Grayson Perry's Full English, review: the artist merely brushes the surface of national identity

Grayson Perry was on Radio 4’s Today this week to promote his new series, Grayson’s Perry’s Full English (Channel 4), in which he travels around in a white van – with White Van Man at the wheel – to explore our ideas of Englishness. “England, in many ways, is a series of clichés linked by motorways,” he told the Today presenters. They guffawed. It’s a good line. But I’m not sure it actually means anything. 

Perry’s programmes are always entertaining. He is witty and eloquent, sharply observant but unfailingly good-natured. Here, though, those traits obscure the fact that this is a series without a coherent argument. It is more a succession of meetings with random people. Everyone has their own idea of Englishness – Perry may as well have interviewed you or me. 

First up was Jeremy, “a wedding DJ who has cast himself as a modern day King Alfred” by organising Channel patrols to intercept migrant boats. Perry gently poked fun at what Jeremy said. “People that came here illegally are now awaiting trial for rape and murder. Ok, yes, we’ve got our own rapists and murderers…” said Jeremy. “But good, British rapists and murderers!” exclaimed Perry. “Exactly,” said Jeremy. 

Perry’s great skill is to keep the conversation genial – even this was a perfectly pleasant encounter, but it could have gone so much deeper. Perry failed to interrogate Jeremy on whether harking back to an all-white England could be construed as racist. On the other hand, Perry came across as hopelessly naive when he batted away Jeremy’s claim that “we don’t know who’s coming over here – something terrible is going to happen soon.” “They don’t seem like the most frightening enemy to me,” replied Perry; the programme went out in the same week that an asylum seeker from Afghanistan was convicted of murder after posing as a 14-year-old schoolboy. 

Perry befriended a black football fan who was proud to carry the England flag, which made for an intelligent discussion. He later dressed up as a deer to take part in a druid ceremony. And he visited former member of the “Primrose Hill set” Pearl Lowe, who is leading a faux lady-of-the-manor life in Frome. Perry astutely assessed her style as: “Oh, this old thing!” when every item had been painstakingly sourced. Where did it get us? Lowe could just as easily have set up home in the Scottish Highlands. Ireland has druids. The van driver, Kirk, made no contribution. It was an enjoyable hour, but got us no closer to pinning down an English identity.