The Great Pottery Throwdown returns to Channel 4 and viewers can expect a ‘great toilet week’

Everyone’s favourite pottery show is back. Jessica Rawnsley hears more from judges Rich Miller and Keith Brymer Jones and host Siobhan McSweeney.

Over the course of its six series, The Great Pottery Throw Down has accumulated a kaleidoscope of fans from all over the world, among them Brad Pitt (who claims to have watched every episode).

For many, the tranquil pottery show – ostensibly a competition but really much too warm-hearted and kind to be placed in the category in any real sense – is balm for the soul. There is something innately soothing and restorative about its entire premise.

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There are the potters themselves, united in a pure unadulterated joy of making; moulding their lumps of clay with heart and love and a willingness to learn; preserving memories in ceramic form. There are the judges – potters themselves, Rich Miller and Keith Brymer Jones – their exuberance for clay seeping off them, Brymer Jones literally moved to tears by the sight of a jug. There is the host, Derry Girls star Siobhan McSweeney, a magical elixir of witty and warm, who elicits a disarming honesty from contestants through her genuine interest in them. And there is the satisfying experience of watching formless lumps of clay transform into tangible, beautiful objects.

Pictured: Keith Brymer Jones, Siobhan McSweeney and Rich Miller. Credit: ©Channel 4.Pictured: Keith Brymer Jones, Siobhan McSweeney and Rich Miller. Credit: ©Channel 4.
Pictured: Keith Brymer Jones, Siobhan McSweeney and Rich Miller. Credit: ©Channel 4.

Crafting’s answer to The Great British Bake Off, the seventh series is on its way to Channel 4, promising us all that much needed catharsis-through-clay.

And this year has seen an exceptional bunch of potters, says McSweeney. “As an observer, what I’ve noticed this series is that it’s been much harder for you to decide each week than I’ve ever seen it,” she says, turning to Miller and Brymer Jones who are sat on the sofa beside her and agree.

“You’ve had a really difficult time trying to figure out not only who’s going home but also who the winner is. We have an extraordinary bunch of potters this year. A really extraordinary bunch. They’re all completely different with completely different aesthetics and backgrounds and tastes, but they are all really, really good at one particular form of pottery.”

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“I think that’s the thing about clay,” says Miller, 43. “People find it for so many different reasons. So the engineers use it in a very engineered way, and then you’ve got people who use it as a release or a form of escapsim, so it’s always a really broad spectrum of people and that’s shown through the way they approach the material.”

If you’ve yet to have your ceramic fill, the way it works is as follows: each series sees a batch of home potters compete across 10 episodes to be crowned UK pottery champion. Every episode contestants complete two throws – the ‘Main Make’ and the more technical ‘Throw Down.’ One is crowned ‘potter of the week’ while the worst performer is sent home.

And there end the similarities with other television competition shows of the same ilk. The judges are supportive and understanding. Brymer Jones is often brought to tears, while Miller is perhaps the softest spoken judge on TV. The potters approach the challenges seriously, but never with intensity or competitiveness.

“I remember when I was first asked to do the programme, I said: ‘Look, I don’t want to do car crash TV,” relates Brymer Jones, 58. “This is something I’m really passionate about, and I know Rich is as well. We’re bringing these people in here, we’re putting them through the mill for something they’re really passionate about, and not only that but doing it on national TV, and they’re getting judged every week. So we really do treat them with the utmost respect possible.

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“And there’s always a couple of weeks where one of the potters does something quite incredible, not just the mere fact of the aesthetic of what they’ve made but the fact that they’ve broken boundaries within themselves to create that thing. That, for me, is just mind-blowing. And I love that. It’s very, very intense but boy, do they get stuff out of it.”

“They’re not there to win, which makes it unlike all these other kinds of shows,” continues 44-year-old McSweeney. “They’re useless. They’re absolutely useless. I have to stop them from running around handing each other tools. They’re like: ‘I really hope she does well this round.’ I’m like: ‘No! You do well. You really hope you do well!’ We’ve sort of stopped trying to create competitiveness. It’s not there. It genuinely isn’t there.”

And when the inevitable ceramic mishaps occur, the contestants, like the judges, approach them with the same graceful, tranquil air.

“You have to realise that they’re putting a lot of effort into the actual make itself in a practical, logistical sense, but there’s also so much emotion involved in what they’re making,” explains Brymer Jones. “So when they bring that to the table, and Rich and I have a look at it and it’s gone wrong, you feel for them, but you live and you learn as a potter, and that’s what it’s all about.”

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“It could be that it’s just a lack of compression or something really simple that’s had this negative repercussion through the process,” adds Miller, “but actually, there’s so much to celebrate about what has worked, so it’s always a game of two halves.”

“We’re definitely judges of the glass is always half full,” agrees Brymer Jones.

This time round, contestants craft entire roast dinner sets for one challenge, while in another they must create a “gluggle” jug (named for the “glug” sound it makes when pouring).

“Kicking off the first week with the roast dinner set, we had some incredible sets,” enthuses Miller. “There’s just something about that outpouring of personal stories and emotion that’s so lovely to connect with.”

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For Brymer Jones this year, it was the toilets. “Obviously, the toilets are back,” he says. “When the potters first get an inkling that that’s what they’re going to be doing and it’s toilet week, it’s not only the sheer scale of the thing itself, but it’s the way they approach it within themselves as a person and as a potter. That really, really intrigues me. And obviously how it flushes at the end.”

“It was a great toilet week this year,” says Miller, earnestly.

The Great Pottery Throwdown returns to Channel 4 on Sunday January 7.

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