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The Guardian view on The Great Pottery Throw Down: eccentric and kind

·3-min read

Of the various clever TV craft competitions, The Great Pottery Throw Down, which has just begun a new season on Channel 4, is the mildest, strangest and kindest. It makes Bake Off look positively gladiatorial and The Great British Sewing Bee seem the apogee of urban glamour. If the signature compliment on Bake Off is a bone-crunching handshake from the self-consciously macho Paul Hollywood, on Pottery Throw Down it is an outpouring of tears from its senior judge, Keith Brymer Jones. Never has a grown man cried so much on primetime television – and it’s lovely. The latest season also has a delightful new host in Siobhán McSweeney (who played the splendidly sarcastic Sister Michael in Derry Girls) and a new judge in the gentle, encouraging Richard Miller, formerly the technical expert or “kiln man”. His old slot is in turn filled (as “kiln girl”) by the talented ceramicist Rose Schmits.

It is also the only programme of its particular type rooted in a specific place and culture: in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, the home of British ceramics production since the 18th century. Formerly filmed at a 19th-century potbank called Middleport, home of cheerfully decorated Burleigh earthenware, it has now moved to the Gladstone Pottery – a former factory that, in the 19th century, boasted it exported ware to every corner of the British empire. Now it is a heritage site, run as the Gladstone Pottery Museum by the city council, having been saved from demolition in the early 1970s.

Seen through the lens of British industrial history, The Great Pottery Throw Down tells its own rather poignant story. It is a show in which hobbyists compete in pre-industrial skills against the backdrop of an industrial building that is itself obsolete. In 1984, amid the miners’ strike, Margaret Thatcher said that Britain would turn into a “museum society” unless old-fashioned businesses modernised. Stoke arguably did both. Like the other potbanks whose bottle kilns once dominated Stoke’s horizon, the Gladstone Pottery was decommissioned after the Clean Air Act. No longer did Stoke’s night-time horizon smoke and flame in infernal, filthy glory (“Dante lived too soon” to do the landscape justice, the novelist Arnold Bennett once wrote in his great Potteries-set story The Death of Simon Fuge).

Instead, in the 1970s and 1980s much of Stoke’s pottery industry was consolidated into giant conglomerates, and manufacturing was outsourced to the far east. No longer was Stoke home to hundreds of medium-sized companies, each a busy hub of production. Pottery is still made in Stoke – particularly sanitaryware and hotelware – but once proud, busy and famous factories such as Spode and Minton are silent, and ceramics are not the major local employer they once were. Stoke was utterly transformed by globalisation, so eagerly embraced by Tony Blair too. The globalised world, he told the Labour conference in 2005, is “indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice.”

The Great Pottery Throw Down is a gentle rebuke to all that: it claims, in its quiet and enjoyable way, that tradition, custom and practice have value. That human frailty can be a strength. And that places have souls.