Appointment television is back – and it’s a bona fide masterpiece. In the midst of lockdown, a quirky Channel 4 series has brought the nation together and served up not just creativity but a slice of British life like no other.
Grayson’s Art Club was never intended as a ratings winner. But over the past five weeks it has evolved into a must-watch programme with the power not just to make us laugh – Chief Medical Officer, Chris Witty, as the nation’s unlikely muse, anyone? – but bring an unexpected tear to our collective eye.
At its heart is a couple who have unexpectedly lifted our spirits without even trying; Grayson and Philippa Perry, whose tender exchanges and shrewd observations have elevated it to the artistic equivalent of Gogglebox.
Quirky and clever, they are extravagantly comfortable in their skins – she is a psychotherapist with Cruella de Vil monochrome hair and statement glasses, he is an artist with a transvestite alter ego, called Claire, who has been known to dress as Little Bo Peep. Bonnet and all.
Ostensibly, Grayson’s Art Club is about unleashing Britain’s creativity through assorted media; embroidery and paint, pencils and, in one memorable instance, soy sauce with noodles.
But it has also provided a heartwarming portrait of middle-aged marriage rarely seen on screen. As Grayson, 60, and Philippa, 62, potter about, drinking cups of tea and amiably chatting about their work to each other it is impossible for those of us competing with our nearest and dearest for deskspace and headspace not to feel a pang of envy.
When I interview them at their north London home over speakerphone (Zoom defeated us, as did FaceTime) I can’t help but ask if there’s been judicious editing, to redact the occasional outbreak of domestic argy-bargy over an incorrectly-loaded dishwasher? Cue baffled silence.
“We never shout at each other. We just take turns with everything without even needing to think about it,” says Philippa. “One day I’ll carry the emotional load and keep us buoyant and the next Gray will do it, so that we never both moan at once.
“If we were both feeling dissatisfaction simultaneously we’d get very down, so we instinctively make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Every week, Grayson and Philippa each make a piece of art; last Monday, the theme was “Home”, and she made an artwork about her daughter’s flatshare while he depicted his feelings about lockdown on a teatowel
Comedian Jenny Eclair painted a domestic scene. Grand Designs supremo Kevin McCloud built a model of his ideal home, including a medieval-style cloister and a jam tent and Great British Bake Off host Noel Fielding transformed his garden shed into a comedy venue and performed in front of a painted audience.
It’s a homespun sort of show filmed according to socially distanced guidelines, with contributions from the great and the good such as Sir Antony Gormely and Maggi Hambling.
But in truth it is the submissions from the public that really shine; Grayson looks at them online and then contacts a few to talk about what they have made, before selecting some for a subsequent exhibition.
Last Monday, Grayson welled up as he spoke to nine-year-old Simran who had made a collage of his family, including his twin brother who died when they were four. The rest of us weren’t far behind.
Some of the art is faux naif. Some is plain naif. A few pieces are of a very high calibre.
“Calibre is not the point!” Grayson cries. “Art Club is a very inclusive, welcoming place. It’s about people! Most of the people who get in touch aren’t professional artists and I don’t judge them as such.”
Philippa seamlessly takes up the baton: “It’s the process of making the art and how honest the art is. It’s just a way of talking to people and getting the nation to do something when they can’t do anything else,” she says. “If it gets a few people off their sofas and enables them to find out stuff about themselves and discover what they care about, so much the better.”
Both are almost excessively portfolio in their professional lives. As well as being a psychotherapist, Philippa is a magazine agony aunt, wrote the bestseller The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did), was a reporter on The Culture Show and also makes art.
Grayson is a 2003 Turner Prize-winning ceramicist, a painter, embroiderer, broadcaster, writer and his series of Reith Lectures on Radio Four in 2013 were intellectually dazzling.
They have a 28-year-old journalist daughter, Florence, known as Flo, who read chemistry and university and went on to work for now-defunct Buzzfeed. Last year she ruminated about her parents in the pages of Red magazine.
“It’s hard to write about your own family life because, however you grow up, that’s what is normal to you,” she said. “So I can’t imagine what it’s like to have a non-transvestite dad with a 9-to-5 office job.
“Dad being a transvestite doesn’t really affect my life. Yeah, he stands out, but so do people with massive moles on their noses – he’s just slightly more pleasing to look at.”
Grayson hasn’t dressed up as Claire once during lockdown because, as he told Art Club viewers, “there’s nobody to dress up for”. Ouch. If that sounds a bit of a slight to Philippa, she’s not bothered.
“I genuinely wouldn’t notice,” she says airily. “I haven’t got a great visual memory. Gray has an incredible internal dress diary.
“He will go out to a private view and bump into a friend of mine and afterwards I’ll be dying to know her news and he’ll say “She was wearing a glamorous 1940s costume with a lace collar’.”
Although Grayson draws and paints Philippa onscreen, she cavils at the suggestion she is his muse: “He just steals all my ideas,” she says, laughing. He agrees, unapologetically.
“I read a lot of psychology books and we have really interesting conversations and things spring from that, like the notion ‘It’s not so much how you see something as the lens through which you see it that forms your opinion’.”
That said, in the first episode of Art Club, he paints her portrait on an unglazed plate.
“Because I’m painting my wife of 30 years or so she’s often the first pair of eyes who sees anything I make, so I want her to like it,” he explains
“It’s been a while since I’ve done a portrait of Phil – it does make you think about your relationship with them. Perhaps now is an opportunity for us all to spend some time reflecting on those we are in lockdown with.”
The tender exchange when he reveals it to her caused many viewers to well up.
“I think you know me better than I know myself. I really love it. It’s done,” says a clearly touched Philippa. Grayson ‘s response was equally tender.
“I did feel quite vulnerable painting that actually – it’s not my comfort zone,” to which his wife responds, “I think that’s why it’s so precious. You put yourself out on a limb with that.”
What is evident from Art Club is that the Perrys have much in common and lots to talk about; but they concede very occasional bouts of stir craziness; pre-pandemic they enjoyed a varied social life of book launches and parties, both together and separately.
She misses that sociabilty. He is unexpectedly relieved not to have a packed schedule.
“Lockdown has taught me not to get too excited about the future,” he says phlegmatically. “I had such a lot planned for this year; exhibitions, TV, all sorts and in one fell swoop they were cancelled.”
Life these days for them – for every one of us – is about “small joys”. Long bike rides for him because he needs to take off and feel the wind in his face. Shorter bikes rides for her because she doesn’t.
As far as the legacy of Art Club is concerned, Grayson believes it will have done its job if it simply marks a moment.
The final theme next week is Britain: “I’d like Art Club to be seen as something that captures the mood of the nation at this extraordinary time,” says Grayson.
If that is his aim, success is already assured for a programme that so beautifully melds the quiet and the intimate with the flamboyant and the public.
Grayson’s Art Club is on Channel 4 at 8pm on Monday. All episodes are available to watch on All4 (channel4.com)