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Keith Brymer Jones: “My dad couldn’t handle emotion. I’ll cry over a pot, for God’s sake”

The Great Pottery Throw Down judge reflects on the magic of clay, therapy and the difference between a ceramicist and a potter.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

What’s the difference between a ceramicist and a potter? “An MA,” Keith Brymer Jones says without hesitation, letting out a belly laugh. “Art school.” He puts on a posh accent: “ ‘Oh no, I’m a ceramicist.’ There’s no difference, really! A potter’s just a bit more real, I would say. But then I would say that.”

It’s true, he would. As a long-time judge on the televised competition The Great Pottery Throw Down, and in the decades he’s been making his own ceramic homeware, Brymer Jones, 56, has committed to an unpretentious approach. He began working as an apprentice aged 18 before starting his own pottery business in his twenties. His signature line of mugs is white, with a word or phrase printed on the side in typewriter font; his bestseller is “love”, but he also sells “hundreds and hundreds” of one that says “c***”.

He has been the charismatically straightfoward star of the Throw Down since 2015. A 6’3”, broad-shouldered man in clay-splattered overalls, he is, to use his own words, “built like a bricklayer”. On the show he closely observes the progress of the potters taking part (they are always referred to as “potters”, never “contestants” or, God forbid, “ceramicists”). Most strikingly, he is often moved to tears by their best creations. It’s a much-memed element of the series (one headline memorably reads “The Great Pottery Throw Down judge Keith Brymer Jones warms viewers’ hearts by crying over a TOAST RACK”) but Brymer Jones’s connection to the objects in front of him is infectious, and his visible emotion is a key part of what makes it the loveliest show on TV.

Brymer Jones is in his trademark overalls when I arrive at his studio in Whitstable, Kent. Downstairs freshly thrown pots line shelves; up some perilously pokey stairs is a room that is part office, part country kitchen. We sit at a farmhouse table laden with mugs from his different ranges and, thanks to Brymer Jones’s partner, Marj, scones with jam and cream. He tells me what makes pottery such a special form. “Without sounding like a hippie nightmare, it’s a natural substance that we’ve used since time began, almost. It’s from the earth. It’s incredibly malleable: you can shape and form it into anything you want, from this to a tile on a space shuttle, for God’s sake. It’s that real, honest, true earth connection.”

On the show he is moved by the potters’ willingness to incorporate details from their own life into their work, offering up items for judgement that are often very personal. “You’ve got to love them for that. I’ll start crying now,” he says, welling up. “When they’re opposite the judging table, I’m on the other side, and there’s this creation in the middle that they’ve made — that is the conduit between me and them.”

His ability to empathise with the other potters is striking. Perhaps this is because his route into pottery has been unconventional too. “I’ve never had a formal training, as such,” he tells me. When he was first announced as a judge on the show, a lot of people (shall we call them ceramicists?) were nonplussed, he explains. “Who the bloody hell is Keith Brymer Jones? Never heard of him. Oh, he must be one of those business types.” He spent most of his career making commercial pots out of limelight. Now he’s written an autobiography in the hope that he will demonstrate that there are other paths into creative careers that don’t involve art school.

Brymer Jones is dyslexic and never expected to be a published author. He worked on the book, Boy in a China Shop, with “a mate of mine, Mick”: Michael James, who he was in a band with in his early 20s. The result is a memoir that reads like a series of long chats, full of colourful anecdotes and a palpable enthusiasm for clay.

Born in a middle-class suburban part of Finchley, Brymer Jones was, perhaps surprisingly, a very thin, shy child with an interest in dance. He fishes out a photo of himself in a kilt for a Highland performance. “Look how skinny I was! Bloody sinewy nightmare!” Though he doesn’t mention it in the book, he developed gastroenteritis when he was just 18 months old, with serious consequences. “I literally couldn’t be moved from the couch in the living room, I was that ill.” He stayed looking “undernourished” into adulthood. The “physical discipline” of dance stood him in good stead for a career in throwing pots.

Due to his dyslexia, Brymer Jones struggled at school. His academic setbacks knocked his confidence, and he found it hard to fit in. He was a late developer more interested in Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells than football, and was bullied by a kid he refers to as “Barry Bastard”.

It was an art school teacher, Mr Mortman, who first introduced him to pottery. One day, Brymer Jones walked into art class and found a ball of terracotta clay was waiting at his desk. “Just looking at this lump of clay washed away all the anxiety I usually felt when I was asked to do anything in class,” he writes in the book. “It felt amazing, like I was holding my own imagination in my hands.” He began sculpting an owl. “My, my, that looks very nice, Keith!”, he recalls Mr Mortman saying: a rare piece of encouragement from a teacher that would stay with him for years.

He became obsessed with clay, spending his lunch breaks, early mornings and evenings after school in the art room. He was not deterred even when other children hid razor blades in his clay. Pottery helped him to gain confidence, and after he finally had a growth spurt, he threw himself into the New Romantic music scene. He became the lead singer of a punk band called the Wigs and over the next decade spent his nights gigging around North London. His trademark act was “bollock biting”; a Melody Maker review described him as “Disgraceful. Graceful.”

In these younger and more vulnerable years, his father gave him a piece of advice that he has been turning over in his mind ever since. “Make sure you do something you really enjoy, because you will be doing it for 85 per cent of your life.” Brymer Jones’s dad had never enjoyed his own job, and had been frustrated by it for the rest of his career. So after leaving school, Brymer Jones put an ad in the Ceramic Review: “Young, enthusiastic eighteen-year-old seeks apprenticeship in a pottery.”

He got a job with two gruff men at a pottery studio in Watford. Every day he’d get up at 5am and make the two and a half-hour journey from Finchley, then spend a ten-hour day preparing clay while his bosses hazed him and regularly called him a “c***”. But once he passed his driving test, the first step to shortening that long commute, Brymer Jones turned up at the studio to find that these grumpy, mean old blokes had bought him a car. His eyes well up at the memory. “It was just their way of acknowledging how good I was, really, or how important or valuable I was to them.”

They obviously couldn’t do it in words, I say. “No! Of course not! They still call me a c*** now!” he tells me.

“No, a fat c***,” Marj corrects him.

“I’m the fat c*** off the telly now,” he says.

After that studio relocated to Scotland, Brymer Jones set up his own, getting up just as early to throw thousands of items a day for clients such as Marks & Spencer, Habitat and Monsoon. He was driven by the sheer terror of keeping his business afloat. Reading the book, I was struck by the anxiety he seems to have experienced throughout his life. “I never realised how anxious I was until I wrote the book, because I was writing that word ‘anxiety’ all the time,” he says. “I remember my therapist once saying to me, ‘What gets you up in the morning?’, and I said, ‘Oh, anxiety’, without even taking breath.”

Brymer Jones found himself in bereavement counselling after the sudden death of his mother. He received a call one day from a friend of hers — they had been out shopping together, and returned home when Brymer Jones’s mother said she needed some water. She sat down to have a drink and died at the table. Brymer Jones got there before the police and the coroner. When they arrived to find her leaning against the fridge, Brymer Jones had to borrow milk from a neighbour to make tea. It was long after the funeral when he began to experience panic attacks, and ended up seeking professional support. “I’d never had anything like that. I thought, ‘Wow, this emotional feeling can really have a physical effect.’ ”

Ever since, he tells me, he’s “ducked in and out” of therapy. “The best sessions you ever have are ones where you think, ‘Ah, I’m not going to talk about anything today, I haven’t got a clue,’ and then all of a sudden, this thing comes out.” In the book he credits his experience of counselling with making him more communicative and more empathetic towards the other people in his life. Brymer Jones’s father, he tells me, was “bloody useless” at expressing his own feelings. “He couldn’t really handle the enormous wave of emotion that may happen if he actually opened his heart to something,” he explains. “Whereas I cry over a f***ing pot, for God’s sake.”

The public reaction to his tears has been mixed. “Some people are made so uncomfortable by tears of a man regularly on television,” Marj chips in. “They say things like, ‘Oh, it’s a gimmick,’ because it just doesn’t sit with them. They can’t handle it.”

It’s an attitude that baffles Brymer Jones. “I don’t get it. You’ll give yourself cancer — sit on it, and it’ll fester. No, let it all out.”

For the potters on the show, Brymer Jones’s tears are a badge of honour. Just like the words of his school art teacher, or the car from his old bosses, his feedback means something because, he explains, “it comes from an honest place”.

In 2016 Brymer Jones went to Australia to a ceramics festival called Clay Gulgong. He was to give a presentation there, but felt anxious, sure that he would be “looked down upon by the ceramics artists… I had a big chip on my shoulder about them not accepting me.” Once his presentation was over, two of the world’s leading experts on modern ceramics gave their own lecture. It featured Brymer Jones’s signature Word Range, which they described as “pots that talk”. “I was blown away. Absolutely blown away.” He felt recognised. “Isn’t that what we’re all really looking for, to be able to be seen? It’s a wonderful feeling.”

Perhaps that’s why the Throw Down gets emotional. “Just thinking about it now, maybe that’s what it is with their work. They bring this work to me, and it’s so wonderful. It’s like, ‘Oh, I see you now, I get it. Look, you can do this.’ ” He pauses. “It’s a brilliant, brilliant feeling.”

“Boy in a China Shop: Life, Clay and Everything” by Keith Brymer Jones is published by Hodder & Stoughton

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