HBO Max Gives 'The Great Pottery Throw Down' A Spin

(Photograph by Love Productions/HBO Max)

Fans of The Great British Baking Show, rejoice. There's a new reality series arriving stateside from Love Productions, a spinoff of GBBO. It's called The Great Pottery Throw Down, and it's arrived on HBO Max with three full seasons, just in time for fall.

By the time The Great British Bake Off  (known here as The Great British Baking Show) reached its third season in 2012, the series was well on its way to becoming a bonafide hit for BBC Two. Success on television breed spinoffs and Love Productions, the parent company behind GBBO quickly came up with new twists on the formula. The first, 2013's The Great British Sewing Bee (which I've discussed here before), was a relatively sensible concept. Much like baking, sewing can work as a timed exercise, and there was already proof such a reality competition worked, as Project Runway was already a decade old hit by that point.

With Sewing Bee hitting well and GBBO becoming a stateside hit on PBS in 2015, another spinoff was born. But the second was a far more esoteric oddity. Looking to tap into trades seen as quintessentially British, the production studio turned to ceramics. Following Sewing Bee's model of taking over an old warehouse that sat in what once was the heart of the British industry and old school rock-and-roll soundtracks, Love Productions went to Stoke-on-Trent to film The Great Pottery Throw Down

The new series lasted all of two seasons. As longtime fans of GBBO know, 2016 was when Love Productions and the BBC had The Great British Falling Out, and GBBO packed up its tent and moved to Channel 4 in the U.K. and from PBS to Netflix over here. Production halted on both spinoffs, and though Sewing Bee was eventually revived in 2019, and is now on Series 6 over there, The Great Pottery Throw Down was canceled in 2018. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Channel 4 decided to rescue it from the dustbin of history and HBO Max, looking for British content to complement its contract with BBC America, has brought it to American shores. (This leaves GBSB ripe for the picking up by the way. I'm looking at you, PBS!)

The original two series from the BBC starred BBC regular Sara Cox as host and Kate Malone and Keith Brymer Jones as the "expert judges." There was also the mostly offscreen "kiln man Rich," Richard Miller, who was in charge of firing the projects. Like the GBBO move, most of these figures were replaced, with only Keith Brymer Jones as the carryover. He's joined by new expert Sue Pryke and host Melanie Sykes.

But what is this series? It's probably the strangest take on the GBBO model ever conceived. 

The formula is a simple one on GBBO. Every episode is taped over the weekend. On Day One, there's the Signature, which the contestants practice at home all week. There's the Technical, which is basic instructions and ingredients, and the bakers have to use their skills and judgment to get it right. Then there's the Showstopper, which is also a practiced bake and takes all of the second day. Sewing Bee follows this format to a tee, with the pre-practiced Pattern Challenge, the unseen Alteration Challenge that requires contestants to reinvent a garment, and the Made-to-Measure Challenge where a full outfit is made in a day and ends with a runway walk.

Within five minutes of the first episode of GPTD, it becomes apparent to even the most novice clay-throwers that this is not how any of this works when it comes to potting.

Potting is not a timed exercise where projects can be completed in three hours or even a day. Practicing is no guarantee of success. Every single wad of clay is different, and each behaves differently due to temperature, humidity, and just how it wants to. So there's no sense in a Signature as fans would recognize it. As for the Showstopper, here called the "Main Make," these projects take days, with overnight drying sessions and, when firing in the Western fashion, hours upon hours in a kiln. 

(Photograph by Love Productions/HBO Max)

Most of each episode is taken up with the Main Make, which can range from teacups to toilets. In between, when things are drying and firing, one or two more challenges are roughly inserted, both of which are vaguely in the Technical realm: the Spot Test and the Throw Down. Neither are completed projects, as much as they are tests of clay manipulation and speed. But that's not all. One of the realities of both baking and sewing is they are 100% under the individual's control. If a cake falls, it's a failure to mix ingredients; if a coat comes out wrong, it's because the seamstress sewed it incorrectly. But clay often has a mind of its own.

Sure, if it's not thrown in such a way as to rid it of air pockets or pulled too thin, it can collapse upon drying or firing. But half the time, if something explodes in the kiln, it's due to impurities in the clay or other factors outside any one person's control. And because these projects are all fired together in a giant kiln (which has projects from other potters as well), one person's exploding project can shatter those nearby, leaving multiple contestants scrambling even though they've done nothing to deserve it.

On the one hand, it makes Throw Down a far more interesting high wire act than its counterparts. But on the other, it tough to see someone go home because their project failed -- and it's not even due to anything within their control.

That being said, the show is perhaps the most fascinating of all the "Great British" reality series ever created. After all, most people see baking in their lives with some regularity and are intimately familiar with clothing. But pottery is a mystery to many, the creation of everyday items most never think about twice. In that, it is perhaps the most educational of the three, and indeed the most fascinating.

All three seasons of The Great Pottery Throwdown are currently streaming on HBO Max.