As the pottery show returns to More 4 we catch up with head judge Keith to get all the backstage gossip
When BBC2 axed The Great Pottery Throw Down in 2016, we feared the show would never return, but thanks to Channel 4 the pottery competition is now back on our screens in January, complete with a new judge and a new host.
One thing that hasn’t changed though is that pottery legend Keith Brymer Jones is back to judge the amateur potters – and the famously teary-eyed judge is just as passionate and emotional as ever.
When we caught up with Keith before the series kicked off he was bursting with excitement for the new series, which also returns to its home at Middleport Pottery. “I remember saying at the beginning that I really didn’t want to do TV where you set someone up to fail,” says Keith.
“Luckily The Great Pottery Throw Down is nothing like that, it’s all about extolling the virtues of craft and of clay, and you get to see these people grow throughout the series.”
Here we chat about how the contestants compare to former years, how new presenter Melanie Sykes was a shoulder to cry on, and why ceramic toilets are not going anywhere…
Hi Keith, it’s so good to have you back! How is The Great Pottery Throw Down going to be different this year?
We wanted to give them a main make and more time to do it, plus a second challenge so we can show other aspects of pottery away from the wheel. They have no idea what the second challenge is going to be and that sometimes helps us decide who should stay and who should go. There’s lots of new skills like tiling and slip casting, so they have lots of skills and techniques to learn.
How do the skills of the potters compare to previous series?
The calibre of the potters is quite incredible this year. The amazing thing about the show is that one week a challenge may play to a particular potter’s strength and they make something amazing, but then the next week they produce a dog! There’s a rollercoaster of emotion and talent within the show.
Where are all the potters from?
We have 12 potters from all over the country and Northern Ireland, and an age range of 19 to 70. A body builder, an ex-gymnast, an artist, a music teacher, two full-time mums, a grandfather and a café worker. They all bring their own personalities and it’s incredible to see each one of them work well and progress throughout the show. If I were to sum up the whole series, it would be to never judge a book by its cover.
Sue Pryke has joined as a new judge – how do you work together?
I’ve known Sue for many, many years and it’s such a joy to have her on the show. I knew she’d be great and that we’d work really well together. We have this kind of relationship where we can say anything to each other – although I do push the boundaries quite a lot! We both have our separate opinions when it comes to the judging, but we both respect each other completely. There were a few times we disagreed, but we talk it out. We have complete and utter respect for the potters, so the very least we can do is really critique and judge them as much as we can.
How has it been working with new presenter Melanie Sykes?
Sara Cox (who was previously the host when the show was on BBC2) was brilliant, so it was a tall order for Melanie. But she has naturally brought her honesty and integrity to the show and she is fantastic. She supported the potters emotionally. Mel was like a therapist to them and to me in the green room after judging as well. I’m a mess then! She didn’t know too much about pottery before we started, but she was really enthusiastic about it.
Have you given her any pottery lessons?
Yes, it was like Ghost – she was Demi Moore and I was Patrick Swayze! She wasn’t too bad actually, she made a cross between a plate and a bowl – it was a deluxe ashtray! When I teach someone on the wheel I’m very hands on because you can’t explain pressure or touch. You’ve got to really show someone. She understood that very, very quickly, then was very controlled and focused.
What were the highlights of this series for you?
There was so many. I mean, I’ve got to hold tears back just thinking about it. For me, week two, was incredible. That’s when I first got a real inkling of how amazing some of these potters were. The main make was a chess set, so there were 352 pieces to judge at the end of the challenge. You could not only really see their technical ability, but their personalities too, which is what this program is all about. It’s having that vision and foresight for what you want to achieve at the end and having the ability to fulfil that. It blew me away. Some of them are just incredible.
Is the slightly crazy toilet making challenge coming back this year?
The toilet is back! It’s a long challenge and the potters get about 10 hours, but they have to work really hard – it’s an engineering feat! There’s a lot of clay involved and it’s got to work – it has to flush the poo down the loo! It’s a great challenge.
Are there as many innuendoes this series?
Pottery, it’s sensual. It’s emotional, it can be very passionate and it’s very tactile. You can’t help but have those double entendres. You can’t get away from pulling and cracked bottoms!
Did any of the potters pick up the craft because they’d watched the show previously?
Some of them had, yeah. That’s what’s so amazing about the show. I remember after the first series, I tried to buy a new wheel and because of the bloody stupid program it was a six-month waiting list! People discover that you lose yourself when you’re when you’re on the bench or on the wheel, which is incredible.
Do you think it’s a direct reaction to how we’re now all on screens all of the time?
Absolutely. I do talks in front of schoolkids and I say, “look, don’t just use your bloody thumbs to swipe, use your all your digits!” It’s not for everyone, but I come across kids where the minute that they touch clay it’s like a revelation. The light just switches on, like it did with me when I was at school.
When did you know you wanted to be a potter for a living?
I’m dyslexic, so when I was 11 years old I had an epiphany when I took pottery at an art lesson – it changed my life in quite a dramatic way. My partner and I are about to move house and up until now we’ve tried to keep work and private life separate, but we’ve decided that now I can’t separate it. If I’m not at my wheel then I’m not happy! So the studio will now be in our new home.
What’s the best piece of pottery advice you have ever been given?
Don’t look for perfection as it’s unachievable – and I say that to all the potters. On the first day, I give them all a special parcel, which has one of my mugs with personalised wording on it and a little bag of pottery tools with a little message for them all.
What’s your personal worst pottery disaster?
I made a whole load of breakfast cups for a leading store and the kiln overfired. I lost about 600 of them, so I never made that mistake again!
What’s next for you in the pottery world?
I’m working on a project with the National Trust at the moment, which is so exciting.
Is pottery your happy place?
Yes, it really is. If I’m not at the wheel I go a bit funny.
The Great Pottery Throw Down returns to TV on 8 January at 9pm on More4.
Keith Brymer Jones appears on the The Great Pottery Throw Down, which you can keep up to date with on Twitter. Oh and remember to subscribe to Mollie Makes for more fab interviews and inspirational craft projects.
First image courtesy of Channel 4 / Love Productions