It’s Pot Stars – the Great British Knock-Off
A few years ago the comics Anna Crilly and Katy Wix were given their own sketch show on Channel 4. Sketch shows being notoriously hit and miss and this one containing a surfeit of misses, it didn’t last long, but it did contain one great number. It was a parody of The Great British Bake-Off called Rice Britannia, ‘a competitive celebration of Britain’s great love affair with rice.’ It was broadly affectionate but it found its target – so desperate were we to find something great in being British that we’d damned well find it in rice, or cake, if we had to.
It was hard not to think of Rice Britannia as The Great Pottery Throwdown lumbered in to view, because this new series could just as easily have been a parody as a real programme. I scarcely paraphrase when I say this was Bake Off with clay instead of dough.
The GBBO recipe was followed to the letter: Pot Stars had a kooky presenter (Sara Cox) and a pair of chalk and cheese judges (Kate Malone and Keith Brymer Jones). It had a group of contestants we were encouraged to see as a cross-section of Britishness, where Britishness is a synonym for idiosyncrasy. And it had – god spare us – sexual innuendo, lashings of it, not deft, nudged innuendo or even scribbled-on-the-back-of-a-rough-book innuendo of the type purveyed by Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins on Bake Off, but innuendo that’s actually not innuendo at all. It started with one of the judges saying pottery was better than sex (which I suspect is heavily dependent on both the sex and the pot) and it soon descended in to what one could only call knob gags. There was a point at which our potters were asked to do a technical task involving ‘pulling’ clay to make mug handles. To be clear, pulling clay looks like pleasuring a male horse, or a male human for that matter, a point Sara Cox was happy to discuss at length. Indeed, The Great Pottery Throwdown was really just one long giggle at the fact that you can use clay to make gloopy phalluses that you then stroke and rub repeatedly.
In spite of following the Bake Off blueprint to the letter, Pot Stars wasn’t anywhere near as good because 1) We have all been watching Bake Off in our millions for six series; we know when we’re being sold a Great British Knock Off and 2) everyone likes cakes but hardly anyone is that bothered about crockery.
By my count Britain’s Greatness has now been expressed through baking, sewing, allotments, and now mugs. Similar contrived contests involving whittling, queueing and armpit farts must surely be in the works. These festivals of calculated whimsy are becoming as enjoyable to spend time with as the bloke at the party who wears ironic jumpers and keeps reminding you that he’s a little bit wacky. If this really is what being British is all about, it’s really not all that great.
You could at least say that all of these Great British Offs are an example of successful British exports. That’s what Dominic Sandbrook, writer and presenter of a new documentary series Let Us Entertain You, would argue. His thesis was that although our industrial might and our colonial empire may have withered and died, we do pop culture like no one else. Indeed, Sandbrook’s three card trick was to show that in actual fact many of our great cultural exports – The Beatles, our film industry – all came about as a direct result of our dwindling manufacturing industry. To take one example, Heavy Metal ‘could only’ have been born in Britain, apparently, because of the decline in real heavy metal brought about by the collapse of the British steel industry.
It sounds a little specious, I know, and it felt so too. I can’t quibble with Sandbrook’s contention that ‘our empire is now the imagination’ and that we’ve been spectacularly successful in selling it abroad via James Bond, Harry Potter, Grand Theft Auto and TV formats like Bake Off, but I don’t think this is an exclusively British genius. The Americans, to take one example, have also been quite good at creating culture and hawking it around the globe. Sandbrook concluded by saying, ‘We make better stories than anyone in the world.’ I’m not sure that washes in literary fiction or cinema, and it certainly doesn’t hold in television at the moment.
One export that we can be proud of is Grand Designs, a worldwide hit that shows that it’s not just the British who are obsessed with homes and home-making. Grand Designs’ success has led to several spin offs, the latest of which, ‘House of the Year,’ began this week. Essentially this is competitive Grand Designs – The Great British Build Off – looking at homes shortlisted for the RIBA prize to see which open-plan, glass-clad, eco-friendly piece of property porn is somehow deemed to be the best. There is no viewer vote, which is palpably a mistake – it would be so much more fun for the green-eyed monsters like myself if we could at least register our displeasure at all these happy people for whom everything from the underfloor heating upwards appears to have gone so right.
There was once an episode of The Simpsons in which Marge Simpson was pictured reading a magazine called ‘Better Homes.’ The joke was that the cover was partly concealed, so that when Marge moved the actual title of the magazine was revealed to be, ‘Better Homes Than Yours.’ It’s a joke that in part explains the appeal of Grand Designs, a show that, as its title implies, likes to tease you with something wonderful you’d love to have but can never get.
The trouble with House of The Year is that it only shows finished houses; it misses out on the normal GD narrative of ‘the build.’ This is the years of torment, mishap, chronic underbudgeting and unutterable loathing from the neighbours that precede the final gleaming triumph. For the viewer ‘the build’ offsets the hideous envy one feels at the end result with the satisfaction that the cooing couple with the space-age kitchen have had to really suffer for their ‘little oasis,’ largely through errors of their own making. Dominic Sandbrook would have called this the type of ‘story’ that Britons are so good at telling. Without that story, Grand Designs: House of the Year was just Better Homes… Than Yours.