You know you've come to the right part of Britain to make a show about masculinity when you're filming in a city centre on a cold, wet Saturday night and the only other man you've seen wearing any kind of jacket is your presenter, a transvestite potter from Islington.
We'd come to the north east of England - Newcastle to be precise - to shoot the first episode of our new documentary series Grayson Perry: All Man. I'm always up for filming there, as the people are a documentary-maker's dream: warm, smart, open-hearted and most crucial of all from my point of view talkative. Geordies are the Italians of Britain.
But the whole tough guy thing is inescapable there too. The men just look harder - bigger muscles, more tattoos, tighter clothes (although not gay tight clothes, obviously). What are the men of the north east trying to tell us about themselves, we wondered, as we shivered in our bad-weather filming fleeces while the scantily-clad hen- and stag-party carnivalesque of Bigg Market unfolded around us?
And then there's the fact that cage-fighting, or mixed martial arts (MMA), is huge there. As the sharp end of north-eastern masculinity, that seemed to me like the place to start. Grayson was apprehensive. How would men who make a living out of battering the living daylights out of each other in a cage respond to his brand of probing and deeply personal questioning about the problems and pathos of being male?
With genuine insight and unsparing honesty, is the answer. And if that surprises you, you might not be quite as free of prejudice about northern working-class life as you like to think. One man, Andy, talked about the pain of his brother's suicide, and how the ring was a place he could legitimately exorcise his demons. Another, Alex, sprawled on his hotel room bed with Grayson in the hours before a fight and, as he always does, watched a DVD of Troy, thoughtfully picking apart the different visions of manliness Homer offers us in Achilles and Hector. Colin "The Freakshow" Fletcher traced his cage-fighting persona (he dresses up for fights as a really scary, chainsaw-wielding clown) back to the trauma of being bullied as a kid. And as Grayson remembered the childhood origins of his own imperative to dress up in frilly women's clothes, they found moving common ground.
What the cage-fighters of Tyne and Wear taught me is that masculinity is performance, and that these men were every bit as aware of that fact as Grayson Perry is himself. It's one of Grayson's greatest gifts as a documentary voice to ask the questions to which he's genuinely curious to know the answer. Not rocket-science you might think, but so much television interviewing is really a targeted exercise in quote-harvesting. Interviewees invariably know the difference. But you'd be shocked how few documentary-makers do. And in this instance, Grayson's empathy and the fighters' emotional openness in response produced the kind of truth you can weave a documentary out of.
Phew, obvs. We had a film. So perhaps this might be a moment to share a few personal confidences of my own. The first one is that I made up that bit earlier about choosing to shoot in the north east because of how bankably articulate Geordies are. We chose the region because it has the highest rate of male suicide in Britain.
Seventy-eight percent of the people who take their own lives in the region are men. We thought they were haunting statistics. If there really is a "crisis of masculinity" about, we thought, and if we were really serious about making a series that looks honestly at being a man, we probably ought to start there. How that might connect to the spectacle of hyper-masculinity we saw on a Newcastle Saturday night - you'll have to watch the film to judge.
But I couldn't be more delighted with the way it's turned out, and the experience of making it has prompted me take a long hard look at the kind of man I am myself. I've even made a resolution to try to put aside some behaviours that I've come to see are deeply unhelpful and even self-sabotaging. So when the programme airs on Thursday night at 10pm on Channel 4, I'm got to sit back and just try to be in the moment as a confidently-centered man.
AND NOT LOOK AT TWITTER EVEN ONCE.
Grayson Perry: All Man begins on Thursday 5 May at 10pm on Channel 4.
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