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2 February 2017

Kiln me softly: why Great Pottery Throw Down is the new, surprisingly moving, Bake Off

I wasn't expecting BBC2's pottery competition to make me so emotional, but it did. Plus: Francis Bacon: a Brush With Violence.

By Rachel Cooke

I loved the first series of The Great Pottery Throw Down (Thursdays, 8pm), which aimed to do for kilns what Bake Off did for ovens. Yes, its miscast presenter, Sara Cox, who saw every lump of clay, whatever its shape or size, as an opportunity for a lame double entendre, was irritating. But everything else about it, from its setting (Middleport Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent) to its judges (the wise Kate Malone and the lachrymose Keith Brymer Jones), tugged at my heart.

What might have been desperate – how many talent shows do we need? – turned out to be weirdly moving. Don’t let ­anyone tell you that baking a cake and throwing a pot are equally difficult. But there was something more elemental at play, too. Consider, as this show cleverly forces you to do, the exquisite marriage of form and function that is a curvaceous jug, a delicate dinner plate, or a beaker that feels just right in the hand. Doesn’t it stir you almost to tears?

But perhaps that’s just me (and Brymer Jones, who has only to see a fetching glaze for his eyes to brim). Anyway, the series is back and I like it more than ever, because it now feels, on top of everything else, like some wondrous antidote to the times. It’s true that Cox remains in place and that her “impressive width” jokes show no sign of letting up. But she is, in effect, neutralised by the show’s real stars, the contestants. Among those competing this time are a pub landlord, a mortgage adviser, a young Quaker, a (male) model and a cage fighter.

As you watch them, concentrating so hard and so sweetly determined, all seems right with the world. No one here is in a box, bound by others’ expectations of their class, wealth or gender. In this realm, expertise is not a dirty word but something much longed for and to be admired when found in others. For the hour that the show lasts, history is vividly alive, yet untinged by mind-numbing nostalgia. These pots, and the craft involved in making them, connect to the past but belong entirely to the present, the mysterious alchemy of their firing always producing a genuine and frequently a beautiful surprise.

Beauty is the thing right now, isn’t it? All I want to do is to sink down into music, novels, art. On which note, the documentary Francis Bacon: a Brush With Violence (28 January, 9pm) seemed to me to be mistitled – and not only because of the woeful pun. Beauty, I say, not violence. The biographer John Richardson, a friend of the artist, said it best at the end of the film, when he suggested that these days people think of Bacon almost as a religious painter, the disgust that trailed his earliest big shows in the 1940s having long since dissipated. Gazing at the paintings, you feel as someone might have done in the 16th century on catching sight of a pietà. What I get from Bacon’s work is an other-worldliness: a transporting, almost paralysing sense of awe. The filth
and brutality are almost beside the point.

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This is not to criticise Richard Curson Smith’s gossipy but never prurient film. It was incredibly good, elegantly combining footage of Bacon – whose voice always startles me by sounding of the drawing room rather than the gutter – with some transfixing talking heads. Listening to Richardson was thrilling. (“Everything was torn, every­thing was dirty, everything was . . . wonderful,” he said of Bacon’s studio.)

The same was true of another friend, Nadine Haim. She had never been his subject, she noted, an unfiltered cigarette in her hand. But were he alive now, perhaps her wrinkles would – at this she laughed, darkly – encourage him to take up his brush.

Rather less compelling were the Bacon-fryer-in-chief, his biographer Michael Peppiatt, who fell back on all the old Jekyll and Hyde clichés; and Damien Hirst, still stupidly insistent in the matter of his kinship with the master.

Only one thing spoiled the drama for me. Why are film-makers so afraid of silence and so determined to avoid it by using music? Quiet was badly needed here: moments in which, some terrible biographical truth or infelicity having been uttered, we might have paused to take it all in. 

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This article appears in the 01 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage