus skills bring me out in a rash. All of that spiritual-fucking-ality at Glastonbury. You'd have to get me in and out in a helicopter."

Philippa Perry, psychotherapist and author

"I think print newspapers are going to die and if they want to succeed they need to feel more like a family. We're in the age of interactivity: people want to feel a part of it; the audience is not content to be passive any more. So this is the way forward. As a reader I'm thrilled to be here for the day, at the cutting edge of the media. I was particularly impressed by Gary Younge, who I have never seen speak before and was erudite, charming and funny. Admirably he was wearing a hoodie in solidarity with Trayvon Martin [the black teenager shot last month in Florida]."

Robert Harris, author

"The Guardian has always had the air of being more than just a paper. I started reading it when I was 15, which was the early 1970s when Heath was prime minister. I was living in the midlands and remember feeling at the time that there weren't many people who saw things the same way as me. So the Guardian was like a family. I went to visit the printers when I was at school and developed an affinity with it from then on. I have been forced to re-read Fatherland for my talk today. I never revisit my books but since this one is 20 years old it seemed the right time to do it. I felt quite a stranger to it – so much has changed since then. And it was a lose/lose situation: either it would be good and you can't do better, or bad and you feel like a failure. It was like looking at an old photograph and thinking, 'Was I really like that?'"

Steve McQueen, artist and filmmaker

"I'm happy to be here."

Jeffrey Sachs, economist

"I'm thrilled to be at such a grand event. I was in Chile and en route to Mozambique but didn't want to pass the opportunity to come to London for this. It's a wonderful idea for newspapers to do this kind of thing, but it's also important for society in a time when we absolutely need engagement. People feel alienated from the political system and this is a way to make them feel a part of the debates that are going on."

Jo Shapcott, poet

"I very much enjoyed my talk and hope that the audience did too. The questions were very sharp, particularly one from a gentleman who asked whether you could tell if a poem was by a man or a woman; that is something I have thought about a lot myself. It's buzzing here. I keep bumping into people who are saying how much they are loving it. One person even said it was intellectual heaven."

Tom Watson, Labour MP and member of the Commons culture committee

"The Open Weekend is a fantastic idea. It's giving the newspaper back to its readers. It's really enjoyable to see so many of them in the building and waiting around outside. It's a real explosion of colour and excitement. I've only just got here, though, as I've had surgeries this morning in my constituency, and I've been going door to door. There's a real fury about the budget, which is encouraging politically, but not so encouraging for my constituents who are bearing the brunt of it. I'm going to be talking about phone hacking on a panel chaired by Jon Snow, with Amelia Hill, Nick Davies - oh and Alan Rusbridger, so I'd better be on my best behaviour. It's only now that the people involved in uncovering the scandal can begin to come up for air and try to make sense of it all. I think the three issues I want to talk about today are ownership, regulation and ethics."

Jon Snow, Channel 4 News presenter

"I don't want to talk about phone hacking. I'm sure others on the panel will want to, but I'm sick of talking about phone hacking. What I really want to talk about is what it tells us about Britain. What is it about this country that makes us vulnerable to those kind of practices, ones that don't seem to have affected other countries? Is it the same thing that renders us a playground for the Russian mafia, if you think about the Russian man who was shot here the other day? And what is it about Britain that means we have such an appetite for this sort of tabloid journalism – ever since Jack the Ripper? I suspect that we live quite dull lives in this country, and we have an appetite for the kind of gossip that spices up our dull lives."

Linton Kwesi Johnson, poet

"I've been a Guardian reader for years – my favourite section is Obituaries. I've come along today with no expectations of what it's going to be like. Unfortunately I can't stick around after my session, I've got other places to be."

Ed Balls, shadow chancellor

"The atmosphere in the session was fine – it was a little dark and difficult to see the audience, but we had some interesting questions. I spoke about my love for Dolly Parton, and revealed the fact that I'm going to be the first cabinet minister ever to run the marathon."

Fiona Shaw, actor

"This is democracy in action: playful and unexpected, with no filters between us, the readers, and the media. It's a public conversation, which is really what the media today should be."


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Grayson Perry at Guardian Open Weekend: 'Earnestness is the biggest crime an Englishman can commit' - video

Highlights from Turner prize-winning artist Grayson Perry's conversation with Decca Aitkenhead at the Guardian's Open Weekend festival



Grayson Perry: 'The most interesting thing about Damien Hirst is probably his accounts'

The Turner prize-winning artist took to the stage to answer readers' searching – and often surprising – questions about his life and work at the Guardian's Open Weekend

It didn't even occur to me that the biggest surprise of interviewing Grayson Perry live might come about before the event even took place. In the weeks leading up to the Guardian's Open Weekend, we invited readers to submit their own questions for the artist. The responses were, by definition, unrepresentative and unscientific. But what a revelation they were.

My usual preparation for an interview had seemed so self evident until as to merit little attention. Whoever the interviewee, when drawing up questions I almost always gravitate towards their fault-lines and conflicts – the paradoxes and puzzles in their life and work. But our readers, it soon transpired, had other ideas.

Starting from a broad position of admiration, most of their questions could be characterised as devices to illuminate Perry's personality, or invitations to expand on his relationship with his work. It came as quite a shock to realise that only one of all their questions would have featured on my list. Conversely, lots of them posed a fantastical scenario, based on a hypothesis – for example: "If you could travel back in time ..." – which would never have even crossed my mind. The conclusion was rather sobering. If these questions were representative of what readers actually found interesting, it might be time for a radical rethink.

To be fair, though, no research method would have generated my single favourite question, submitted by the artist's wife, who tweeted: "What's for dinner?" Perry is one of the few people I've met who actually go, "Ha ha ha," when they laugh – as he does, with earthy abandon, when I read out her question, before pointing out: "Well she'd know the answer to that." Resplendent in a baby-doll dress of appliqué satin, and pantomime dame make up, he adds, deadpan, "I'm an old-fashioned man. As you can see."

Perry must be about as close to the perfect interviewee as one could hope for. He dresses for the occasion, and deploys the risque, occasionally catty candour of the underdog outsider. He likes to preface a reply with a quote, and the breadth of his erudition is almost as impressive as his gift for counter intuitive aphorisms: "Innovation," he declares, for example, "is overrated." If Perry were a politician, these could easily be dismissed as sound-bites. But he commands the sort of giddy affection we tend only to bestow on our most improbable heroes.

The artist became a household name more or less overnight, when he surprised the art world by winning the 2003 Turner prize. Perry had already been working as an artist for the best part of 20 years by then, but wasn't particularly well known within art circles, let alone to the public at large. Born and brought up in Essex, he'd endured a fairly miserable childhood and escaped to London, via art school, as soon as he could. Never fashionable, his success as an artist had been respectable but unremarkable – until the Turner prize made him a star.

Perhaps the clearest single theme to emerge from readers' questions was their impression that the contemporary art world – embodied by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and so on – is a bit cynical, whereas Perry represents wholesome integrity. Interestingly, although Perry comes across as something of a mischief-maker, his answers are deceptively skilful, managing to both confirm the audience's distinction between himself and the Young British Artists (YBAs) – and yet never endorsing any explicit criticism of his glitzier contemporaries' work.

"Contemporary art has become this baggy old bag; you can dump any old thing in and people say it's art," he will concede. "I don't want to see something you could think up in the bath and just phone it in. If you go to the Tate, every scrap of paper, every piece of poo – literally – is only made significant because it has a famous name attached. As an artist I'm very aware of what I call Picasso-napkin syndrome – I've got this 20th century version of the midas touch, where if I do a little doodle it's worth money! And that's quite a weird and horrifying curse, if you're in the creative business, because you become incredibly self conscious."

Perry has the audience in giggles when he observes: "Now that conceptual art has appeared on the Archers, you know that the game is up," and reflects, "The most interesting thing about Damien Hirst is probably his accounts. Not to say that his work isn't interesting as well," he adds quickly. "But the most interesting thing is probably the accounts." He calls biennales "banalies", and says the modern gallery-goer's attitude to contemporary art "is theme park plus sodoku. They want to go, 'My god it's so sexy, shocking, big, shiny, amazing!' But," and he starts to mime chin-stroking introspection, "'what's it about, what's it about?' My attitude to art is: is it good art? Is it giving me visual pleasure?" He thinks art whose sole purpose is to shock is "a bit boring. It's a bit lame," and though he sees a place for shock in art – "I suppose there's an element that, you know, you need salt on your potatoes; I think it's part of the kind of excited tingle of looking at an art work," he thinks it's become "a kind of worn-out thing".

All of which goes down wonderfully with his audience. But he is very careful to steer clear of anything that could be construed as an art-world cat-fight. "I think the prank, if you like, of just signing a piece of paper and saying that's art – that's great, and it kind of had to be done, you know, make that boundary of what art can be," he offers diplomatically. A reader's question– "Compared with Grayson Perry, most of the YBAs of the 90s were, and are, humourless self-important pretentious bores. Discuss," – makes him laugh raucously, but he replies, "Well I know quite a lot of them and they're very funny, so that's a very sweeping, terrible bitter generalisation – probably," Perry grins, "from a failed artist." Another question – "Given that much of the YBAs success could be attributed to their having gone to college with Damien Hirst, what would you identify as your own lucky break?" is jokily dismissed as clearly from "another bitter artist".

And yet his answer is intriguing. A member of staff at an Amsterdam gallery, Perry recalls, came across one of his pots while rummaging through the basement for a ceramic show. She called him, got to know him, and asked if he'd like to exhibit a show in their gallery. That show won Grayson the Turner Prize in 2003: "So I guess that was my lucky break."

Over the years since then, Perry's work has increasingly featured his childhood teddy bear, called Alan Measles; he recently toured Bavaria on a motorbike, with Alan balanced on the back in his own custom built glass shrine, and he plays with the idea of Alan as a god. The bear is almost as famous as Perry by now, and a reader wants to know who Perry prefers – himself, or his bear?

"Oh well it depends. If I'm going to play the game then of course Alan is my deity and I owe everything to him. Therefore I would say that he is the senior partner. But of course I'm afraid to say that I projected everything onto him, so I'm sorry Alan but he owes everything to me. I have invented him. I hate to tell this to people but most gods were invented by someone. I'm sorry. It's just that I'm in the present, whereas the famous gods were invented by someone a long time ago." An audience member asks if he is serious about regarding Alan as a god, or merely being satirical, and Perry admits that at first the idea was a joke, but over time has evolved into "a serious look at how religions form." The best religions, he adds, "develop organically. On Twitter, probably."

Alan Measles may or may not be a God, but he is unquestionably a celebrity – as is Perry – and many questions explore the theme of the artist as a personality. Perry handles them all with the unflappable poise of a media veteran. "Well one of the first things a journalist asked me after I won the Turner prize was, are you a loveable character or are you a serious artist? And I kind of replied, is it an either or? We live in a media saturated world. I'm sure artists of the past would have dealt with it in just the same way. If you're in the business of communication and images, then if you ignore the media-sphere you're just cutting off your own foot. It's just daft."

He is equally pragmatic about the relationship between contemporary art and finance. His 2009 work, Walthamstow Tapestry, satirised our slavish devotion to brands – and yet his recent exhibition at the British Museum was sponsored by the luxury brand Louis Vutton, as well as a City firm, Alix Partners. The only question I would have asked myself came from a reader who felt troubled by this partnership, and suggested that artists should be chronicling the wealthy's abuses, not rubbing up to them, but wondered if they could no longer afford to bite the hand that feeds.

"Well," Perry responds equably, "Nam June Paik said an artist should always bite the hand that feeds him – but not too hard. It's one of my favourite quotes, that one. My show wouldn't have happened without a sponsor, full stop. It's just – you have to chew on it, it's a real thing. It's not a kind of new thing." He is similarly pragmatic about becoming a brand. "Well it's interesting because we use the word brand in a very derogatory way a lot of the time. I do it as much as anyone. But i think a brand is also sort of like momentum; it gets you through the bad patches if you've got a good brand." He adds, though, "As an artist I'm extremely aware, increasingly, that everything that comes out of the studio I have to feel it's of the correct quality. I can't just sit on my brand at all. I think the worst behaviour of brands is when they're all brand and no quality."

Perry spent six years in therapy, from the late 90s to early 2000s, and is married to a psychotherapist, so many questions come up about the relationship between art and therapy. "Therapy's been a huge influence," he says, "and, yes, being married to a therapist has been amazingly influential because we talk all the time about therapy issues and I think it's a very clear eyed way of looking at the world. I look at my art during the time I was in therapy and it was a kind of flowering; I got into top gear at that point." In fact he came to the end of therapy the year after winning the Turner prize, so I ask if he thinks this was coincidental or connected. "Yeah, if you do therapy you'll win the Turner prize," he jokes.

Therapy had a major impact on Perry's transvestism, which began in childhood and quickly became a compulsion, but sounds like a pure pleasure for Perry today. He used to talk about dressing up as an alter ego called Claire, but therapy taught him to reconcile his two gender identities, and the construct of a female self called Claire now feels to him like a bit of anachronism. Perry goes along with the Claire shtick as far as he can, but it's evident that his patience is wearing thin.

I put a question from a reader who says that, when dressed as Claire, Perry is "the spitting image of my mother in law". Perry's timing and deadpan delivery are faultless: "Well, he's got a very interesting mother-in-law." Asked where he shops, he says he doesn't; his clothes are all custom-made, often by the fashion students he teaches every year. "I say to them, make me something that I would be embarrassed to wear. I challenge you to do it! And they try their hardest, bless them. I get some superb outfits out of it, I really do." Someone asks Perry to name the most humiliating thing that's ever happened to him. "And did you enjoy it?" He laughs. "Well it was nothing to do with dressing up, probably. It was probably some hideous faux pas that I've made. No, when I talk about dressing for humiliation, it's probably a fantasy of humiliation that I kind of have, rather than actual. Like a lot of sexual fetishes, you know, the fantasy is much nicer than the reality."

Claire is, famously, banned from Perry's studio, and a reader asks, Why does Claire have to be so neat and clean. Doesn't she need a busy space too? "She's not a real person," he points out with a tart laugh. "This is it. It's me in a dress. I'm a busy man these days so I dress up when other people dress up, or I'm doing a show. If other people are putting on a bit of slap then I will."

I'd decided not to ask Perry any of the hypothetical questions readers had submitted – just because they were rather elaborate and would, I feared, take up too much time to get through, one alone running to well over 100 words. But then someone in the audience asked a concise one: if Perry could live another 200 years as an artist, would he still be a ceramicist or would he use digital media? "Oh I do use digital media," he countered. "Now I only make pots probably half the time, if that. My next show, I've done it all on Photoshop mainly. I'm not a luddite when it comes to digital media at all."

Well well. At the very beginning Perry had expressly asked not to be questioned about future projects – and yet this reader's hypothetical scenario got him talking about it, and produced the one news story of the session. Truthfully, I would never have asked that question. It is a sobering and rather confronting thought.

The overwhelming legacy of this experiment is, to my surprise, guilt. I feel terrible about all the readers whose questions I never got to ask. I consider emailing them with apologies and explanations – until it occurs to me that they, more than anyone, have probably gained the single greatest insight into what it's really like to interview people.

It's not about deciding what to ask, or how to trick the interviewee into answering. Most of the time, it's really just about what to leave out.


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March 24 2012

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