The Great Pottery Throw Down
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This British reality competition from the production company that brought us The Great British Bake-Off challenges contestants to transform lumps of raw clay into practical and beautiful items using a wide variety of techniques.
Judges include Keith Brymer Jones (Seasons 1-4), Kate Malone (Seasons 1 and 2), Sue Pryke (Season 3), and Richard Miller (Season 4). Presented by Sara Cox (Seasons 1 and 2), Melanie Sykes (Season 3), and Siobhán McSweeney (Season 4).
I first discovered The Great Pottery Throw Down during the pandemic lockdown last year. Originally produced for the BBC beginning in 2015 and later moved to the UK’s Channel 4, it finally arrived across the pond on HBO Max in the fall of 2020. Soothing, dynamic, and engaging all at once, this reality competition sustained me through a few tough months. Now, just when I could use a pick-me-up, it’s back on HBO Max for a fourth season. Watching these new episodes is therapeutic, like sipping a warm, delicious cup of tea, just the thing to calm my nerves. It was a struggle not to speed through them one after another, but it’s worth it to be able to savor them a little at a time, and not reach the end too soon.
If you’re a fan of The Great British Bake-Off (or The Great British Baking Show, as it’s known here in the U.S.), the show’s formula will be comfortingly familiar to you. A group of 10 (in the first two seasons) or 12 (in the third and fourth) potters put their skills to the test in a series of challenges set by a pair of judges and completed within a shared space. Rather than the pastoral meadows of a stately manor, though, The Great Pottery Throw Down is set in Stoke-on-Trent, an industrial British city known for pottery manufacturing, with a charm all its own. Instead of images of gardens and ponds with swimming ducklings, we get huge, brick bottle kilns and houseboats floating on a nearby river. The music is edgier too, with a rockabilly vibe that evokes the city’s vibrant music scene.
Each week, the contestants are asked to create a piece for a specific challenge, called a “Main Make,” known to them ahead of time. This can be anything from a set of nesting bowls to fireplace tiles to an actual toilet that can hold water and flush. They also face a surprise technical challenge—either a “spot test,” demonstrating a particular technique, or a “throw down,” giving the contestants a chance to show off their throwing skills at the wheel. The judges name one winner “Potter of the Week” and choose a potter from the bottom for elimination.
It turns out that pottery makes a great subject for a reality competition. Unlike similar shows—involving baking or, say, glass blowing—the pieces made for this competition are meant to be practical, durable, and lasting. “Fit for purpose,” as the judges say. It’s the perfect fusion of form and function, art and utility. Watching these amateur craftsman work the raw clay, bending and shaping it into recognizable forms on a wheel or with their bare hands, is so satisfying. And not a little bit sexy. The show gets all the Ghost references out of the way early on, but there’s still plenty of opportunities for innuendo in every episode, especially one where they bring in nude models (one male, one female) to serve as inspiration for a Greek statue challenge.
It’s clear that although stress levels can run high in “the pottery” (the substitute here for “the tent”) everyone is having a great time. Things can get competitive—and they all want to win, of course—but there are no rivalries or big egos on display, just friendly and eager contestants who are keen to help each other out and offer support when needed. Upon receiving high praise from the judges they usually seem as baffled as they are thrilled. You root for them to succeed, and are sorry to see them go.
The judging team and hosts have shuffled around a bit from season to season. The first judging team of Kate Malone and Keith Brymer Jones remains my favorite. Jones in particular—who is the only judge to appear on all four seasons—has become well known for his strong emotional reactions during the final judgments. Basically, he cries a lot. Making Keith cry over your piece is the equivalent of getting a Paul Hollywood handshake, only it happens way more often. Which is really wonderful to see, actually. Here’s this master potter, massive in stature, with large hands made for shaping clay, more at home in overalls than a suit, frequently moved to tears by the craftsmanship of the works in front of him. I just love Keith.
The only other person to appear in all four seasons is Richard Miller, who spent the first three as “kiln master,” the person responsible for getting the pieces properly fired. In the fourth season, Miller has been promoted to judge and brings all that technical expertise to the job as well as a sharp artistic eye. There’s a new host for Season 4 as well, Derry Girls‘ Siobhán McSweeney, who understands the pressure the contestants are under after competing on GBBO herself. She combines a stern Sister Michael energy in her role as timekeeper with a great sense of easygoing humor that helps lighten any tension in the room.
The challenges in the fourth season include a 3D building, busts of music legends, animal-shaped water features, and a pair of raku vases, always a fan favorite. Raku is a Japanese technique that involves firing pieces at extremely high temperatures very quickly, then marking them with combustible material like hair, feathers, seaweed, or leaves, usually before plunging them into a bath of cold water. The process is extreme and full of potential hazards, but produces stunning, dramatic effects. It’s a blast to watch. I’d already been curious about trying out pottery myself after the first few episodes, but it was Raku Week that had me googling ceramics studios in my area. Unfortunately, that was in the middle of the pandemic when everything was shut down.
We’re in a different place now, and Season 4 has inspired me to search for classes again. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but I know I’ll always find comfort in The Great Pottery Throw Down. Maybe it’s the transformational aspect of the craft, the wildly unpredictable reaction that happens in the heat of the kiln. Like the pieces in the show, we’ve all been through the fire this past year, and I for one look forward to seeing how we turn out in the end.
Watching a group of craftsman create practical works of art before your eyes isn’t just entertaining, it’s a soothing escape from your day-to-day troubles.
Fans of GBBO will take to this right away, but it’s great for anyone who needs a de-stress session. It’s slightly racier thanks to the innuendos, but they’ll go above the heads of younger kids, so it’s generally a safe family watch too.
The fourth season was filmed during lockdown, but like the most recent season of GBBO, the participants and crew were isolated together in their own bubble. You can’t see much of a difference in the production, but everyone seems to have formed especially close bonds than usual over the course of filming, making the eliminations even more heartbreaking.