Page last updated at 13:26 GMT, Monday, 9 November 2009

Return to Planet Stoke

Roger Law and Peter Fluck of Spitting Image
Roger Law (right) and Peter Fluck made their name on Spitting Image

In the 1980s, Roger Law and Peter Fluck of Spitting Image went to Stoke-on-Trent to get some Margaret Thatcher teapots made. Now Mr Law, in the Radio 4 show Whatever Happened To The Teapots?, has returned to meet the potters to find out what has happened to their industry.

Here he tells the BBC what he discovered.

Popular television shows are as attractive to a merchandiser as bonuses to a banker.

The 1980s satirical puppet show Spitting Image was no exception. Peter Fluck and I were the "creative controllers" of Spitting Image and we took our job very seriously.

Companies queued up to buy a franchise to merchandise and make cash in a flash.

Perversely, we designed all our products in-house. Some actually made money.

The squeaky, rubber dog-chews - caricatures of Reagan, Thatcher, Kinnock, Gorbachev - marketed under the slogan Throw a Politician to Your Dog were a great success, as was the Spitting Image board-game played with caricature counters, and the ugliest person in the room got to roll the dice first.

But my favourite was our ceramics - Glazed Expressions - the Reagan coffee pot and the Thatcher teapot.

Arriving in Stoke

When I first arrived in Stoke in the 1980s, clutching the prototype Thatcher teapot, Stoke-on-Trent had roughly 40,000 people involved in making pots but even so it was difficult to find a small factory to take on our project.

Roslyn Works
Roslyn Works is one of the potteries still going in Stoke

Stoke in those days was very insular. The attitude to outsiders was breathtakingly unreal.

Distribution to UK shops was dictated by the big brand names. We were offered distribution of the Mrs T-pot for 2% of the retail price.

As we had conceived, modelled and financed the production of Mrs T-pot in a small Burslem factory, we said: "No thank you."

At the time our ugly mugs were not the smashing success we had hoped for. At the end of the financial year, our accountant said we would be better advised to sell £1 coins on the street for 50 pence.

These days a Mrs T-pot will pop up on Antiques Roadshow and the owner will be told that it's worth £300. I should have kept some back - so much for accountants.

All the Spitting Image ceramics were made in the Potteries. I developed an intense love/hate relationship with Stoke-on-Trent, which I have nurtured over the decades, so much so that even now Peter and I refer to the city as Planet Stoke.

So when the BBC asked me to take an in-depth look at the Potteries, I jumped at the chance.

Changing industry

I found much had changed in Stoke.

Doulton's factories were being demolished, Wedgwood was a mere shadow of its former self and other household names were hanging by a thread. No-one I interviewed was interested in putting a spin on a very tough situation.

Yet despite the gloomy conditions for the big players, there are signs of hope to be found on the streets of Stoke.

Look into the alleyways and lanes around the big factories and you'll come across small businesses finding a market for their specialised products, and it seems that some of them are doing very nicely.

Moorland Pottery (where eventually the Mrs T-pot was made) is working flat out making bone china mugs designed for specific areas of the UK - Brummie mugs, Geordie mugs etc. - with boldly drawn images and joke local sayings. They even make a Stokie mug.

"Who would have thought you could sell a mug to a Stokie for £12.50?" Jonathan Plant of Moorland says.

Chinese competition

Ironically 250 years ago Josiah Wedgwood literally creamed the Chinese competition with his classic cream ware.

In recent years the Far East wrested back much of Stoke's production but during this present recession work is starting to trickle back from China. In some instances Stoke is once again competitive on price.

If formal dinner services, traditional wedding presents of the past, have taken a dive, hotel and restaurant ware are doing well.

spitting image puppets
The Margaret Thatcher teapot was a success

Andrew Roper, chief executive of Churchill China, says at the moment the firm is doing fine but he is unapologetic about getting some work done in the Far East and would not rule out increasing the quantity if necessary to keep Churchill profitable.

The success of Emma Bridgewater is based on deciding to make attractive informal tableware that people can add to when the spirit moves them. Mathew Price, Emma's husband and business partner, is convinced "ceramics are still the heart of Stoke-on-Trent".

Small businesses like Moorland Pottery and Repeat Repeat can be very flexible.

'No use moaning'

Gillian Naylor, Repeat Repeat's designer, says: "Our ideas get knocked off by foreign competitors, but it is no use moaning we just have another idea and move on."

They have great hopes for their future. Older success stories are also changing and innovating.

Hugh Gibson, Managing Director of Royal Crown Derby has commissioned a contemporary range of ceramics from designers Ken Eastman and Peter Ting. The results are a exciting mix of contemporary design and Crown Derby's traditional patterns.

Gibson clearly believes in his ware - "ceramics are solidly built into our DNA as human beings and we shall survive".

Jonathan Plant of Moorland Pottery is also positive. "It is all about survival," he says.

"You hold onto to what you think you should be doing and often that's wrong. You need to leave it behind and burn your bridges. That's what we did and it's been great. We love what we do."

"Often in big business the suits just look at the numbers and that's why they fail," he adds.

Whatever Happened To The Teapots? is broadcast from Monday 9 to Friday 13 November on BBC Radio 4 at 1545 GMT. You can also listen to the programmes for seven days after transmission on the BBC iPlayer.

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