I had only middle-aged lesbian passing interest in ceramics – then I discovered The Great Pottery Throw Down …

<span>Rich Miller, Siobhán McSweeney and Keith Brymer Jones with contestants on The Great Pottery Throw Down.</span><span>Photograph: Mark Bourdillon/Love Productions</span>
Rich Miller, Siobhán McSweeney and Keith Brymer Jones with contestants on The Great Pottery Throw Down.Photograph: Mark Bourdillon/Love Productions

One thing that is amazing about this world, and I’ve been trying to notice those things more, is that you never know when new love is around the corner. It might be romantic but it might also be a friend you’re about to make when you accidentally hit them with your car, or a new recipe that you know immediately you’re going to eat nonstop for weeks until you fall out of love suddenly and violently and can’t ever look at it again without gagging. Or in my case – you discover a TV show about pottery.

I have only had the usual middle-aged lesbian passing amount of interest in ceramics before, unless of course you count seeing the famous scene in Ghost at 11 years old and feeling peculiar, and then feeling very peculiar later when Patrick Swayze in the body of Whoopi Goldberg kissed Demi Moore (but I digress). My interest in the art form was sparked (in a different way this time), when I had one of those good illnesses that means lying down watching a lot of TV. This led me to a show called The Great Pottery Throw Down.

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If you’ve ever seen its sister program, The Great British Bake Off, you will understand the general vibe we are dealing with here. If not, Throw Down sees 12 amateur potters gather in the fake-sounding English city of “Stoke-on-Trent” (claimed to be the world capital of ceramics), in an ex-Pottery factory turned pottery museum, ready to get their hands dirty. The seasons I’ve watched have been hosted by Siobhán McSweeney (beloved as Sister Michael on Derry Girls), and judged by tall expert ceramicists and seemingly lovely men Richard Miller and Keith Brymer Jones. There is a main challenge, where contestants sculpt, design, fire, and decorate things like chandeliers, 3D animal table lamps, terracotta cookware sets or even urinals. There’s also a smaller challenge, where one of the judges displays expertly how to throw a milk jug, or make a chimney blindfolded. After making it look easy, the contestants have a short amount of time to replicate what they did, during which they show us how not-easy it actually was.

Like The Great British Bake Off, the show is … nice. I’m sorry! But it is. Everyone is kind, they help each other, and the judges always try to find something positive in each piece. Moreover, unlike Paul Hollywood’s handshakes given out to the rare extremely impressive bake on Bake Off, Throw Down has the large and imposing judge Keith, who cries multiple times an episode. He is moved by the pottery, but even more so by the potters themselves and the effort they have made, and is unafraid to express it. I have known the man for mere weeks but I would die for him, probably in a pottery-related mishap.

The show is full of characters, all of whom are obsessed with pottery, but who vary greatly in type – from clay-splattered chaotic artsy weirdos to the precise and technical engineering strait-laced vibes, each bringing their own point of view to the challenges. They all have their own stories, and the personal is woven throughout, like when Christine from series five creates a beautiful sculpture based on losing a breast to cancer when she was younger, and finds the entire thing really cathartic (Keith cried obviously) (so did I).

It’s obvious that the potters all learn so much throughout their time in the competition. They go from strength to strength and are all delighted to be there, even if they go on to be eliminated because their bottom is dirty (a technical term you wouldn’t understand) or their rim wasn’t sturdy enough. It’s a joy to watch. As someone who knows nothing about this art form, I also love how much I have learned from the show, so that I can now pretend to be an expert. Not to create unnecessary rivalry but Bake Off never really surprises me. Throw Down, however, shows me so much I have never heard of, and I am constantly finding myself thinking, ‘Huh, cool.’ There are thrilling and stressful episodes, like when the potters experiment with the ancient Japanese ceramic technique raku, which involves fire and explosions and the contestants themselves have no idea how things will turn out.

My enjoyment of the show is not just in the sweet vibes and the soothing spinning clay. It’s not just that it’s a lovely warm show where people are kind to each other. The thing I enjoy most is that we get to watch people who love their craft indulge in that passion completely for the first time maybe ever, be luxuriously resourced, and use the time to create beautiful art in front of us with their hands. It’s enough to make a grown judge cry.

  • Rebecca Shaw is a writer based in Sydney