Interview

Grayson and Philippa Perry: 'Fantasy isn't all unicorns and rainbows – it's a refuge'

Grayson and Philippa Perry
Grayson and Philippa Perry: ‘We’re saying the finished thing doesn’t have to be good, but the process has to be genuine… and enjoyable.’ Photograph: Pål Hansen
Grayson and Philippa Perry: ‘We’re saying the finished thing doesn’t have to be good, but the process has to be genuine… and enjoyable.’ Photograph: Pål Hansen

Their art club on Channel 4 inspired millions last year. On the eve of series two they talk about hitting their 60s, lockdown, therapy… and Grayson’s missing alter ego

Claire Armitstead
Sun 14 Feb 2021 02.00 EST

Interviewing Grayson and Philippa Perry is a bit like sticking your hand into a basket of kittens: they’re playful and fascinating but you can never be quite sure where one ends and the other begins, or whether they’re going to nip. It’s the run-up to the second series of Grayson’s Art Club, and they’re sitting side by side in what must currently be the world’s best-known artist’s studio.

More than a million people a week tuned into the Channel 4 series last year, and I’ve joined the couple on Zoom to talk about the imminent second season. Grayson has positioned himself half off screen and Philippa’s hand keeps popping into view, trailing a red thread. What are you doing, I ask? “Let’s say I’m doing the mending,” she replies, briskly.

After a little more pushing, Philippa admits that she’s actually stitching a tapestry for the series. Give us a glimpse, I beg her. Absolutely not, she insists. Grayson gets her off the hook by flourishing a DayGlo pink Post-it note covered with squiggles. “It’s now worth a fortune because I’ve been doodling on it,” he says. “I’ve never actually sold a Post-it note, but I think I might. That’s the weird thing. I call it the Picasso napkin syndrome.”

Fans of the show will know exactly what he’s talking about, because one of Picasso’s doodles – a little white twist of napkin with cigarette holes for eyes – featured in an episode, to underline the value of spontaneity. The series invited anyone, of any age and from any walk of life, to send in artworks for the six themed programmes – and 10,000 people did, with the favoured ones appearing alongside pieces by the Perrys themselves and by a succession of arty celebrities.

While Grayson is well known as the cross-dressing potter who won the Turner prize, Philippa has led the quieter life of a psychotherapist. Have they worked together before? “Well, we live together. I ask Grayson’s opinion about things. He asks my opinion about things. We brought up a child together – that was BIG,” fires back Philippa. “Anyway, I’m not sure that I actually even work. I just sit there doing a little bit of pottery and saying the odd thing.” So that’ll be a no, then? “Not formally, no,” she finally agrees, as he chortles away in the background, with a gravelly heh-heh-heh that echoes through the programmes.

If I were Philippa’s therapist, I might tell her off for belittling herself. She is actually a key presence in the show, as a self-styled “Sunday afternoon artist” who dares to show her work on telly, thereby encouraging others to do likewise. More than that, she demonstrates that amateurs can be good, producing a series of pieces – including four very desirable plant pots, decorated with her favourite quotes from participants – which absolutely earned their place in an exhibition of art from the series. “Thank you,” she says, when I compliment her on them. “I was very pleased with those as well. But what usually motivates me is making something I actually need, and we have some fancy shelves in our backyard that I want some fancy pots on, so I made them to go there.”

For now, though, the backyard will have to wait, because the pots are currently sitting in the dark at Manchester Art Gallery, as part of a ghost exhibition of work from the show. Scheduled to open last November, it hasn’t yet happened, because at the very moment that it was being hung, Boris Johnson announced the second closure of public spaces in the UK. “It’s the Mary Celeste of art shows,” mourns Grayson, as he is filmed watching the announcement in the gallery; in person he’s more optimistic, daring to hope that it may still be able to open in time to be advertised through the second series.

With Grayson’s plate portrait of Philippa from last year’s art club
With Grayson’s plate portrait of Philippa from last year’s art club. Photograph: Andrew P Brooks/Channel 4

A range of cute merchandising was lined up to accompany it, from “We shall catch it on the beaches” face masks (a Covid-era nod to Winston Churchill’s wartime rhetoric) to “Chris Whitty Is Watching You” mugs. One interesting feature of Grayson’s Art Club is how it tuned into the collective psyche – and the chief medical officer, face of so many televised Covid briefings, turns out to be the pandemic’s poster boy-in-chief. The first series channelled this psyche through the weekly themes of portraits, animals, home, fantasy, Britain and “the view from my window”. The second will subject it to family, nature, food, dreams, work and travel.

Which were the Perrys’ personal favourites? “Oh, I liked the portrait theme because I was centre stage and I like the attention,” says Philippa. A touching thread ran through it, of Grayson gearing up to paint her portrait on a large yellow plate. He was nervous because he’s not a portraitist, but also because it made him face up to his relationship with a woman to whom he has been married for 30 years. “In a way I have an idealised relationship with you and it’s very hard to confront the reality… I haven’t put your eye bags in yet. Heh-heh-heh.” The media doesn’t offer many templates of happy, long-term relationships, he points out. “It doesn’t show you that happiness is not swimming with dolphins, or climbing Machu Picchu; it’s having a drink with your partner, a nice summer’s evening, walking the dog – that’s happiness.”

When the finished portrait was revealed, Philippa’s eyes filled with tears. How much of it was genuine and how much a performance for the camera? “I’m not a very good actor,” she says. Turning to her husband, she explains: “What I really liked about your portrait is it showed a side of me that I hadn’t seen before, but then I recognised: a sort of faded beauty of the 1970s who seems a little sad that she’s now a bit crumbly and wearing denim. I never saw it at the time, but I could see in that portrait that I might have been once.”

“Yeah,” chips in Grayson. “Phil was a real babe. Heh-heh-heh.”

We’re used to seeing him out and about all dolled up as his alter ego Claire, but his response here gives a glimpse of a less familiar side of him – a working-class motorcyclist from Essex, who used to compete in mountain bike races and is “still very competitive, though I was always the bloke that came fifth in the veterans race”.

Philippa and Grayson Perry in 1992
Philippa and Grayson Perry in 1992. Photograph: Courtesy Philippa and Grayson Perry

Philippa, in contrast, was born in Warrington into a cotton mill-owning family, and went to finishing school in Switzerland after dropping out of school at 15. She took up pottery as a mature student doing a fine art degree – before meeting Grayson, she points out. She was divorced, and on the lookout for a baby father, when they found each other at a creative writing evening class in 1987. He was a struggling artist in a red leather biker jacket who paid the rent by making sandwiches in a hairdressing salon. Their daughter, Florence (Flo), was born in 1992.

It was clear from the start of their relationship that Grayson and Claire came as a package – though perhaps not how many rooms her frocks would take up decades later, both in their house and the studio. For years he has issued an annual challenge to fashion students at London’s Central Saint Martins to design new costumes for Claire, which he would then buy and wear to red-carpet events.

I tell them I’m concerned Claire might be having a hard time in lockdown – she hardly appeared at all in the first series. “I think it would be distracting, you know,” says Grayson. “A lot of the time in my TV career, we thought: ‘Oh, sure, Claire can come along to this.’ We thought we’d take her to America, but it becomes a sort of barrier between me and the audience. Plus the fact that I dress up when other people dress up, when you want to look your best. If I’m in the studio, why would I? It’s filthy in here, everything gets covered in dust. I always laugh at the kind of people who wear black all the time. They come here a lot and they always walk away with a white bum.”

His favourite theme of the first series turns out to be fantasy. “When it was suggested, I thought: ‘Oh, no, that’ll be cliche week. It’ll be all unicorns and rainbows.’ But when you edited all that out, you see that fantasy is a place of refuge.” He’s not so keen on the idea of dream week (“it’s an overused word, like passion”), though that’s the one Philippa is most looking forward to. “My speciality as a psychotherapist is working with dreams,” she says. “I’m revving my engines up. I can’t wait to get stuck into what people send in.”

Might she end up being tempted to analyse their dreams? “No, the best person to analyse dreams is the person who’s had them,” she says. “But I can help people uncover the meaning of their dreams, and I love doing that. Sometimes when somebody innocently tells me a dream, they don’t realise that they’re actually getting undressed in front of me.”

She doesn’t work directly with individual patients any more, but has an agony column in a women’s magazine, gives public talks and writes books (most recently, the bestselling The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will be Glad That You Did). “I see myself as sort of an outreach worker. I like to make public the very useful lessons that psychotherapy can teach us,” she says.

Everyone should try therapy, Grayson agrees. “I was very resistant, because I thought I was carrying such a lot of pent-up anger from my past that I would explode and turn into this raging monster if I really talked about what was going on inside me. But curiously, exactly the opposite happened: in my group therapy they used to call me the ice-cream man, because I just melted.”

Grayson’s Art Club was conceived as a quickfire reaction to the pandemic, with Grayson repeatedly emphasising the creative potential of boredom and confinement. I’m intrigued that it doesn’t touch on fear. “God, there’s a week’s theme, isn’t there?” he says. “It’s television. We’re trying to put over something distracting and positive. But you know, fear’s there. All the emotions plug in. I operate on anger quite a lot. It’s what gets me up in the morning to make art quite often. Well, irritation at least.” So what makes him angry? “A particular thing on social media,” he replies. “People having nicer hair than you,” riffs Philippa. “Yeah,” he picks up. “There are an awful lot of people who know best, who say ‘You should do this’ – that’s what gets me up in the morning.”

In 2013 he delivered the BBC’s Reith lectures, one of which was titled “Democracy has bad taste”. Has this latest adventure changed his mind? “I think that democracy has a lowest common denominator thing going on, so it might be the best of a bad bunch of political systems; but as a way of making art, actually, it’s not always that great, because it boils everything down. Artists have their very distinctive voices that they’ve developed over a long period. It takes time to find your voice, your vocabulary of images, or whatever it is.”

Grayson and Philippa Perry
‘We’re not saying make art like a professional, we’re saying get stuck in and lose yourself a while.’ Photograph: Pal Hansen/The Observer

Does he feel the series has uncovered any career artists? No, he says promptly. “Well, perhaps one. But that’s not the point. We’re saying the finished thing doesn’t have to be good, but the process has to be genuine. And it has to be heartfelt and enjoyable. We’re not saying make art like a professional, we’re saying get stuck in and lose yourself a while in it.”

But that’s not to say he’s an ivory tower elitist – as anyone who has ever seen his ceramics and tapestries knows. Their classical forms and beautiful glazes teem with ribaldry and rage. His Art Club contributions include a large, Wicker Man-esque effigy of his childhood teddy bear, Alan Measles, who becomes the guiding spirit and centrepiece of the shows, bristling with old tools and sticks, with rusty bottle-tops for eyes.

He recalls a seminar he once gave to an arts leadership group. “I told them: ‘Just remember, you’re in the leisure business. Most people go to art galleries on their day off. They don’t want homework.’ And that’s something I’m very keen on: I am trying to democratise art, but I’m not saying it means a drop in quality. It just means upping the accessibility and entertainment. Entertainment and humour are often denigrated, but they take just as much skill as the so-called intellectual level of high culture.”

The real Alan Measles is a mothy old bear with one ear missing, who cuts a forlorn figure these days. “I’m slightly worried about him disintegrating before my eyes, but that’s sort of part of his charm in a way. I’d quite like it if he turned to dust in a few years, maybe about the same time as I do,” says Grayson. It’s a reminder that, despite their energy, and Philippa’s edgy styling of large red glasses and badger-streaked bob, the Perrys are both now in their 60s. Proximity to the family home was a key factor when he recently changed studio, he adds. “I made sure it was within the battery life of a mobility scooter, so I don’t have to move in the future. I’m planning ahead. Heh-heh-heh.”

Maturity does have its compensations for a couple as successful as both are, in their different ways. One of the reasons Grayson’s not in mourning for party-going Claire is that “I’m 60. I’m kind of on the downward curve of needing to do such things.” He’s very chuffed about the time he stopped at a temporary roadworks on his bike. “While the light was red, the guy working on it popped his head out of the hole. And he looked at me and said, ‘Oh, shouldn’t you be wearing a dress?’”

At the final exhibition on last year’s Grayson’s Art Club.
At the final exhibition on last year’s Grayson’s Art Club. Photograph: Andrew P Brooks/Channel 4

Flo is now in her late 20s and lives nearby. One of the sadnesses of lockdown, says Philippa, is not being able to meet up with her. Philippa found the two-metre rule so upsetting when they were together that she prefers to chat online. “My body just feels like there’s something very wrong. Part of our communication isn’t the words we exchange, it’s being near someone’s bodily presence,” she says. “I’m not talking about hugging or kissing, I’m talking about the sort of unconscious communication that you have when you go to the cinema with a friend: you sit next to them and you don’t talk much, but you keep company. I thank God I can sit next to Grayson on the sofa.”

Does she feel the nature of people’s problems has changed in the pandemic? “No,” she says. “It just magnifies what’s there. Of course, the content can change a bit, but the human condition remains very much as it was. Whenever you get a stressor in life, and you think, ‘Oh, this is completely new’, you react in your normal way of reacting to it. So the patterns of human behaviour don’t necessarily change. But people might find out more about themselves.”

They paint a homely vision of lockdown life: Grayson with his six o’clock beer, swearing away at Twitter, while Philippa makes dinner, and Kevin the cat – which has its own Instagram account and joins them in Art Club – purrs around their ankles. “Phil’s a great cook,” he says. “I’m a feeder,” she responds. “I love being the sort of mother hen who’s always asking if you’d like a second helping. We have some sort of fancy sauce every night.”

They’re united in their enthusiasm for food week in the new series. “Food is such a multi-dimensional subject,” says Grayson. “In lockdown we realised all of a sudden how important all the people that supply it to us are. And then there’s food poverty. There are the cultural aspects, and the Proustian memory aspect of it.” It’s not immune to the problem of cliche, he concedes: “But if your immediate thought is that it’s about a still life of some apples, then think again: there’s the whole world in what food means, in its lovely, often unconscious way. It’s a fantastic subject for art.”

“Put that in the article,” says Philippa, “then we might get less apples.” I will, I promise them, I will.

Grayson’s Art Club series two starts on Channel 4 at 8pm on 26 February. Series one is available on All 4