Kevin Millward’s recurring theme is “And then I get a phone call…”
Kevin will be known to many of you as the course director at the Clay College and the consultant behind The Great Pottery Throw Down.
He is also one of the consultants on ClayCraft and provides the majority of our throwing projects, but his career has been long, full and very varied! We met him at the Clay College, Stoke, and asked him how it all began.
“It was always going to be difficult for me to pursue an academic career because I’m dyslexic. I knew I wasn’t thick, but in those days you had to be able to ‘write it down’. I was always into the arts – I put paintings into exhibitions when I was as young as nine or 10 – and I’d always made things, so I decided my route was to go to art school. In those days, you could elect to leave school at 15 to go to art school, which meant you could carry on with maths and English, but pursue more a creative art base. I first touched clay in High School in 1968. Literally within a year before leaving to go to art school, they opened up a pottery department, so I had a chance to make a pot.
“I went to Leek School of Art for four years. It was a very traditional art school but the standard and quality of the tutors were second-to-none, and people used to say that the quality of the work that came out of that college at Foundation was the equivalent to most degree students’ work. Originally, I wanted to be a sculptor; it’s in the family on my mother’s side. I thought I’d do painting and sculpting, and as part of that sculpting thing one day I wandered into the pottery department. We’d done a bit, and I thought this was a way of creating simple forms that I could sculpt onto. But of course, once you get on the wheel… I was sold.
“I looked at what potters of the time were doing – Bernard Leach, Michael Cardew and I was thinking how brown it all was, then I came across Colin Pearson, Hans Coper, Lucy Rie and Ruth Duckworth, and I thought ‘that’s something I’m more interested in’; clay as a material and the process, but in a more sculptural approach. But, when I came to leave art school, there were no ceramic degree courses. There were diploma courses like the one I was doing, or Dip ADs (Diploma in Art and Design), but you had to have English and maths to get on. I’d failed both umpteen times, so I couldn’t go and do that course at 19. The only option was to go back at 21 because then I’d be an adult and it would be like an Access course. If I was going to do that, I’d have to kick my heels for a couple of years. My parents said that if I thought I was going to sit around while they supported me, I’d better think again!”
“In the local paper, I saw an ad: ‘Wanted, potter to work in a small studio in Cheshire’. It was Coopers Pottery, based just outside Congleton. A typical romantic image of a studio pottery in the early 1970s, a black and white Tudor house, farm buildings, and stables converted into a studio. They had as 200ft3 oil-fired kiln, a small salt kiln, a team of four throwers and a couple of other people. The team was a husband and wife; Dave had a career in industrial ceramics and had done the Potteries Manager course at Staffs Uni, and his wife had done a diploma in studio ceramics, so they were ideally suited to put this business together.
“I went for an interview, waited, but heard nothing back. I said to my mum, ‘Obviously I haven’t got it, I’m not experienced enough’. She was furious that they hadn’t contacted me, even if to tell me I hadn’t got the job, and suggested I give them a ring. So I did, and they said: ‘Oh, we thought you didn’t want it’. I asked what they meant. ‘We sent you a letter saying you’d got the job, but you didn’t reply.’ I never had the bloody letter! They offered me the job. The only downside was that I couldn’t afford to move there. I travelled every morning, two and a half hours on the bus, to get there. I got up at 5am, caught the 5.30 bus from Leek to Hanley, then a bus from Hanley to Sandbach. I had to get off at an unrecognised stop and walk for half an hour down a lane to the pottery, getting there at 8.30-9am. I’d do a full day’s work, walk back, catch the bus and get home about 9pm. I’d have something to eat, go to bed and do it all again the next day. I did that until I had enough set aside for a little car, which cut my journey time to just under an hour. I did that for just over 12 months for £19 a week!”
“I was getting a bit frustrated because they wanted me to do less throwing and more of the running of things, because I was good at it. They said throwers were two-a-penny, but what they couldn’t get was someone with ‘your intuitive ability to pack kilns, glaze things, and get stuff moving through the system. We want you to manage it.’ I said I didn’t want to do that. My frustration was that I wanted more time on the wheel, to build my throwing skills.
“My mother was a keen amateur archaeologist and had gone on a trip to the newly opened Gladstone Pottery Museum. While she was there, she overheard someone say they could do with a potter. She jumped straight in with ‘My son’s a potter’, and they suggested I get in touch. I rang them, and they said yes, they were looking for another potter to work with Dave [Rooke], who had just started. I went to see them, and they give me the job. They had the pottery and people could come in and watch people working. Well, when you’re making pots, you throw something, then you have to set it aside, then you have to turn it, then you put the handles on, then you glaze and fire it. If you’ve only got one person, it leaves a massive gap in the workshop. They needed someone on the wheel seven days a week, so that meant at least two potters; one throwing and one handling and turning and doing all that. It was really successful. Dave was brilliant. We worked together for three years, and he was a huge help to me with my throwing skills.
“One day, I was in the workshop, and a man in a suit walked in and asked for Dave. ‘I’m from Harrison Mayer (now Potterycrafts).’ Dave came out. ‘We’ve got a seminar in Ireland this weekend, and the potter who was doing it has let us down. We’ve been told you’re a great thrower and raconteur. Could you come over tomorrow afternoon to give a workshop and demo?’ Dave had a family event, but he said ‘Kev’ll do it.’”
“So, this skinny young lad with long hair arrived in Ireland. They didn’t realise how good I was until I got there. I blew them away. I really enjoyed myself, and did tricks – I threw a row of pots, then threw all the lids and dropped them in, and they all fitted, without measuring. They were amazed. I’ve always been able to come up with a good joke and a story, and I came home, having had a good time and got back to work.”
“A week later, I was asked to go to Harrison Mayer to speak to them. I went, and they offered me a position. They said, ‘We’ve been looking for someone with practical, technical knowledge who can get up and talk. We want a person who can bridge the gap between the technical guy in the lab and the punter who comes into the shop.’ I told them I’d do it for three years.
“They put a package on the table; three times what I was earning, a company car, an expense account, my own office, a secretary, and when I went anywhere, 5-star hotels. They flew me everywhere. I lived on my expenses; it was amazing. While I was there, my technical knowledge leapt massively. The head technical guy, Derek Royal… what he didn’t know, wasn’t worth knowing. He helped many of the top makers and potters who wrote books on ceramics; he did all the technical stuff behind them. He was a phenomenal help and encouragement. When the three years were up, I left. They couldn’t believe it and offered me more to stay, but I’d done my time.
“I left, set my own studio up in Leek and started making pots, but no one wanted to buy them. I could just about make a living, but I was scraping by. I had quite a lot of money set aside, but I realised that it wasn’t sustainable, and the reserves were dwindling.”
And then I get a phone call
“An old art school friend rang, asking if I fancied teaching some Foundation classes, and I was really good at it. The boss pulled me in and said: ‘You’ve turned this ceramics department round, all on your own. Before you came, people didn’t want to go down there.’ I said, ‘Yes, it’s because I know how to generate enthusiasm, because I have the enthusiasm. These kids relate to me, and I know what they want. I knew how to make it fun.’ It wasn’t hard work to me.
“The Head of Art asked me to rewrite the programme for the college. I resisted because it was ‘writing’, but he said, ‘No, you just tell us what you want the course to be, and we’ll sort it out.’ I redesigned the layout of the whole studio so it could be cleaned and rewrote the programme – it all made sense to me, with its spelling mistakes and no punctuation! I handed it in, and they said they’d put it into ‘education speak’. They gave me a copy back, and I couldn’t believe it was what I’d written! We got it going and then gradually, things started to change, and my hours were cut from three and a half days a week down to one or two days.”
And then I get a phone call…
“… from a friend who was teaching at Leicester Poly. ‘Do you want a job? We need someone with your studio ceramics expertise.’ I went up to see them, and they gave me a trial period. I went in, and at the end of the first day, John Cook beckoned me over. I thought it was all over… he told me to sit down. ‘You’re the first person in 10 years who I’ve seen go into that studio, roll their sleeves up and make something – actually show the students how it’s done.’ I told him, ‘That’s how I teach.’ If a student wants to know something or asks me ‘how do you do that?’, I establish my credibility by getting on the wheel and making it, in a way that blows them away. Then they know that I know what I’m talking about. That bond is immediately made where they trust me, and that’s how I work. We turned out some phenomenal students. And because I had the industrial background, I could flick into that too; they were very strong on mould-making and plasterwork. I was there for 19 years until the course gradually collapsed. It became De Montfort Uni, and the writing was on the wall. Gradually, it was phased out.
Then I get a phone call
“Someone I know who worked at Bucks Uni, rang asking if I wanted to do some teaching at High Wycombe. He wanted to move back north, and we were looking for someone like him at De Montfort, so I told him to put me in touch with whoever I needed to speak to at Wycombe, and I’d do the same for him at De Montfort. Neil Brownsword, who’d just got a post at High Wycombe, put a word in for me with the head of department, and I joined them. I thought I’d put up with the travelling… 19 years later, I was still there. In between teaching there, I was still doing visiting lectures, all over the country, filling in my days by being known within the system. Then…
I get a phone call
“Someone from Harrow rang and said that although the course was closing, there were still five years left to run, and would I be interested in some teaching to get the last cohort through the system. It fitted in well with what I was already doing. I’d do one day at Wycombe, and the next day at Harrow. By this time, the college courses were all winding down, with closures etc, and…
Then I get a phone call
“It was someone from Love Production. ‘We want to do a programme like Bake Off, but with pottery. Everybody we speak to says it can’t be done, but that if anybody can do it, it’s you. Do you think it’s possible?’ I said ‘Well, it depends on what you want to do.’ We had quite a few phone calls initially when I tried to explain what you can and can’t do, because they knew nothing about pottery, and then after a lot of toing and froing they said ‘What we really need to do now is hammer out what the format would be. We need to meet up and could you send some info about yourself, your background?’. So I sent my CV, and they were really impressed by my TV credits. But, it was also a bit of a problem. ‘We need someone who’s fresh to TV. We still want to meet you, though. We can get a presenter, what we need is expertise and someone who knows how TV works; who can help develop the set, and who understands the system.’
“We sat down and thrashed out the format; one major make down the middle (the only things that are fired), and I’d come up with the project and make sure it worked; the throw down, which the potter would do, and then an expert with a particular knowledge, who would deliver it and the contestants would have a go. The problem, certainly for the first series, was that the viewers wouldn’t know what things were, eg raku, so we needed little vignettes slipped in, which explained the history of it, and showed examples, without being preachy or ‘educational’ so the viewer would understand what they were watching.
“I developed the system for testing the applicants and interviewing them. We finally settled on Middleport, which was the right location, and I oversaw the building of the sets etc. While I was working on Throw Down…”
I had a phone call!
“It was Lisa Hammond asking if I’d be interested in being on the Adopt a Potter Trust. One of the objectives was to look at newly graduated potters and award them a grant to go and work alongside an established maker. After a couple of years, we came to the conclusion that we had to train them ourselves. They were graduating with lots of creativity but lacking in practical skills. The old Harrow, Derby, Chesterfield courses were great, so we turned the clock back, while removing the ethic of ‘this is what you SHOULD be making’.
“From a standing start to opening was two years. We badgered MPs, local authorities, Staffs Uni, and got nowhere. The local MP Tristram Hunt was great, but no one could ‘get’ what we were trying to do. Tristam Hunt told us that to get anywhere, we needed to produce some facts and figures. So we thought the only way we could do it was to appeal to our own community; studio potters here and abroad. They were 100% behind it. Ninety-eight per cent of potters thought it should be a hands-on, practical, studio-based course. A couple said there should be a design element in it, and 95% said it should be based in Stoke-on-Trent. Three weeks later we told Tristram we’d got a report together. ‘What? In three weeks?!’ We showed it around (everyone wanted to keep it!) but got nowhere. We got no funding from the big people because they don’t do start-ups.
“We needed £250-thousand to get The Clay College off the ground, and the community came together; crowdfunding, people selling pots, cake sales, and the money rolled in. Because I was at Middleport doing Throw Down, I knew this building was here, and all the bits of the jigsaw came together.
“I took the job as course director because how could I persuade someone to take the job if there was a risk it wasn’t going to work? I’d take it on and get it off the ground, then if it worked, I could phase-out, and we could bring someone else in. It’s been a mammoth success, but it’s nearly killed me! I wrote all the projects, the core curriculum, and did the bulk of the teaching.
“When we’re working through the applicants, I’m looking for ‘the spark’. That’s all. I don’t care what they can do, because I can teach them to do it. It’s not my job to tell them what to make.
I never let my personal taste impinge on what I’m doing. It’s not about me; it’s about what they want and what I can bring out of them. It’s my job to teach them how to make what they want to make, and for them to have the confidence in me that I know how to deliver it. It’s challenging for a tutor, because if someone comes in and says I want to do XYZ, and you know nothing about XYZ, then you have to go and find out about it. But you have to do it right, or the student goes wrong and gets despondent. I’ve told students, ‘I know nothing about that, but this time next week I will’, and I go and find out about it. I have the tangible skills to be able to translate what I find out. All I need is the information. I don’t have to learn how to do it, because I can already use my hands. If I know what it is, I know how to do it. Then I can say to the student, ‘This is what we do’, and we do it together. Each time that happened over the past 40 years, I’ve banked more knowledge. That’s why I know so much!”
As this feature went to press, the second cohort of students was arriving at the college for the start of their two-year course, and filming for the third series of the Throw Down was underway. Exciting times at Middleport, and all due respect to Kevin, the lynchpin of both.
I’ve been involved with TV for years. My first appearance was Blue Peter in 1974-5. It came about when I was at the Gladstone Pottery Museum, and Blue Peter came as part of the opening ceremony; they filmed Dave and me working. Gladstone was used quite a lot as a historical set/background; there were always TV companies there filming. I was in all sorts of things, in the background, potting and people would come and ask about it. Not everyone can speak in front of a camera, but I can, so as the ‘voice of knowledge’, I’d do whatever they wanted. The Discovery Channel asked me to dress up as Wedgwood, and things grew from there. There were lots of little TV programmes, and it’s a small world, so I got known as being a safe pair of hands.
Then I get a phone call!
It was the BBC, in need of a potter for The Generation Game. I did six with Bruce Forsyth and a couple with Jim Davison. There were children’s programmes, Saturday morning kids’ stuff, lots of educational stuff for schools. Time Team, the Antiques Roadshow, Equinox, Spitting Image… One thing rolls on to the next. And the latest, of course, is The Great Pottery Throw Down.
Read more Meet the Potter profiles here