Every weekend for the last two months, my Sunday evenings have revolved around one thing: sitting down with a cup of tea to enjoy that purest of lockdown treats, The Great Pottery Throw Down. I’m a fairly new convert to the Channel 4 programme, having first been pointed in its direction by a glowing review from a friend last year, but quickly it has become one of the highlights of my week– a comforting balm to a year that hasn’t necessarily got off to the most relaxing start.
The show’s premise will be familiar to anyone who’s watched any of the number of competition shows that populate the television schedules: 12 amateur potters aim to impress a pair of judges by completing a selection of themed tasks, with the poorest performer being sent home at the end of each episode.
That format might be a tried-and-tested one, but there’s no doubting that Pottery Throw Down has its own unique flavour, what with the British Invasion soundtrack, the Stoke-On-Trent setting and, of course, the sheer beauty of many of the pieces created. The word wholesome can be overused, but there’s something so quaintly charming about the series – from the genuine warmth shared between the competitors, to the palpable passion for pottery shown by judges Keith Brymer Jones and Rich Miller.
And that quaintness doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of drama, either – a double elimination in this year’s quarter-final was a huge bombshell moment, with the show’s resident maverick Alon and early favourite Sal both unexpectedly sent packing after failing to adhere to the judges’ brief. Meanwhile, the process of watching the potters at work can be somewhat exhilarating in itself – one especially thrilling task earlier in the series saw the competitors try their hands at the dramatic Japanese Raku firing method, with some extremely impressive results, while another entertaining challenge saw them fire pottery in cow dung.
Perhaps the programme’s greatest asset is its judges, and especially Keith Brymer Jones who swaps the self-aggrandising showmanship of someone like Paul Hollywood for a more, shall we say, emotional approach. His genuine care for pottery and the contestants clearly shines through – indeed, the inevitable moment every week when he is moved to tears by one of the creations essentially serves as his version of the Hollywood handshake.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Brymer Jones explained that he “can’t help but cry” at seeing the imagination from the contestants come to life, and not once do you get the impression that this emotion is manufactured, or that he is turning it on for the camera. Such passion for creativity is a joy to behold in itself. Meanwhile, his fellow judge Rich Miller, who was promoted from the show’s technician for this series, is a brilliant foil: he may be less outwardly emotional than his counterpart, but there’s a gentle kindness to his supportive feedback that makes him a perfect fit.
Alas, despite these many great qualities, the show has never quite taken off to the extent of Bake Off. It has many loyal fans, no doubt, but it still seems a fairly long way off achieving quite the same mainstream appeal as its sister show. Perhaps that’s because pottery is admittedly a rather more niche pastime than baking – just about everyone has tried their hand at the latter, after all, while the former requires a little more specialist knowledge. That said, I’m not convinced any detailed knowledge of the subject at hand is actually a prerequisite for enjoying the show: prior to watching the first episode, my only previous encounter with pottery was a childhood experience painting a plate for my granny at an arts and craft centre in Edinburgh, and that lack of expertise hasn’t prevented me from loving every moment.
Perhaps its failure to take off to quite the same degree can instead be attributed to the fact it hasn’t had the chance to build up as much momentum. After two series on BBC Two in 2015 and 2017, there was a three-year gap before it followed Bake Off to Channel 4 last year, while in four seasons there have already been several changes of judge and presenter. Siobhán McSweeney, more renowned for acting roles on shows like Derry Girls, has taken on the hosting mantle this year, and has been a real find, boasting just the right amount of quirk and humour without taking the spotlight away from the contestants. If this current line-up can stay put for a few more years, then who knows, maybe it will reach the same heights as similar shows.
Then again, perhaps The Great Pottery Throw Down doesn’t actually need to be as big as GBBO. The latter is doubtless still a great show, but there’s no denying it’s a rather different show than when it first hit the airwaves back in 2010, a little less organic than it was in its original form. And the last thing I’d want is for The Great Pottery Throw Down to change even slightly – it’s TV perfection just the way it is.
The Great Pottery Throw Down final airs on Sunday 14th March ay 8pm on Channel 4. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our TV Guide.