TV blog Grayson Perry's Dream House and other highlights

Benjie Goodhart / 22 May 2015

Our TV blogger takes a look at programmes that variously explore an eccentric artist-built holiday home, binge drinking and the shock results of an election 70 years ago.

Review: Grayson Perry’s Dream House, Sunday, May 17, 9pm, BBC Two

What do you think of when someone says ‘Essex’? Days out to Southend? Graham Gooch? Chances are the first things that springs to mind is not a massive, ornate, Baroque-meets-psychedelia secular temple-cum-holiday-home designed by a transvestite artist and clad in terracotta tiles depicting pregnant women with hand-fitted nipples. 

Welcome to the bizarre world of Turner prize-winning-artist, Grayson Perry. Grayson, something of a staple on Channel 4 these days, is a sculptor, artist and transvestite. In summer 2012, he was commissioned by Living Architecture to design a rental holiday house in rural northeast Essex. Needless to say, when you ask Grayson Perry to design you a house, you’re unlikely to get either a red-brick two-up, two-down, or an exercise in understated zen. What they got was a house inspired by the life of a fictional Essex woman, called Julie, and filled with drawings, sculptures and tapestries depicting key moments in her tale.

Julie’s life story was remarkably detailed, from her date and place of birth, through her troubled childhood, failed first marriage (to a Lord of the Rings fan and local councillor) and happy second marriage, up until the day she was tragically killed, in 2014, after being hit by a pizza delivery scooter.

Grayson, himself a product of Essex, travelled around the county looking for inspiration. I’m assuming he wasn’t given a grant by the tourist board, as every place he went looked more tragic, run down and dilapidated than the last (is there anything sadder in the world than a deserted, tatty looking amusements arcade closed for the winter, under a forbidding grey sky?)

The build felt like an episode of Grand Designs featuring a house created by Barbara Cartland on magic mushrooms. The façade was covered with £200,000 of hand-crafted terracotta tiles. Inside, Grayson created two enormous tapestries for the bedrooms, depicting the happiness, drama and misery of an unremarkable life. I think I’d find it difficult to sleep being watched by the enormous, sad eyes of Julie and first hubby Dave, locked in their loveless marriage. Can’t I just have a room with an amateurish picture of the beach or a copy of Monet’s Waterlilies, like most rental cottages?

It is, of course, easy to sneer at such bonkers endeavours. Indeed, I’ve spent the last 400 words doing so. But much as Grayson’s art might baffle me, there is something magnificent about both him and the house. I love that he went to address the concerns of a conservative and unimpressed local population dressed in a brightly-coloured dress, a pink coat and orange platform heels. And the house is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, which has to be a good thing, doesn’t it, in our identikit mock-Tudor world? “It’s an amazing privilege, being allowed to go off on one,” said Grayson. “I think that’s what makes interesting art.” Will I be hiring it? God no. Give me a mock-Tudor pile with a Jacuzzi, massive flatscreen and a built-in-bar any day. But I’m glad it’s there.

Review: Horizon: Is Binge Drinking Really that Bad?, Wednesday, May 20, 9pm, BBC Two

Hurrah! It turns out it isn’t. It’s fine. We can all drink as much as we want. It’s positively rejuvenating. This programme concludes that we can all spend our lives chugging vino as if we were Dionysus himself. Wine for breakfast, lunch and tea, and a cheeky Baileys before bed.

Of course it doesn’t. You know the score here. We all do. These programmes come along and they tempt you in with their provocative titles: ‘Is Fat Good For You?’ ‘Sugar: The Body’s Friend?’ ‘Is it So Bad to Eat 23 Kitkats per Day?’ You think they’re going to point you cheerily towards a life of unabashed hedonism, and then someone in a white coat pops up towards the end and tells you everything that brings you pleasure in life is going to kill you. Probably in the next ten minutes. 

In that respect, this programme was no different. But in many other ways, this was an absolutely riveting, funny, informative and, let’s be honest, slightly depressing hour of telly.

Identical twins Xander and Chris van Tulleken (both extremely handsome and charming doctors, you can almost smell the marriage potential) embarked on an experiment. Neither drank anything for four weeks (I know – inhuman – and this wasn’t even the experiment) before embarking on a regimen. One drank three units every day for a month, the other drank 21 units once a week for a month. (If there had been a triplet, would they have made him drink 21 units every day for a month?)

Xander, after his 21 units, was pretty wasted. He insisted on singing along to country music, before being poured into a taxi, taken home, demanding to go dancing, weeping (that ‘p’ is important there) all over Chris, before passing out fully clothed. Their night out yielded some fascinating information. Firstly, Xander’s blood alcohol level spiked two-and-a-half hours after his last drink. Secondly, Chris, who was drinking the same amount of liquid as Xander (though not alcoholic) peed more than his brother, giving a lie to the idea of alcohol as a diuretic, and therefore dehydration causing hangovers. Thirdly, country music sounds great after ten lagers. Fourthly, it’s difficult to remain dignified when you’re crying on your brother, or having another adult remove your trousers while you drool. Or when you’re showing the world a large amphora of your own wee you collected the night before (I tried this approach at University many years ago, but the women remained oddly unimpressed).

At the end, the men in white coats came in and told us alcohol was evil and we were all going to die, which was cheery. But the evidence suggested that binge drinking was even worse than steady, evenly-spread drinking. At least, that’s what some graph, measuring something or another, suggested. I didn’t entirely understand what they were saying at the end, largely because I was singing along to Tammy Wynette and removing my trousers at the time. Cheers.

Preview: Churchill: When Britain Said No, Monday, May 25, 9pm, BBC Two

Seventy years ago, the nation was absolutely stunned by a general election, the results of which nobody predicted. You’d never get that nowadays, mind. We’ve got far too much sophisticated polling, right? Right?

Having led Britain through its darkest hour and on to its finest victory, Winston Churchill and his Tory government were annihilated in the polls shortly afterwards. I’ve always been rather curious as to how this happened. Not curious enough, you understand, to go off and read about it – heavens no – but sufficiently curious as to watch this BBC documentary on the subject. 

Boy I’m pleased I did. Some of the revelations in this utterly engrossing documentary are extraordinary. Did you know, for example, that Churchill’s famous recording of the “fight them on the beaches” speech wasn’t made until after the war. The real thing was only ever heard by those in the House of Commons.

Today, in a world where politicians are falling over themselves to be seen enjoying a pint and a pasty, and are desperate to parade their love of football and bingo and jellied eels and Witherspoons, it is interesting to look back at Churchill’s aloofness. Even his wife stated that he knew nothing of normal people’s lives. He’d never ridden a bus. 

This was a dangerous approach in a society where war had upset the social apple cart for the second time in 30 years. Clement Attlee, with his humble demeanour, egalitarian mores, and promise of a welfare state and an NHS, was an obligingly tempting alternative, and one that ultimately proved irresistible.

It is difficult to overstate how fascinating this film is. Some of the recreations are a little clichéd (Churchill has a cigar and a drink almost surgically attached to him, Attlee is glued to his ruddy pipe) but the content is extraordinary. After so many years of unabashed hagiography of Churchill, the more rounded picture of a complex man is fascinating. His Chief of Staff, General Alanbrooke, was scathing of his approach, attitude and strategy. Churchill himself was unconcerned how he would be seen by future generations. 

“History shall bear me out. Particularly as I shall write that history myself.” Which, of course, he did.

In the end, even Alanbrooke was won over. As his diaries stated: “He is quite the most difficult man to work with that I have ever struck. But I should not have missed the chance of working with him for anything on earth.”

Preview: The FA Cup Final, Saturday, May 30, k.o. 5:30pm, BBC One

Alas, poor FA Cup, I loved thee well. Time was when FA Cup final day was up there with Christmas and my birthday. But in recent years, the standing of the world’s oldest football competition has plummeted faster than a particularly aerodynamic peregrine falcon (maximum airspeed 242 mph, since you ask).

Once upon a time, BBC One and ITV would devote the entire day to the FA Cup. We’d have interviews with everyone from each club, from the tea lady to the groundsman. There would be cameos from  celebrity fans (Stan Boardman seemed to be there most years, and Little and Large turned up with distressing regularity). There would be the results of Goal of the Season, the usual ‘bants’ from former pros in the studio, and the all-important camera on the coach, because nothing makes for television as exciting as watching Gary Gillespie and Ray Houghton playing cards. And there I would be, fresh-faced and excited, dressed for some inexplicable reason in my QPR strip, almost incandescent with glee.

Nowadays, the FA Cup is on at 5:30pm, an embarrassed afterthought sneaking into the weekend sports schedule like a teenager coming in late after too many Blue WKDs round the back of ASDA. Instead of a full day of programming, we have an hour of Lee Dixon and Gary Lineker frantically trying to convince us that the cup has lost none of its lustre, modern day Canutes the pair of them. Still, it could be worse. It could be the League Cup. Or (shudder) the Europa League.

Anyway, it’s all become so devalued that they’ve dispensed with the knockout format of the competition, and instead draw the finalists in alphabetical order. This year, we’ve got Arsenal v Aston Villa.

On paper, this should be a foregone conclusion. Arsenal have had a storming second half of the season, boast players of the quality of Sanchez, Cazorla and Ozil, and beat Villa 5-0 in February (without the sublime Sanchez even playing). Villa, meanwhile, only just managed to avoid relegation, and went an eyelid-heavying ten hours without scoring earlier this season.

But there are definite reasons for optimism in the Villa camp (if you can overlook their recent 6-1 humiliation at the hands of Southampton). In their last two home games, Arsenal have lost to Swansea and drawn with Sunderland, both without scoring. Villa, meanwhile, have enjoyed an upsurge in fortunes since the arrival of new manager Tim Sherwood, and in Christian Benteke have one of the form players in the country.

Oh, who am I kidding. Arsenal will win. And we can all go back to our lives, sadly denied the opportunity to watch Little and Large for another year. Hmm.

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