From accidental innuendo through to a judge always on the verge of weeping, one good turn deserves another
It’s sort of easy to imagine how the pitch meeting went over at the offices of the Great British Bake Off producers. Having whipped up a frenzy with competitive whisking, a worldwide hit beloved by millions of viewers, finding a successor to UK’s nicest competitive reality TV show.
There have already been a number to try-hard and would-be heirs to the Berry-Hollywood throne, with painters and dressmakers and hair stylists all putting away their easels, piercing their pin cushions, and sweeping up the matted clumps of chopped hair. But where this, a show in which amateur Brits who are a dab hand at handling slabs of earthen clay and shaping it into surrealist shapes, seems to succeed is in understanding that people liked watching people put things into ovens. So now they put them into the biggest ovens in all the land.
Next Tuesday will see the first season of The Great Pottery Throw Down, a pleasing pun playing nicely on the industry term for tossing terra cotta clay onto the wheel, with the four contestants remaining tensely teasing it into shapes before letting it dry, baking it in a kiln, applying a glaze, and receiving the judges’ gaze. At which point master potter Keith Brymer-Jones will weep in admiration of their work. One will be named victor, either the rockabilly guy with the sideburns who walks off after every challenge with his guitar in one hand and creation in the other, or the 23-year-old teacher with the dreadlocks and suits that always look about one size too big.
For a show about applying your hands to assorted varieties of clay, it’s not hard to put your finger on why the formula works; Throw Down follows the well-worn path of pitching three tasks to its contestants while an affable presenter ambles around inquiring and quipping in response to answer. Sara Cox, with neither a Mel nor Sue to back her up, admirably holds her own and shows a warm rapport with the potters, a far more daring bunch than the Bake Off’s bakers. With their big task, or ‘Main Make’, often taking days to reach the point of judgment, there is a palpable sense that this lot knows each other better than the bakers, with feelings of envy and competition becoming more pronounced as the series works out its own shape and the leaders break away.
That said, there is an undeniable disconnect between what the viewer at home can aspire to do when watching the potters attempt to raise a vase out of a chunk of clay on the wheel. When watching the Bake Off, there’s a greater sense of familiarity; we might not be able to whip up a Genoese Sponge, but there is at least a chance that we have the equipment to give it a go. On the Throw Down, the most you can hope to take from it aspirationally is the growing desire to own some stout bowls you’d instantly regret buying the second you realise they don’t fit properly into your dishwasher.
Another problem goes hand in hand with the challenges set. In a show rife with innuendo at every possible turn – with visual filth almost demanding the show be aired post watershed – the Throw Down thrives when the potters are making something familiar. Tasks with real-world application, like building a bathroom hand basin with a plughole made to measure, offer an alternative to the boring white sink you know from your own bathroom. But when the ‘Main Make’ delves too deeply into the esoteric world of pottery enthusiasts, like the tiresome application of Japanese roku glaze (an intricately delicate process of which the outcome appeared to be some charred and chipped pots), those not hypnotised but the spinning pottery wheel might well switch over to something else.
Still, as easy watching goes, The Great Pottery Throw Down isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty, and with any luck will be back to burn up our screens with a healthy dose of filth next winter too.
Every Thursday, James talks Sean Moncrieff through what's making waves on the small screen this week. You can listen back to the podcast below: