BBC TV’s new series The Great Pottery Throw Down is a surprise, taking the successful formula of Bakeoff to the difficult and dirty art of ceramics. The first episode looked good. The judges are two experienced potters, Kate Malone, who makes large, juicy vessels in bright colours, and Keith Brymer Jones, who has applied the methods of studio pottery to long runs of kitchen ware. The host is DJ Sara Cox.
We started with the familiar formula of with ten contestants of varied character and background, all keen amateur potters, given challenging tasks in a limited time with a lot of chivvying from the host and judges. Here they are: James, Jane, Jim, Joanna, Matthew, Nigel, Rekha, Sally-Jo, Sandra and Tom.
First they had to throw a group of bowls that fitted into one another. That requires not only judgement of size but also keen observation of the bowl’s profile. The slightest variation in curve gives a bowl a different character, and the hard thing is not making a bowl but making a consistent series. Nevertheless, they made a good fist of it. TV time is a lot shorter than clay time and the bowls had to dry far too quickly – no wonder so many cracked.
Then they had to pull a load of handles and put them on a group of mugs. Cue innuendo about stroking a wet clay sausage. (That reminded me of an adecdote Alan Caiger-Smith told me about his teacher Dora Billington. One of his fellow students, who used to drink a lot at lunch time, was standing at the back of the afternoon class sniggering as the prim Miss Billington showed them how to make a handle by pulling the clay sausage. Miss Billington looked up and snapped, "Yes, Mr Bolt, it is phallic. Now stop sniggering and pay attention!") The large number of fat wonky handles showed that this is harder than throwing a bowl.Then to finish, throw 20 eggcups off a 5kg lump of clay in 20 minutes. Phew!
The fired pots were glazed and decorated with colours. Matthew stuck stubbornly to his brown country pottery aesthetic and was ticked off by Kate and Keith. I’m glad that decorating is part of Throw Down because it’s been neglected by many studio potters.
The winner in Week 1 was Tom, a competent and confident maker. Sally-Jo, an interior designer, didn’t have quite Tom’s craft skills but had a nice colour sense and a soft, free decorating style.
The money shot of reality shows is the first contestant to cry. Stick a camera in my face when I’m making something difficult and shout, “Come on, only thirty seconds!” and I’d cry. But the first tears came not from a pottery tyro but from big, chunky Judge Brymer Jones, who was moved by Jane’s efforts. Clay? Weeping for joy? Excellent marketing for potters!
Galleries tell me that pottery vessels are out of fashion and that people are buying pottery animals and glassware. Some say the recession has cut the sales of small items but that big ticket paintings still sell. University courses are closing, fewer and fewer state schools teach pottery and materials-based art is unfashionable. But there are more potters than ever before, and some find it hard to make a living. In that context you may wonder if encouraging more people to be potters is a good idea. But if this show does for pottery what Bakeoff did for cakes, it will be valuable as well as entertaining. Buyers of craft are more likely than non-buyers to know about art and are more likely to be interested in the ideas and skills behind craft objects. Increasing knowledge of ceramics and how it’s made (even with Carry On jokes about pulling handles) is bound to widen the market for pottery and to be good for potters.
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