'We feature the extraordinary stories behind ordinary objects': behind the scenes at BBC Two's Made in Great Britain

By Guest, 23 October 2018 - 11:22am

The new BBC Two series Made in Great Britain, which begins on 26 October, reveals how our talented ancestors helped to craft modern Britain, says Nell Darby

Steph McGovern Made in Great Britain
Steph McGovern takes four craftspeople back in time in BBC Two's Made in Great Britain

Until she had a conversation with her grandmother, Claire de Lune didn't know she was keeping up a family tradition.

Read the full version of this article in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine November 2018, on sale now

Working as a ceramicist, Claire was unaware that her ancestors were also potters. Their history in Staffordshire could be traced back to the 15th century.

However, when the journalist and BBC presenter Steph McGovern took her to Stoke, she discovered her potting forebears' often hard lives.

Claire is one of the four contemporary British craftspeople featured in the six-part BBC Two series Made in Great Britain.

It starts at 9pm on Friday 26 October 2018 on BBC Two and celebrates the importance of local industry and our ancestors' crafting skills.

The programme-makers say that their aim is to "feature the extraordinary stories behind ordinary objects".

Each hour-long episode explores a particular city or town and the historic craft associated with it.

Among them are cheese-making in Wensleydale, pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, cutlery-making in Sheffield, shoe manufacture in Northampton, chocolate-making in York and millinery in Luton.

The crafts are put into their wider context of how they helped to shape Britain's economic and social history.

For example, in Northampton the programme visits the traditional shoe factory Tricker's. Master shoemaker Scott McKee hand-stitches a 'turn shoe' as 14th cordwainers would have done, setting themselves on a path to prosperity.

Various experts are brought in to help the craftspeople create items from each industry, using historic instruction manuals, logbooks, diaries and tools. Through making their own products, they learn how their trade has changed over time.

Jo Bishop, Made in Great Britain's executive producer, says that location is the key to the series: "Our rule was that the products still had to be produced in the home town where they were first established - a sense of place was as important as the craft."

Therefore the guest experts who feature in the programme had to have a connection to the particular town or city, as well as being top craftspeople in their field. "They needed to be able to lead us through four eras, and help teach our makers the skills required for each period."

Local record offices play a crucial role in the series too. As Jo explains, "For each craft, we delved into local archives to find original ledgers, documents and testimonies from people at the time. One of my favourites was from a Northampton factory-owner, telling a provider of sewing machines to stay away because of a feared uprising in the town. 'They don't want us here,' he said."

In Claire's case, her visit to Stoke - her first - gives her a strong sense of connection with both her craft and her ancestors. The programme-makers also employed a professional genealogist to help delve further.

Pottery Made in Great Britain Claire de Lune
In Made in Great Britain ceramicist Claire de Lune discovers how the potters in her family tree once practised her trade

Claire finds the humble terraced cottage in Bold Street where her relative, potter Richard Adams, lived in the 19th century.

Half her family grew rich during this era. The Williams Adams and Son pottery company ran for two centuries, before being sold to Wedgwood in the 1960s. However, her own family line was poor.

A farm is another filming location in the same episode, and leads to an unexpected revelation for Claire.

"It turned out that the owners were indirectly related to Claire, and held a book actually written by another member of the Adams family dynasty," says Jo.

The series also talks to other craftspeople and business owners whose families have been involved in their craft for generations.

One example is millinery dyer John Horn. Based in Luton, John's great grandfather owned a straw-plait shop back in the 1820s. His family moved into felt- and straw-dyeing by the end of the century.

John dyes hats for famous designers including Philip Treacy. He works in a Victorian dye-works that was once the centre of Luton's hat-production industry. It has been owned by his family for the past four decades.

For viewers who find themselves inspired to find out more about the crafts in their tree, Jo advises, "Visit local museums and archives. Even factories themselves often have a wealth of information and archive material tucked away."

Made in Great Britain emphasises the lasting importance of crafts to both our history and our psyche, despite our modern consumerist society.

As Jo concludes, "I hope that viewers will gain an understanding of the history and long line of makers who came up with the brilliant ideas that have helped to form those ordinary, everyday objects which we often take for granted."
 

Don't miss Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine November 2018 for all the latest family history TV and radio programmes

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