TV Review: ‘The Great Pottery Throw Down’ – Better Than ‘Bake Off’?

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Pre-pandemic, I’d never considered settling down on a Sunday evening for Channel 4’s The Great Pottery Throw Down. But having finally taken up crafting and buying myself a budget sewing machine – three lockdowns in – I decided it was time to seize the clay (I’m sorry).

Lockdown living has encouraged a new-found appreciation for art and design in all its various disciplines. While family favourite The Great British Bake Off has its competitors create edible art in the form of patisserie and sponge, Throw Down sees contestants transform claggy mounds of clay into elegant fruit sculptures and themed glazed cheese sets in an effort to be crowned “top of the pots”.

The Great Pottery Throw Down first appeared on screens on BBC Two in 2015, hosted by Sara Cox for two series until its cancellation in 2018. Last year, the show returned on More4, fronted by Melanie Sykes. This year’s fourth series brings actress Siobhán McSweeney, the sardonic Sister Michael from Derry Girls, as its delightful and quick-witted presenter. Joining McSweeney are expert judges, ‘kiln man Rich’, Richard Miller (the shows’ behind-the-scenes technician) and potter and ceramic designer Keith Brymer Jones (affectionately dubbed ‘handkerchief Keith’ for his emotional responses to the artists’ work).

The contestants, who isolated in a bubble with the crew at Gladstone Pottery Museum in Stoke-on-Trent during filming, carry out two timed tasks each week before being judged, gently, by the pottery experts. One is picked as potter of the week, and one is sent home. Rather unusually, my family and I aren’t perched on the edge of our seats and shouting at the screen in deliberation over our predicted best and worst outcomes of the contestants’ creations.

“By far one of the least ‘dog-eat-dog’ of the competition format shows, The Great Pottery Throw Down lacks intensity – in the best way.”

Throw Down’s challenges, being less rigid than that of its cut-throat cousin Bake Off, allow for a wide scope of individual creative expression from its potters, with the judges encouraging contestants to incorporate their hobbies and loved ones into their designs. The events of the past year contribute to an especially emotional response to the potters’ work – particularly from consistently crying handkerchief Keith, such is his heart-warming passion for pottery.

It’s no coincidence that Bake Off and Throw Down share such a strikingly similar format, as the two are produced by the same company. By far one of the least ‘dog-eat-dog’ of the competition format shows, The Great Pottery Throw Down lacks intensity – in the best way. In such turbulent times, this offering from Channel 4 feels like a warm, welcome hug. Forget Bake Off’s “soggy bottoms”, this year is all about – as delivered via comic shriek by McSweeney – “wax your bottoms”!

The variety of the pieces produced further cement Throw Down as a firm family favourite. From terracotta cookware to fully-functional garden water features, we watch as potters combine engineering with pottery; hand-building bricks and crafting elegant operational basins, complete with taps. An art-deco inspired cheese dome? I understood these things separately but never did I think they could marry – how wrong I was. The clay was transformed into a unique and beautiful ceramic. These structures, built by the potters and fully operational, introduces an originality in this particular design show format, one which mingles with elements of popular home improvement series Grand Designs – another much-loved lockdown TV treat.

Before all of these various challenges, Kiln-man Rich’s reassuring instruction during a pottery throwing tutorial to not “get flustered… just take it step by step” serves as a soothing reminder both for the potters and for viewers, living in the current COVID-19 climate. Although not quite as competitive as its innuendo-abundant cousin, The Great Pottery Throw Down undeniably urns (I’m so sorry) its place on our screens as the ultimate comfort watch.

Words by Lucy Metters

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