What have we learned from another lockdown? How to bake cakes, stitch our own clothing? The various series of Bake Offs
and Sewing Bees
might inspire the viewer to try it at home, but this would not be true of learning how to pot, at least not without a shed and equipment.
So, what might be the attraction for watching contestants who are up to their elbows in wet clay, working against the clock? The answer is that The Great Pottery Throw Down
taught us something that we actually can do at home: how to cooperate with other people in difficult circumstances while keeping a sense of humour. Probably this, the fourth series, didn't start out with that aim in mind, but because of the pandemic and lockdown the 12 contestants, judges and all staff had to isolate themselves into one large bubble for a 10-week period of filming, and all come out alive and speaking to each other. This, as much as the ceramics created, was a remarkable achievement.
The series ended in the middle of March, covering perhaps the worst period for feeling cooped up and anxious for the rest of the country. Here, however, on the Sunday night slot on Channel 4, could be seen a diverse group of amateur potters who, while competing, nevertheless found a great generosity of spirit, a collective of kindness, and because they were all bubbled together and could express their mutual pleasure at wins and sincere sadness at losses, there was a lot of the hugging that has been missing from all our lives. It was simply a delight to watch and take pleasure in the best of human behaviour, whether you have an interest in pottery or not.
If you do, then all the better. The series took place in the old former pottery buildings of Gladstone Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, itself a marvel of industrial architecture, now stunningly restored as a heritage site and museum. The 12 contestants, over the series, have included a vet, an army major, home potter, mother, and scrub nurse, and a lot in between, with an awareness of LGBT and gender balance, until eliminations began. Overseeing the weekly sessions was Siobhan McSweeney, much loved as Sister Michael from Derry Girls
, who encouraged, chivvied and sympathised while always keeping an eye on the clock. One looked forward to seeing her outfits and headbands, as well as hearing her laughter.
The two judges (though occasionally a guest judge was brought in for a specialty, such as making ceramic flowers) were Rich Miller, whose specialty was on the technical side, the techniques of potting, and Keith Brymer Jones, a very experienced potter with a range of homeware and a tendency to have strong emotional reactions when particularly touched by a contestant's success. Passionate and serious about ceramics defines them both.
The two judges worked very well together, explaining what the tasks were in terms a layperson could understand. They also explained why each week a particular potter would leave, though sometimes this was easy to guess. Occasionally, as a potter friend explained, they did not spell out the pitfalls of a particularly difficult assignment, and one could see this in the results; some of the technical tests were quite extreme. Where they involved water, such as the fountain feature, there was a bit of mopping up. The lids of casserole dishes tended not to fit. Sometimes the bottom fell out. One professional ceramicist commented: 'Because of the ridiculous time constraints some are doomed to failure in some way. This could be a good way of informing the public about the skill required to achieve good results or a guarantee of eliminating the less experienced and making entertaining television, perhaps'.
Entertaining it is, and educational. While it is easy to understand why some professional potters may be concerned that it makes a 'show' of what are skills that are only attained through hard work and experience, in fact, by the end of the Throw Dow
n the audience is under no illusion that any of this is easy. The drying out – overseen by the amazing technician Rose Schmitts, herself hailing from Delft – the glazing, so many choices, so many chemicals destined to cause disaster, just the ability to somehow control that potter's wheel so that whatever is on it does not disintegrate in the hand, all of this truly is awesome. Not to mention the ceramic fairy tale castle with lights, the doll's house, glamorous punch bowls and the drama of raku firing.
There is also a historic element, cleverly introduced, such as the week in which the challenge to the remaining potters was to find inspiration in the work and the colours of the art deco ceramicist Clarice Cliff. She was born at the end of the 19th century and became one of the best-known English potters of the 20th century, her work now in collections around the world. This was a tricky task, and if one remembers what teachers always said before an exam – answer the question – it proved to be the undoing of several contestants who did not follow the brief. While there was plenty of room for inspiration and exploration, in the first instance the judges were looking to see that the set question had been answered. Function and imagination followed, and of course whether the results were aesthetically pleasing, which naturally did involve a certain amount of subjectivity on the part of the judges.
We learned something of ceramics from different parts of the world. It is hardly surprising that even small pieces of ceramics found while mudlarking on the banks of the Thames have so much to reveal, and how much one understands about past societies by looking at the vessels made by their hands. Making pots is a link to a past, and it is a way of locating ourselves within the history of an age-old craft, continuing, modernising and sometimes finding a sense of oneself in the process.
With many thanks to helpful ceramicists Paul Jackson and Heather Barnard