The Great Pottery Throw Down

I need time out.

And that is why even though the world is going to hell in a handcart I am going to write a post about The Great Pottery Throw Down which was on BBC2 yesterday evening.

It was not political. It was not revolutionary. It did not challenge me intellectually in any way, and I absolutely loved it. It was a one hour oasis in a week that has been difficult, difficult, lemon difficult.

For those who remember me in my previous sybaritic existence you will know that I am somewhat obsessed by ceramics. Not as obsessed as I used to be, which is good because there’s only so much pottery a woman can fail to dust, but it is still a pretty needful thing in my life. The Great Pottery Throw Down is basically Bake Off with clay. A group of enthusiastic amateurs meet once a week to do various tasks set by judges and we follow their trials and tribulations. Every week, one person is voted off, until the winner emerges from a bottle kiln, covered in slip, grinning like a loon, holding the coveted ‘Dribblesome Teapot’.

Like Bake Off, it is gentle. Everyone is nice to each other. Nobody tries to snap off a rival’s teapot spout or ‘accidentally’ open the kiln door. People help each other. People are genuinely interested, passionate and involved, and even the professionals are lovely. It’s utterly soothing, and at the same time, hugely stressful. This is because the tribulations of Bake Off contestants are as nothing to those who work with clay.

Clay does whatever the fuck it wants, should be the sub title of this show. Imagine a very tired toddler, one who has not had a nap all day and should have been in bed at least an hour ago, but you need to feed/bathe/soothe them. Whatever you offer them is wrong right up until the minute you stop offering it to them. Then they lie on the floor, arms and legs thrumming wildly, snot dribbling, lungs bursting, yelling fit to bust. At this point you think they will die, or you will get hauled off to social services, or both. You are full of despair and thinking of either killing yourself or leaving said child in a box at a convenient railway station with a note; ‘Please look after this bear.’ Then they fall asleep and you love them so hard you think you’ll probably die anyway.

This is clay, only sometimes it falls asleep, and sometimes it just explodes into shards all over you.

This week was the first episode of the second series. I missed the first five minutes so names escaped me rather however, the judges, Kate Malone the arty potter, and Keith Brymer Jones the practical yet ninja potter, gave the contestants the job of making a sixteen piece dinner service. Four plates, four side plates, four bowls, four beakers. They had four hours to throw the initial pots in bisque pottery. They then revisited them to paint and glaze them later. In between that they had two technical challenges to complete.

Bisque pottery, contrary to popular opinion is not pottery made of lobster soup, which is good, because that’s really difficult and something probably only highly trained professionals could do. With protective clothing on. Less excitingly, it is pottery that is fired first and then painted and fired again. As with Bake Off, everything the contestants make has to be perfect and everything has to match and be of equal size.

This, naturally is a total nightmare. A lady whose name was Carol had a few problems with this from the outset. She’s a potter who mostly works building pots rather than throwing them, so the wheel was a bit tricky for her. When I say a bit tricky, it was nothing like as tricky as it would be if I were to do it. If I were to do it we would be having a re-enactment of Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game circa 1978, and there would be more bisque in the ceiling vents than any rational person would know what to do with. I mean Carol managed to produce vessels that actually looked and functioned like vessels, but it was clear that she wasn’t entirely thrilled and there was a lot of waily waily as they came out mismatched  and every size under the sun. Freya, born on a potter’s wheel and a perfectionist, was going so mad about getting everything just right, she spent two hours just making plates she threw away. It was exhausting.

I was fascinated by a chap called Nam who in between being a professional cage fighter, makes ceramics inspired by video games. This might sound terrible, but his pots were rather wonderful. I also liked a girl called Clover whose bowls and beakers made me itch to clear a bit more shelf space and start collecting again.

The technical challenges gave all the potters things to do that pushed them out of their comfort zones. The first challenge was to sponge decorate two jugs. It was presided over by guest judge Emma Bridgewater, Queen of the sponge and the woman responsible for my headlong rush into ceramics based love. Claire and Nicki, who were sharing the pottery moment with me, both texted me to say: ‘Oooh! We could do this one.’ We have sponged many a time at the Bridgewater factory. This of course, allowed us to be super critical of everyone’s work, despite the fact that I know that had I been there I would have knocked my jug on the floor before any sponge got near it. We thought the chap in the pink t shirt who did sun flowers was going to come good, but his sunflowers were too sparse. Daniel had a nightmare with lop sided rabbits, and a lady who ripened bananas for a living (this is a job?) was a  bit on the conventional side. The chap who likes industrial stuff made some alarming dribbles and generally we decided we could all do a better job.

We moved on, back to the painting and glazing of the dinner service, which didn’t always go well. A chap who does industrial inspired things from up the north had a plate that was more hole than plate by the time it came out of the kiln. A Quaker called Cait (pronounced quoit) with a table cloth in her hair, got quite slap happy and threw one of her bowls on the floor by accident. Freya also lobbed a pot into oblivion in a fit of more haste less speed.

I got very excited by a technique for paint application that both Nam and a chap called Ryan, who turned out to be a whiz at everything despite having only thrown a plate a week ago (on a wheel, rather than against the wall), were using. Basically they were doing nursery bubble painting using straws, but onto pots. It looked more satisfying than sponging pots, and sponging pots is very satisfying indeed. Claire, Nicki and I are going to do this when we’ve persuaded Nicki’s husband, Rob to build us a pottery studio at the bottom of his garden.

After painting and glazing came the second technical challenge. This involves ninja potter, Keith Brymer Jones, who despite being eleventy feet tall and looking rather like Lurch from The Addams family, has incredible skill and dexterity on the potter’s wheel. He showed everyone how to make a closed off cone pot in about three seconds without breaking into a sweat. Their job was to reproduce this in eight minutes.

Nobody threw clay up the wall, despite a few wobbles, and Keith, who is an absolute watering pot, cried when Carol managed to produce a lovely cone of her own, despite only ever having used a wheel the week before. It was his first good cry of the season. I guarantee it won’t be his last. Carol did not seem impressed by the impact on Keith. I was over the moon though. It’s my favourite part of the programme when he cries. When Tallulah was little she used to point at people who had upset her and shout. ‘CRY!’ It never worked. I bet it would for Keith.

And we got to the final unveiling of the finished dinner services and there was woeful news because the kiln chimney got blow back (or something) and the glaze got carbonated (or something) and it made all the glaze go funny (or something) and it could have been terrible for everyone, and nobody wanted to take off their great tea towel reveal in case it showed a heap of broken, sooty shards with finger prints on them, and it was all very tense.

And then it wasn’t so bad, and Ryan won, with his beautiful, delicate, perfect pots which were covered in pale blue soapy bubbles and were just glorious and he was stunned and we were stunned. And I was more stunned that Daniel’s decorating went well, mainly because he’d avoided the temptation to paint rabbits on things. And Carol went home because despite her cone making Keith cry, she still made a lot of wobbly dinner plates which made me feel a little bit sea sick.

And I feel better for filling this page with absolute nonsense, so thank you for indulging me.

24 responses to “The Great Pottery Throw Down

  1. I didn’t watch it but I do have a few bits of pottery, mostly from a place in Cornwall, and I find them quite soothing to look at.

  2. Had mixed feelings about the Pottery Throw Down first time around but how can I possibly not watch now?

    • I thought I wouldn’t like it, but my friend hectored me last series. I missed the first two episodes but was hooked as soon as I watched the third. Nice to watch from the start this series.

  3. Sadly, as I do not live in the UK, I don’t get UK TV so miss programmes such as this one. Fortunately, however, there is your blog to remind me of my days of pottery lessons. The wheel was my bête noir, and it rather mastered me than the other way round!

  4. Fan-dably, I would like to share this on my Pottery Pastimes page!

  5. I loved the Great Pottery Throwdown and I loved your report of it. I am most thrilled at just how lovely they make my home town look!

  6. For the record, I would absolutely buy Clover’s dinner set. Gorgeous!

  7. Also for the record, we can’t live on politics alone (without going bonkers). I like your balance.

  8. I am now googling this and the people concerned. This was just what I needed.

  9. Bliss.
    This programme has totally eluded me. I have to tell you I started watching Bake Off because you waxed lyrical to the point of eulogy about it, and thereafter became hooked (alas only 4 episodes from the forever-end-of-Bake-Off), so I shall start earlier on the pottery thingy, thank you! Husband is an artist who loved ceramics at college, and I’ve dabbled a bit here and there (not enough, sadly) – but we are both thoroughly initiated into the joys. Roll on clay-day!

  10. I’ve just had to skim over your post right now, as I’m in the process of downloading TGPTD onto my iPlayer, and I don”t want to know what happens before I watch it!
    I see this is the second series – how on earth did I miss the first? Lol
    Thanks for bringing it to my attention, as I have very fond memories of pottery at school, and this can ease my heart a little, as I miss my much loved TGBBO 🙂

  11. Watched it last night. Fab, isn’t it!

  12. Hilarious! You had me snorting with unexpected laughter. As a new “potter” and I use that term very loosely indeed, I related one hundred percent to your description of clay being like a toddler. If they didn’t have wine at my pottery class I would have given up months ago 😝

    • I am definitely going to take up pottery. My friend runs an evening class. I just need to save up for it. It seems frustrating and joyous in equal measure.

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