Lucinda Lovesey has been making ceramics for most of her life. A retired occupational therapist from Shropshire, she was “very behind” her peers as a young child: she didn’t speak until she was four years old. As a result, she grew up “in a world of make-believe”, fascinated by animals and storybooks that depicted them dressed in human clothes. She picked up pottery in her mid-teens: her school teacher Mr Matthews taught her the art of old English slipware. Now 58, with a streak of bright red hair and primary-coloured, hand-painted dungarees, she is a contestant on the loveliest show on television: The Great Pottery Throw Down. She smiles as she describes her early years while up to her elbows in clay, as she sets about making a children’s crockery set. The camera lingers on a sketchbook in which she’s written and drawn specific memories from her childhood – the height chart on a wall at home, the plastic fish that would float in the bathtub, her pet tortoise Hannibal – and a photograph of her with two monkeys clambering over her shoulders.
To my mind, no competitive entertainment series communicates the personalities of its contestants quite like The Great Pottery Throw Down. It has all the staples of the genre – a familiar location, returning judges, a set of tasks each week that become increasingly difficult as the series progresses, climactic disasters and emotive triumphs. But it also favours craft and character over drama and spectacle. Each series – the fifth began airing earlier this month – introduces us to a cast of often eccentric individuals from all over the UK, who have a variety of professions and passions but are united by the shared sense of joy and satisfaction that comes from making something beautiful from scratch.
Joining Lucinda this year are AJ, a 21-year-old non-binary design graduate from Aberdeen who creates distinctive, cartoonish slug-like creatures in much of their work; Anna, who grew up on a farm in Northern Ireland (we see a clip of her riding in a horse-drawn cart with her elderly “daddy” Pat) and now works with adults with learning difficulties; and Nick, a long-haired 43-year-old from Barry in Wales who used to make sonic screwdrivers for Doctor Who. There’s Christine, a 57-year-old retired teacher from Preston who returned to pottery after a 20-year break when she worked as a teacher, and Cellan, a 23-year-old former ice cream man from Brighton.
They are led by judges Rich Miller – a thoughtful, softly spoken tile-maker from Surrey – and Keith Brymer Jones, inarguably the star of the show. Broad and masculine in paint-splattered overalls, Keith was once the lead singer of a punk band called the Wigs and says his dyslexia brought him to pottery. He is both charismatic and infectiously enthusiastic about pots: alternatively teasing the contestants by delighting in brutal feedback on the quick-fire throwing challenges (squashing the still-wet creations that don’t pass muster into a rusty bucket) and (frequently) bursting into tears at the beauty of their completed creations at the end of each episode. It is the weight of objects, held in his hands, that – when just right – seems to particularly move him.
I, too, find myself weeping often when I watch this show. I never thought I would cry at pots. But just look at Lucinda’s finished tea set, covered in colourful animals dancing, wearing tutus and crowns (she has even fashioned an eggcup from a model of Hannibal riding a skateboard). Her whole childhood is here, ready to be passed down to her grandchildren. Then there’s Cellan’s wall clock, a miniature boy scout’s canvas tent, the opening ruffling in the breeze, tiny toes peeking out from within. Or Christine’s cups and saucers decorated with fairies with brown skin. This time it is Rich who is first moved to tears: “Growing up in the Eighties,” he explained, “I never saw reflected back at me… what I saw in the mirror.” Keith is choked up too: “It’s that attention to detail to yourself. You’ve brought that through the design.”
What Keith and the rest of the contestants communicate so strongly is the value a creative hobby like pottery can bring to a life. The people on this show have all manner of jobs – they might be care workers, students or retired – but none of them are professional ceramicists, and the pleasure they find in honing their craft seems, at least to me, completely in opposition to the anxiety-inducing dynamics of the workplace. Here we watch people who are very good at something get better at it, week by week, with something incredibly meaningful to show for it. As Keith himself said, “I know how good touching something elemental can make us feel, how necessary it is for human happiness. Working with your hands can be magically fulfilling.”