Keith Brymer Jones pens emotional memoir on rise to Great Pottery Throw Down stardom



It was the very first task on the first episode of The Great Pottery Throw Down that Keith Brymer Jones did something unusual for a telly judge: he started crying.

Tears have now become his hallmark – the equivalent of a Paul Hollywood appreciation handshake on Bake Off.

But it’s little wonder the presenter is so emotional as he reveals a background of tough love, his battle with dyslexia, seeing his grandfather die and finding his beloved mum dead.

Recalling his first TV tears, the master potter said: “I was blubbing over someone in the studio not being able to get something in the drying room in time.

“I was as shocked as anybody else.

Keith, 56, bears all in his new book about his life at the wheel
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Stoke Sentinel)

“I remember hearing the director or someone in the monitor room going: ‘My God, KBJ is crying, one of the judges is crying – quick! Get some cameras on him!’”

Keith told how he fought hardest to control his emotions in the end of the first series with the co-host Sara Cox – but was told to let the floodgates open.

He said: “I remember turning to Sara Cox and saying: ‘I hope I don’t start bloody crying again because it’s even getting on my nerves – I can’t get out what I want to say!’

“I remember the director rushing out of the monitor room and saying: ‘Whatever you do Keith, don’t stop crying – it’s bloody TV gold.’”

Keith, 56, is the beating heart of one of Britain’s best-loved shows, in which amateur potters take part in a Bake Off-style competition.

Keith with Sara Cox, left, and Kate Malone – they were the host and judges of the first two series of The Great Pottery Throw Down
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BBC)

Keith’s new memoir is titled Boy in a China Shop: Life, Clay and Everything
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BBC)

He is releasing a memoir about how his delicate craft carried him to international recognition and succession.

In it, Keith reveals how his life went from ballet dancing to being in a punk band – while finding solace in pottery.

Growing up in Woodside Park, north London, Keith showed an early passion for the arts.

Regularly appearing in dance competitions, there was even talk of Keith attending a ballet school until his teenage years molded his body into the “wrong shape”.

But before giving up dancing at 16, he was very willing to suffer for his art.

Keith says: “I kind of equate dancing with pain, especially when you’re doing it quite intensely like that.

“I’ve never really struggled with physical pain at all – I think that probably stems from my father.”

To illustrate, he says his dad pulled his big toenail off with pliers in the garage because Keith thought it would help him stand on his toes more easily.

Keith also remembers his first swimming lesson when his dad threw him in at the deep end aged three or four.

He said: “My dad said: ‘Don’t worry, I’m here, just swim to the side.’ It would probably be tantamount to child abuse these days – but that’s how it was.”

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Keith, who now lives in Kent, did not discover pottery until a difficult period in his young life.

Aged 11, he was still in his first year at St Mary’s Church of England High School in Hendon, north west London, when he witnessed a shocking trauma, seeing his grandfather fall down stairs to his death.

Keith says: “There was no wonder I really didn’t take to secondary school – I felt it was scary and unnerving.”

But it was at St Mary’s that his love affair with pottery began, finding a safe haven in Mr Mortman’s art room.

Within days of first trying his hand at pottery, Keith was at the classroom’s wheel during lunchtimes and after school.

He says: “It was like a religious calling.

Later series of Throw Down have seen Keith joined by Siobhan McSweeney and Rich Miller
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Love Productions)

“This is the 80s and pottery departments in schools were on the way out – often the equipment was there but no one was using it.

“That was me. I still remember to this day touching the clay for the first time and it being an epiphany moment.

“I was dyslexic, and clay is the perfect medium for a dyslexic. I often do talks to schoolkids and I say: ‘If I hadn’t been dyslexic, I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing now.’

Keith pressed on with his passion throughout his adolescence and took an apprenticeship in Harefield Pottery aged 18.

The no-nonsense potters there, Alan Pett and Robert Hudson, had Keith shoveling clay and making tea for months before allowing him to throw his first simple shapes.

His apprenticeship also involved taking flak for his family’s Welsh heritage – as well as putting up with some pretty extreme practical jokes.

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On one occasion, Keith had pepper spray sprayed up his nose. On another, he was tricked into drinking magic mushroom tea.

Keith says: “It was definitely a university of life, put it that way.

“I’d never had magic mushroom tea before – or since, actually, maybe because of that experience.”

While working long days sitting at the potter’s wheel, Keith spent his nights in the spotlight as a punk band frontman – a million miles away from the avuncular figure seen on screen today.

His group, The Wigs, blew music critics away with their out of control live shows.

A trademark routine at their gigs involved Keith jumping into the crowd and pretending to bite willing participants on the groin. He suffered lots of injuries but said the “pain was worth it.”

After parting ways with Harefield Pottery, Keith was able to open his own pottery in Highgate, north London, in 1990 – the same year The Wigs played their last gig and broke up.

Contestants on Throw Down compete in a Bake Off-style challenge
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It was at Highbury Pottery in 1994 that Keith answered the phone to hear his neighbor telling him his beloved mother had died.

Rushing home, he found his mother in the kitchen, sitting on a chair, lifelessly leaning against the fridge door.

When police arrived at the scene, Keith was determined to make tea for them, but realized he wouldn’t be able to get milk from the fridge.

He explained the situation to his neighbor who kindly let him some – but the oddity of the situation struck him deeply.

Keith says: “It was obviously shocking and tragic at the time, and it did really affect me.

“There are certain situations in life where you think – ‘Hang on, this is bizarre.’”

It wasn’t long after that he met Dom Speelman, with whom he founded Make International – a designer ceramics and homeware company.

It was with Make International that Keith’s working life transformed from churning out pots all day to designing objects of pure desire, with the production side of his work moving to factories in China.

And he came to the attention of Bake Off producer Richard McKerrow when he squeezed into a dress and beehive wig for a memorable YouTube video to promote his company.

He sang a parody of Adele’s Rolling in the Deep – ‘Rolling Clay With Keith’.

Richard cast Keith as a judge in a new TV show, The Great Pottery Throwdown, which started in 2015 and is currently airing its fifth series on Channel 4.

Keith became a TV favorite after being spotted in a parody video
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Ken McKay/ITV/REX/Shutterstock)

Since then, Keith has become a fan favorite for his teary displays of emotion as the potters transform balls of gray clay into vibrant bowls, tea sets and clocks.

Keith says: “You’ve got 12 people in a room. They’re very passionate about what they do.

“They’re on national TV, for God’s sake, and they get judged on what they do.

“That takes tremendous bravery.

“When they’re standing there on the other side of the judging bench, and – oh, I’ll start crying now…”

He takes a moment to recompose, then says: “When their creation really, really works for them, I can’t stop myself taking delight in that.

“Let’s put it this way, it’s not like Matt Hancock crying.”

Boy In A China Shop: Life, Clay and Everything by Keith Brymer Jones is out now and available to order (Hodder & Stoughton)




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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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