Class, Taste, and British Student TV

The television in the student accommodation, which I shared with five other students in Bradford last year, was not often the source of particularly thought-provoking fare. However, when the two art students in the flat wanted to watch In the Best Possible Taste, we were provided with a rare exception. In each episode of this three-part series, Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry explored taste—“why people buy the things they do and wear the things they wear, and what they are trying to say about themselves when they make those choices”—among representatives of a different British class. He visited his subject’s homes and participated in their social activities in an inquisitive yet empathetic and perceptive manner. He would then create two massive tapestries, which symbolised what he felt he had learned about his model’s taste, aspirations, and difficulties. The subjects of the episode are then invited into his gallery to view the tapestries. Each episode spawned long-lasting discussions in my flat; we even missed a good chunk of the second episode because we started yakking during a commercial break and didn’t stop. I don’t know if my art student flatmates would agree with me—I should probably ask them—but in my opinion, good art creates those kinds of discussions.

Much of the discussion in my flat seemed to stem from cultural differences. For example, I was surprised by the fact that Perry chose to divide a show about taste by class, yet to my flatmates it seemed natural. They tried to explain to me that in England, there’s a distinct working-class taste distinguishable from middle-class taste and so on. However, one admitted that while she’s proud of her working-class credentials and often harks back to them, her taste is more middle-class. To me, born and raised in Burnaby, British Columbia, this was a foreign concept. We also have “taste tribes,” as Perry calls them, but I definitely wouldn’t say that they’re distributed along class-lines. Of course, this also has to do with different understandings of the word “class.” When I think of class, I think of income and income alone, but to my flatmates it meant more. Entire cities—like Sunderland, the subject of the first episode—are considered “working-class,” and the “upper-class” doesn’t necessarily have many liquid assets because most of their so-called privilege is locked up in inherited property and titles. While I was used to the idea of the wealthy calling themselves “middle-class,” I wasn’t expecting my flatmates to agree.

Reading comments and reviews on the internet, it’s clear that there are certainly many British people, who don’t share my flatmates and Perry’s reading of class. It seems like whether people enjoyed the show or not is largely based on people’s understandings of the word as well as their expectations of what Perry was trying to do. Those who expected a comprehensive and inclusive analysis of taste in Britain were setting themselves up for disappointment. Splitting the entire population into three categories was bound to lead to overgeneralisations and to leave plenty of people unrepresented; however, what the show does so well is digging deeply into the identities of the people who he does feature. The proof of Perry’s careful listening and empathy can be seen in his tapestries, whose potent symbolism and minute details bring out palpable emotions and pride in the people they represent. In addition, by using this long-established medium and referencing several renowned works of art—particularly William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress—Perry manages to depict thoroughly modern scenarios rooted in the traditions of the past.

Another fascinating three-part series is Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: A 17th Century History for Girls. In this show, historian Dr. Lucy Worsley investigates the lives of women—from the ladies of the court to peasant housewives—in Restoration England. When feminist writers speak about women being virtually erased from history, this is the ignored history that they’re talking about. The women in this series had huge impacts both on life during the Restoration and in shaping the eras that followed, yet you probably wouldn’t find anything more than a passing mention in most school history textbooks. Worsley is an extremely informative host, and when she visits her fellow experts, she seems to already know the answers before she asks the questions. For anybody interested in history that they wouldn’t have learned in their schooldays, Harlots, Housewives and Heroines is three hours well-spent.

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