The potter is an amiable guide during his grand tour while RTÉ’s Eco Eye: A Different Road takes some wrong turns
Only England could have produced Grayson Perry. He is a potter and Turner Prize winner who grew up in both financial and emotional poverty — he was not too fond of his mother — and was recently knighted. This is a long way of saying that Grayson Perry was made for television.
He has a sort of genius for talking to ordinary people, perhaps because he has indulged his wilder side by dressing up as a little girl. Now, as “an artist and an Englishman” he has turned his clever gaze on to his native country in Grayson Perry’s Full English (Channel 4).
This is timely, as he says, now Britain has cut itself off from the rest Europe for no rational reason and the union itself is in jeopardy, if Nicola Sturgeon has anything to do with it.
Some countries love talking about themselves and their history (ahem) but for the English, as Grayson opened the programme by saying, “when the subject of England comes up, we get nervous”.
He is travelling in a white van driven by Kirk, who is from Bradford, and may be the secret weapon of the series. When Grayson asked what people from the north of England thought of southerners like himself, Kirk replied: “Southern fairies.” Later Grayson sang to Kirk, who didn’t look too comfortable. And, when they stopped to take the quintessentially English afternoon tea, it was Kirk who upbraided the waitress for putting the milk in first. When Grayson remarked that by taking afternoon tea, “We’re also supping on colonialism”, Kirk was not impressed.
First stop was Dover, where a man called Jeremy did not get nervous at all when the subject of England came up. He likes going out on his boat to defend Dover’s White Cliffs from migrants: “I do it because I love this country.” Jeremy — a wedding DJ, seriously — was less clear about what England was. His love for it seems to centre on World War II — understandably — and how great the English were then.
There was a visit to a group of druids (you knew it had to happen) which involved a lot of adults dressing up in funny clothes — both very English and very Grayson — and also, I am sad to report, a grown man playing the recorder.
This was the first episode in a three-part series and concentrated on the south of England. Next week it’s the midlands, then the north of England.
The best groups he visited in episode one were, firstly, English football fans at a match in Munich. They were so emotional that, Grayson said, “they’re like opera singers”. Here he met the passionately English Jay, who is a black man who wears a shirt with the George’s cross on his breast. And he carries a special flag in memory of his friend and fellow fan Jimmy Lockett. What an English name, Grayson didn’t say.
The second was a Right to Roam group who dressed up in funny costumes (I swear to God, the Brits are crazy) and brought their own Morris dancers to their latest protest of trespassing on private land. Their previous protest had been on the Duke of Beaufort’s land: “He has 52,000 acres. What could he possibly be doing to need that much privacy?” That’s a question that’s hard to answer, and Grayson didn’t try. I’d love to see him analysing the Irish.
I had expected good things from the latest edition of Eco Eye: A Different Road (RTÉ One). The previous programme, on the subject of forestry, was very good, and educational for an ignorant city dweller, albeit far too short.
Fitting a complex subject into a television half hour is tough-going. The forestry programme just about managed it, but this week’s episode, about transport, chose the wrong things to focus on. First of all, even an ignorant city person knows that there is no public transport to speak of in rural Ireland. And that the roads there are too dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists.
There was no mention at all of life in rural Ireland. Instead, Eco Eye concentrated on Galway, “a city we all love” (do we really all love Galway?) And in Galway it concentrated exclusively on the bicycle, as if it were the answer to all urban transport problems. Which it is not.
Trains got the same treatment. And while I love trains as much as the next person, and would like to see old lines reopened before they’re all turned into greenways, there was no discussion about how expensive it is to travel by train. In fact, there was no discussion about pricing or government subsidies for public transport, just as there had been no discussion about being fit enough to cycle. These are the basics for your average viewer.
Unforgivably, there was no discussion either about the good old unromantic bus, the workhorse of modern transport in both cities and countryside. Buses just aren’t sexy enough, I suppose. Imagine a programme on transport in which there were chats with planning types about how we should centre urban development on train stations, but not even a voxpop with people squeezing off buses during rush hour.
There was no mention at all of commercial transport, or of what proportion of our road transport and our emissions it is responsible for.
Nor was there any exploration of the reasons why local authorities last year spent less than half of the money granted to them by central government under its Active Travel initiative. Either they couldn’t be bothered, or they’re afraid of rows in their communities. I know where my money is.