On a cold, wintry evening in January, I found myself aimlessly flicking through channels in search of something to occupy myself with.
I’d already binged Bridgerton, watched Normal People for the third time, and was on my fourth rewatch of Schitt’s Creek. Mercifully, a new series of Grand Designs had come along, right in time for the UK’s third national lockdown. Like many people, I’ve recently reached quite a low ebb in my mental wellbeing and I’ve been trying to find joy in daily life — be it by leaving the house to stomp around the muddy local park, or cooking up a tasty storm in my kitchen.
Joy, in January, is often in short supply in the northern hemisphere. The days are short, the daylight is scarce, and the temperatures positively baltic. But, I’ve happened upon a television gem that’ll warm your frosty heart and give you a much-needed dose of cheer: The Great Pottery Throw Down.
I’ll admit it, I really slept on this show. I saw the adverts for Series 3 of the Channel 4 show in 2020, and told myself I’d watch it, and then…completely forgot all about it. So, when I saw that a new series of The Great Pottery Throw Down was about to start, I knew I had no excuse this time around.
“Like Bake Off, but pottery,” my mum had informed me last year. She was, and remains, a huge fan. “You will love it,” she assured me. Reader, she was right. If you’re missing the warm glow that Bake Off brings to your life (and let’s face it, we all are), then this right here is the show for you.
Just like Bake Off, the show sees 12 hobbyists competing against one another at a craft they love. Each week, the amateur potters battle it out to be crowned champion of the wheel, competing in weekly technical challenges and making breathtaking showstoppers. At the end of each episode, one person is named Potter of the Week and another contestant is eliminated.
Siobhán McSweeney AKA Sister Michael from Derry Girls is the new host, replacing previous host Melanie Sykes. Now, if you ever watched the Derry Girls Bake Off special, you’ll know McSweeney in real life couldn’t be further from her on-screen role as a stern, sardonic nun. The energy she brings to the Throw Down is just delightful.
The show has all the same elements that make Bake Off so pulse-quickeningly stressful. There’s a complex technical challenge that really puts the potters through their paces. Pottery that doesn’t meet the judges’ standards gets unceremoniously squished and chucked in a bucket, eliciting yelps and cries from the potters who’ve just lovingly thrown these pots with care. Once the technical part is over, then comes the showstopper. In Series 3, episode 1, the potters were tasked to make a cheese set comprising a ceramic dome, two pickle jars and a fondue set, and episode 2 saw them challenged to construct a 3D miniature building. The finished results are often brimming with artistic flair, personality, and skill.
Potter and ceramic designer Keith Brymer Jones is one of the judges and he is frequently moved to tears (like, several times per episode) by the contestants’ brilliant pottery endeavours. It’s honestly so lovely to watch someone who’s so passionate about their craft getting emotional about other people’s hard work and creativity. Once Keith sheds a tear, there’s usually plenty more shed around the studio. What I really love about this programme is just how much the contestants care about the pottery they’re making. They pour their hearts and souls into their clay creations and many of them take inspiration from beloved family members or places that have meant a great deal to them.
Emotions aside, this is a programme about artistry and craft, but it’s also about British heritage. The series is filmed at the Gladstone Pottery Museum in the Staffordshire Potteries, in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. The Potteries has been the home of British ceramic production since the 17th century and Gladstone Pottery is a former factory that was decommissioned after the Clean Air Act (yep, the one mentioned in The Crown) came into play in 1956, forbidding the use of coal fired bottle ovens (a type of kiln).
In short, this is a deeply soothing programme to watch. Two episodes into this current season, there’s already so much to love. The potters treat one another with kindness and compassion. They all care passionately about pottery. And when they make something beautiful, they all have a good cry. What’s not to love?