LONDON — When the potter Keith Brymer Jones was approached to front a new TV show about making ceramics, he was skeptical. “Pottery, on television? Really? It would be like watching paint dry,” he recalled thinking.
More than seven years later, he’s proved himself wrong: That show, “The Great Pottery Throw Down,” is gentle reality TV, but it’s certainly not boring. It has built a loyal viewership that tunes in week after week to watch amateur potters transform lumps of clay into tea sets, chimneys, clocks and toilets. The show is currently airing its fifth season in Britain, with four seasons available to stream in the United States on HBO Max.
Brymer Jones was running a large ceramics company, Make International, when the offer came through from Love Productions, the company that also made “The Great British Bake Off” (which screens in the United States as “The Great British Baking Show”). He was adamant, he said, that he didn’t want to make “car crash TV” that “set people up to 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 earns another the title “Potter of the Week.” But the show is as much about sharing as it is about competition. The potters often swap equipment and advice, and when Brymer Jones is presented with a clay creation that especially moves him, he cries.
In a recent video interview from his studio in the coastal town of Whitstable, England, tears also sprung to Brymer Jones’s eyes when he remembered discovering clay as a child and discussed the contestants’ personal growth. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
How did you come to be on the show? I understand an Adele song may have been involved.
My business partner came across the Adele video for “Rolling in the Deep,” with all this broken pottery in it. Now, he’s a bit of a numbers guy, and this Adele video was the most watched music video at the time online. So he says, “You’re a singer, you could dress in an Adele costume and we could do a spoof.” So we did this video, and it goes a bit viral.
And then Richard McKerrow, who made “The Great British Bake Off,” saw it. He phoned me up and said, “Do you want to be a judge on this new program?” It really had nothing to do with my technical ability as a potter and everything to do with being in an Adele dress, singing really badly.
When I did the first of many test screens, they asked me to make something on the wheel. So I made a little pot, and it took about a minute and a half. And obviously, for TV, that’s really good: It’s quick. And they said, “Can you make a bowl,” and so I made a bowl, and it took two minutes. A woman said, “Blimey, what do you call that?” And I said, “It’s throwing.” She said, “How about ‘Throw Down’?” And that’s how it all came about.
What do you think makes “The Great Pottery Throw Down” such enjoyable TV?
What they’ve managed to capture with the photography is the tactile nature and sensuality that you get with clay. And at the bottom of our daily call sheet is written in big red capital letters: “They mustn’t be called contestants, they’re potters.” We really respect all the potters that come on the show because it’s an incredibly brave thing to do, to come onto national television and be judged.
All of the potters on the show are very skilled, but they’re getting access to equipment and resources that most home potters would never see.
Those potters have gone on a journey of self-discovery, learning new techniques. As judges, it’s just so fascinating to see. They really do surprise themselves — they don’t know they have it in them. And just a little bit of pressure, a little bit of imagination, and they come up trumps. It’s brilliant.
It was so funny, in the last season, when we filmed under Covid regulations, everyone had to isolate and the potters were put up in a deluxe hunting lodge out in the middle of nowhere. They had their own chef, their own housekeeper, and they even built their own studio, to practice, because they couldn’t go home. And halfway through the filming, they were allowed for a couple of days to go back and see their family, and half of them said, “You know what? I think we would rather stay here.”
I understand you did your first apprenticeship in pottery at 18. Going right back, what was your very first experience with clay like?
Well, I’ll start crying now. We all remember an influential and inspirational teacher. Mine was Mr. Mortman. When I was 11, he plunked a lump of clay down and said, “Go do something with that.” And the moment I touched the clay, I had an epiphany. I suffered from dyslexia — actually, I’ve got to look at a different way of saying it, because if I hadn’t had dyslexia, I doubt if I’d be doing what I’m doing now. Dyslexic people have a much better affinity with shape, form and volume.
I remember making this pottery owl, and Mr. Mortman said, “That looks really good, Keith.” And quite frankly, it was the first time any teacher had ever paid a compliment for anything I’d done. I thought, “Well, I’ll stick with this.”
A life-changing moment. Has being on TV has also changed things?
I get lots of people coming up to me, from various walks of life, talking about my emotional state on the show. I get a lot of messages from ex-servicemen, believe it or not, and I got a lot in lockdown saying, “Keep on doing what you’re doing, there’s no shame in exposing your emotional state.” And it’s true: It’s another dimension to communicating. And that’s what it’s all about.
How has doing the show influenced your own pottery practice?
I’m the director of a ceramics company, and that can mean looking at a screen too many hours a day; “Throw Down” helped me to get back in touch with the clay itself. And you know, it’s all about the clay. It really helped me to get back in touch with not just one particular type of clay but all different types. They’re all individual. They all have different personalities, and you use them to do different things. That’s what we try to do on the show.
In fact, I’m turning a load of mugs on the wheel at the moment, putting the handles on, and I came off the wheel for this call. My partner, Marge, often says that if I don’t touch clay for three or four days, I do get a bit tetchy.