LONDON – When potter Keith Brymer Jones was approached before a new TV show about ceramics making, he was skeptical. “Ceramics, on television? Really? It would be like watching the paint dry,” he recalls thinking.
More than seven years later, he’s proven himself wrong: That show, “The Great Pottery Throw Down,” was a lighthearted reality TV show, but certainly not boring. It has built a loyal viewership that follows weekly to watch amateur potters transform clay lumps into teapots, chimneys, clocks and toilets. The show is currently airing its fifth season in the UK, with four seasons available to stream in the US on HBO Max.
Brymer Jones is running a large ceramics company, Make it international, when the offer came from Love Productions, the company also produced “The Great British Bake Off” (shown in the United States as “The Great British Baking Show”). He said he was adamant that he didn’t want to do “auto accident TV” to “make people 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 wins another title of “Potter of the Week”. But the program is also about sharing as well as about competition. Potters often swapped equipment and tips, and when Brymer Jones was presented with a particular clay work that moved him, he cried.
In a recent video interview from his studio in the seaside town of Whitstable, England, Brymer Jones shed tears as he recalled his exploration of clay as a child and discussed his personal growth candidates. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
How did you come to join the show? I understand there might be an Adele song.
My business partner watched the Adele video for “Rolling in the abyss, ” With all this broken pottery in there. He’s a number one guy now, and this Adele video was the most watched music video online at the time. So he said, “You’re a singer, you can wear Adele’s costume and we can do a spoof.” So we did This video, and it spreads a little bit.
And then Richard McKerrow, the man behind “The Great British Bake Off,” saw it. He called me and said, “Do you want to be a judge on this new show?” It really has nothing to do with my technical abilities as a potter and everything to do with wearing an Adele dress, singing sucks.
When I did the first test screen, they asked me to do something on wheels. So I made a small pot, and it took about a minute and a half. And obviously, for TVs, that’s really good: It’s fast. And they said, “You can 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, “It’s throwing.” She said, “What about ‘Throw Down’?” And that’s how it all happened.
What do you think makes “The Great Potter Throw Down” such an interesting TV show?
What they were trying to capture with photography was the tactile and sensory nature that you get with clay. And at the bottom of our daily call sheet is written in large red capital letters: “They’re not called contestants, they’re potters.” We really respect all the potters involved in the show because it’s such an incredibly brave thing to do, get on national television and be judged.
All potters in the program are highly skilled, but they have access to equipment and resources that most home potters would never see.
Those potters went through a journey of self-discovery, learning new techniques. As a judge, it was fascinating to watch. They really surprise themselves – they don’t know they have it in there. And just a little pressure, a little imagination, and they will become the trump card. It’s great.
It’s funny how, in the last season, when we were shooting under Covid regulations, everyone had to be quarantined and the potters were put into a luxury hunting lodge in the middle of nowhere. They have their own chef, their own housekeeper, and they even built their own studio to practice because they can’t go home. And halfway through filming, they were allowed to go back to see their families for a few days, and half of them said, “You know what? I think we would rather stay here.”
I understand that you first learned the craft of pottery in 18. Come back now, how was your first experience with clay?
Well, I’m going to start crying right now. We all remember an influential and inspirational teacher. Mine is Mr. Mortman. When I was 11 years old, he pressed down on a lump of clay and said, “Let’s do something with that.” And the moment I touched the clay, I had an epiphany. I have dyslexia – actually, I have to look at it another way, because if I weren’t dyslexic, I doubt I would be doing what I’m doing now. People with dyslexia have a much better relationship with shape, form, and volume.
I remember to make this ceramic owl, and Mr. Mortman said, “That’s nice, Keith.” And quite frankly, it was the first time that any teacher praised anything I did. I thought, “Well, I’ll stick with this.”
A life changing moment. Did being on TV change things too?
I get a lot of people coming to me, from many walks of life, talking about my emotional state on the show. I get a lot of messages from military veterans, believe it or not, and I’m stuck saying, “Keep doing what you’re doing, there’s no shame in revealing it. your emotional state.” And it’s true: It’s another side to communication. And that’s what it’s all about.
How has the performance of the program affected your pottery making?
I’m the director of a ceramics company, and that means looking at screens too many hours a day; “Throw Down” brought me back in touch with the clay itself. And you know, it’s all about clay. It really got me back in touch with not just one particular clay, but all different types of clay. All are personal. They all have different personalities, and you use them to do different things. That’s what we try to do in the program.
In fact, I’m spinning a bunch of cups on the wheel at the moment, put the handle on, and I’ve started this call. My partner, Marge, often says that if I don’t touch the clay for three or four days, I get a little upset.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/26/arts/television/great-pottery-throw-down-keith-brymer-jones.html For This ‘Great Pottery Throw Down’ Judge, It’s All About Clay