Sunday 18 February 2018

Potty about pottery

Millions will tune in to tonight's final of the BBC's surprise TV smash, The Great Pottery Throw Down. Will the show do for ceramics what Bake Off did for pastries?

Hilary Jenkinson of Crannmor Pottery, Kirakee, Glenmalure, Co Wicklow. Photo: Garry O'Neill.
Hilary Jenkinson of Crannmor Pottery, Kirakee, Glenmalure, Co Wicklow. Photo: Garry O'Neill.
Presenter Sara Cox and contestant Sally-Jo Bond from BBC show The Great Pottery Throw Down.

Tanya Sweeney

It's a basic tenet of reality TV that where the small screen blazes a trail, the rest of us are sure to follow.

First off, we went crazy for hosting dinner parties at home, thanks to Come Dine With Me.

The seismically successful Bake Off series sent most of us amateur pastry chefs grappling for the food processor, while The Great Allotment Challenge prompted a spike in home gardening.

The latest series to capture the public's imagination is BBC's The Great Pottery Throw Down. It's thought that an audience of 2 million will tune in tonight to watch the highly gifted Jim Ranson, popular Sally-Jo Bond, hot favourite Matthew Wilcock and dapper Tom Knowles Jackson, duke it out for glory at the potter's wheel.

Presided over by Sara Cox, the show sees amateur ceramicists square up for a number of challenges. Hilarity and double-entendres ensue as they get to grips with great hunks of clay in a bid to find their inner creative.

Bake Off aside, it's safe to say that 'hobby TV' has long been having a moment, and Ellis Cashmore, academic and author of Celebrity Culture, is in agreement.

"This self-help theme is practically as old as TV itself," he asserts.

"It appears to have surged, especially with the rise of Bake Off, but, in fact, cooking, building, renovating, and, generally, DIY has been one of TV's staples.

"The first and most basic reason for this is: it's dirt cheap to produce. Compared to drama, it costs tip money. Even reality TV has become evermore exotic and thus, more expensive. And previously bankable talent shows, particularly The X Factor, seem to have gone through a plateau and are now on the down-slide.

"But the cooking and making shows are like hardy perennials: they just keep popping up, no matter what else changes.

"I think they were more understandable in the 1950s and early 1960s, when consumerism hadn't quite caught fire and people felt vaguely guilty about eating out, when they could save money by cooking at home, or hiring a painter and decorator instead of doing the job themselves at weekends. I suspect there is something seductive about transformation."

But with The Great Pottery Throw Down coming to its climactic conclusion, will art imitate life this time around? Or more specifically, will life imitate telly yet again?

Geoffrey Healy, a ceramicist who regularly holds classes in his own studio in Kilmacanogue, Wicklow ( has noticed an upturn in interest.

"My classes have been pretty popular anyway as there are only eight people in a class at any time, but the TV programme seems to have caught a lot of people's imagination," he reveals. "I'm getting a lot more enquiries, and speaking to people in the business, it has become very fashionable in the UK.

"I think everybody has different reasons for doing the classes, but what I try to do is to take sparks of enthusiasm and turn into a roaring passion," he adds.

Hilary Jenkinson, also based in Wicklow, has also noticed a change: "I've definitely gotten a few more email enquiries off the top of the show," she says. "Some say, 'my wife has seen the programme, and it's something she's wanted to do for a long time'."

Of course, pottery and ceramics have been a perennial favourite in Ireland. We are fiercely proud of our crafting traditions, and creativity appears etched on our DNA. There's something in the simplicity and earthiness of pottery that appeals.

Yet, herein lies the reason that pottery could well be the new baking: for those seeking a hobby to redress their work-life balance, it has all the benefits of a slow, meditative process and none of the calories.

"It's a very visually seductive thing," reasons Healy. "It's very experiential and there's a lot of positive affirmation in a class when people look at what they've made. It makes people feel present and grounded. I was working with one woman and when she felt the clay under her hand, she was quite transported. She was supposed to go to Spain on holiday for the last day of the course, but decided to come to the class instead.

Adds Jenkinson: "I have one client who finds that the classes alleviate stiffness in her hands. Others marvel at how quickly the two hours go, as it's you pretty much becoming one with the clay. They're always so amazed at what they can create."

But make no mistake: it's not a question of sitting down at a potter's wheel and promptly turning out a masterpiece.

"People think it looks easy and they think, 'I'll go to a class and make all my Christmas presents', but there is a skill involved and some people get disillusioned quickly," observes Healy. "By the fifth week of a course, people will have learned about the material they're working with and will get to sit on the wheel."

Bray-based carpenter/builder Danny Marshall grew up in west Cork, where the tradition of craft and pottery is etched into the landscape. About 10 years ago, he tried a class and never looked back.

"In my line of work, it takes about eight to nine months to see the finished result, but with this, I can visualise a piece straight away," he explains. "You do need a bit of patience.

"For the first while, you're not really creating anything, but if you grit your teeth and get through that, you start to produce what's in your head."

In the coming weeks, Marshall is planning to hold an exhibition of his work along with Healy.

"I have my breakfast or a cup of coffee from something I actually made," he adds. "I have a favourite cup that I use and there's a certain energy that comes from using something that you've made. It keeps my head together a little bit."

A decade into his pottery adventure, Marshall has noticed a slight difference in the classes down the years: "Years ago, there was a bigger turnover: people were coming for six-week classes, but then fading away," he recalls. "Now, there appears to be better longevity. People have been coming for six or seven years, and it's become like a little club."

Denis Byrne, a company director from Newcastle in Wicklow, started pottery classes a year ago and has also found them a great social outlet.

"The mix in the class is great," he enthuses. "We go from late 20s to 60s. Everyone offers something to the unit, and there's a lovely atmosphere in the class. There's a real sense of cooperation there, as opposed to competition."

Originally working with glass, Byrne's pottery hobby started almost 30 years ago.

"There's an inner peace involved for sure," he reflects. "You're at one with yourself, which is very rewarding. But I have done it in fits and starts. You do your first wobbly ashtray and you think it's great."

Job done on learning the skills involved, Byrne has begun a collection of bird-shaped bowls, which take pride of place in his home.

"People come into the house and pick them up immediately as they're very tactile," he says. "Even now I think to myself, 'I still can't believe I made that'."

The final of The Great Pottery Throw Down is tonight on BBC2 at 9pm

Irish Independent

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