It’s not often you hear northern voices on TV, but for this year’s thrilling new BBC masterpiece, The Great Pottery Throw Down, Bolton-born radio DJ Sara Cox has been called in to host: and that’s where the problems begin.
The theory is simple: take the Bake Off format, remove cakes, add clay, and give it all a ’northern’ twist (it’s set in the Midlands – nice try, BBC). But somehow, everything doesn’t quite work. Cox is an acceptable presenter, but takes it all far too seriously. Even the voiceover at the beginning is painfully overdramatised: “None of us can live without stuff made from clay,” Cox explains – leading me to think of all the ways that I can, in fact, live without clay. Even the euphemisms, once humorously delivered by Mel and Sue, are laboured, despite the wealth of opportunity offered by those awkward hand movements and phallic clay blocks.
The judges are also unimpressive. I like to think Kate Malone and Keith Brymer Jones are famous in the world of pottery, but let’s face it – they probably aren’t. Keith is a particularly interesting character, and not just because the hair sticks out of his head like the prongs on a rake: he introduces himself by saying “there’s quite often times when I’ve looked at a certain shape, and it will move me to tears”. It turns out that some of the abominations on the show nearly made me cry, too.
As the first round begins, it feels as if the contestants are competing to demonstrate who’s worst: I can safely say I’ve never seen so many lumps of clay sliding off pottery wheels in all my life. At times, the creativity left me speechless, with one contestant even having the bright idea of writing ‘wobbly base’ and ‘off centre’ on her misshapen bowls. Somehow, I doubt it would be as acceptable to scrape a self-deprecating ‘soggy bottom’ on a lemon tart in Bake Off.
Matthew: “if I was a pot, I think I would be a very large ali baba pot.”
There are some sparks of genuine entertainment in the show. The fluidity of the clay is often mesmerising, and the short clips of professional potters at work are truly magnificent. But these moments are sparse, and short-lived.
Bake Off’s technical challenge is lazily re-named the ‘spot test’ for this show (I presume that’s a dismal pot pun). Presenter Cox reveals the team will be ‘pulling’ this week – but thankfully it’s not the return of Dapper Laughs to our screens; instead, pulling is a slightly voyeuristic experience in which the contestants all start massaging long sausages of clay in their hands. Although Cox jokes about it, soon the initial humour rubs off and it becomes highly unsettling.
200 mug handles later, and the results are in. The judges once again show their weaknesses, demonstrating a yawn-inducing range of vocabulary: “I love the fluidity of the handle, I’m loving the proportion of the handle to the mug, it’s great. Lovely ridges on the pulling. Really lovely. Lovely little curl. And again I’m loving this knot. That’s lovely.”
In reality, of course, they’re all just normal, amateurish handles. Some of the potters make stupidly thick ones (“a bold statement”, according to the judges), or downright disgusting ones (apparently they’re “brave with their proportions”), but really there’s not much to talk about. That summarises the whole show, actually.
“If this location doesn’t inspire the potters, nothing will.”
The less said about challenge three, the better. If there’s one thing I can tell you about pottery, it’s not something you should rush; the winner, Tom – whose Hugh Bonneville impression was impeccable throughout – managed to create 36 wonky eggcups, none of which could have actually held an egg (although the judges ignored that minor inconvenience).
To conclude, The Great Pottery Throw Down is definitely like The Great British Bake Off… if Bake Off was set in Stoke, took four days, and culminated in a set of 50 disappointing, wobbly bowls. Personally, I’d choose 27 delicious cheesecakes any day of the week. It wasn’t even like watching paint dry, because paint dries a lot faster than pottery.
The only silver lining came at the very end, when judge Keith started crying uncontrollably because an especially nervous contestant had, apparently, “excelled” herself. My housemate and I were put in stitches by this ridiculous event, and it’s the main reason I actually enjoyed the programme. Crying about food is completely acceptable, but inanimate and inedible objects really shouldn’t merit much sympathy: especially when they’re ugly, cracked, and created by someone you don’t know.
It turns out, there isn’t much potential in pottery.