For this ‘Great Pottery Throw Down’ judge, it’s all about clay

LONDON — When potter Keith Brymer Jones was approached to present a new TV show about making ceramics, he was skeptical. “The pottery, on television? Oh good? It would be like watching paint dry,” he recalls thinking.

More than seven years later, he’s been proven wrong: This show, “The Great Pottery Throw Down,” is sweet reality TV, but it’s certainly not boring. It has built a loyal following that tunes in week after week to watch amateur potters turn lumps of clay into tea sets, fireplaces, clocks and toilets. The show is currently airing its fifth season in Britain, with four seasons available to stream in the US on HBO Max.

Brymer Jones was running a major ceramics company, Make International, when the offer came from Love Productions, the company that also made ‘The Great British Bake Off’ (which screens in the US as ‘The Great British Baking Show”). He was adamant, he said, that he didn’t want to do “car accident television” that “would allow people to fail.”

Each week on “The Great Pottery Throw Down”, one of the show’s contestants is eliminated based on their work in two challenges, and the best work earns another the “Potter of the Week” title. But the show is as much about sharing as it is about competition. Potters often trade equipment and advice, and when Brymer Jones is presented with a clay creation that particularly moves him, he cries.

In a recent video interview from his studio in the coastal town of Whitstable, England, tears also welled up in Brymer Jones’ eyes as he recalled discovering clay as a child and discussed the candidates’ personal growth. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

How did you get on the show? I understand that an Adele song may have been involved.

My business partner came across Adele’s video for “Rolling in the Deep,” with all that broken pottery in it. Now, he’s a bit of a numbers guy, and this Adele video was the most-watched music video online at the time. So he says, “You’re a singer, you could dress up in an Adele costume and we could do a parody.” So we made this video, and it’s kinda going viral.

And then Richard McKerrow, who did “The Great British Bake Off”, saw it. He called me and said, “Do you want to be a judge on this new program?” It really had nothing to do with my technical abilities as a potter and everything to do with being in an Adele dress, singing really badly.

When I did the first of many test screens, they asked me to do something on the wheel. So I made a potty, and it took about a minute and a half. And obviously, for TV, it’s really good: it’s fast. And they said, “Can you make a bowl,” and so I made a bowl, and it took two minutes. One woman said: “Blimey, what do you call that?” And I said, “That’s throwing.” She said, “How about ‘Throw Down’?” And that’s how it all happened.

What do you think makes “The Great Pottery Throw Down” so enjoyable on TV?

What they managed to capture with photography is the tactile nature and sensuality that one achieves with clay. And at the bottom of our daily roadmap is written in big red capitals: “Do not call them candidates, they are potters. We really respect all the potters who come on the show because it’s an incredibly brave thing to do, to come on national television and be judged.

All of the potters on the show are highly skilled, but they have access to materials and resources that most hobby potters would never see.

These potters embarked on a journey of self-discovery, learning new techniques. As judges, it’s so fascinating to watch. They really surprise themselves – they don’t know they have it in them. And just a little pressure, a little imagination, and they find assets. It’s brilliant.

It was so funny, last season when we were filming under Covid regulations, everyone had to self-isolate and the potters were put up in a luxury hunting lodge in the middle of nowhere. They had their own chef, their own housekeeper, and they even built their own studio, to train in, because they couldn’t go home. And halfway through filming, they were allowed to go back to their families for a few days, and half of them said, “You know what? I think we would prefer to stay here.

I understand you did your first pottery apprenticeship at 18. Going back, what was your very first experience with clay?

Well, I’m gonna start crying now. We all remember an influential and inspiring teacher. Mine was Mr. Mortman. When I was 11, he planted a piece of clay and said, “Go do something with it.” And the moment I touched the clay, I had an epiphany. I had dyslexia — in fact, I have to find another way to put it, because if I hadn’t had dyslexia, I doubt I would be doing what I’m doing now. People with dyslexia have a much better affinity with shape, form and volume.

I remember making this pottery owl, and Mr. Mortman said, “That looks really good, Keith.” And frankly, it was the first time a teacher had complimented me on something I had done. I thought, “Well, I’ll leave it at that.”

A life-changing moment. Has being on TV also changed things?

I get a lot of people coming up to me, from different walks of life, talking about my emotional state on the show. I get a lot of messages from ex-military, believe it or not, and I’ve gotten a lot in lockdown saying, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing, there’s no shame in exposing your emotional state. And it’s true: it’s another dimension of communication. And that’s what it’s all about.

How has the show influenced your own pottery practice?

I’m the director of a ceramics company, and that can mean staring at a screen too many hours a day; “Throw Down” helped me reconnect with the clay itself. And you know, it’s all about clay. It really helped me reconnect with not just one particular type of clay, but all the different types. They are all individual. They all have different personalities and you use them to do different things. That’s what we try to do on the show.

I’m actually spinning a bunch of mugs on the wheel right now, putting the handles on, and leaving the wheel for this call. My partner, Marge, often says that if I don’t touch clay for three or four days, I get a little finicky.

About Carl Schroeder

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