“No man can appreciate and produce things of beauty whose colour sense is outraged every day by the grime and soot that covers everything” – Pottery Gazette, 1919, Stoke-on-Trent.
This is the quote that opens The Colour Room biopic that shines a light on the trailblazer that was Clarice Cliff – as smoke billows from potbanks that formerly littered the Staffordshire skyline.
Portrayed by Bridgerton’s Phoebe Dynevor, the Sky Original movie paints a romantic picture of an industrious Stoke-on-Trent in the 1910s as a young Clarice finds her way in the pottery industry in a bid to smash through the ceramic ceiling.
The Tunstall-born potter was not one to rest on her laurels, and clawed her way to the top of the male dominated industry in the early 20th century, with The Colour Room highlighting the misogyny of the patriarchal society of the time. The paintress-turned-lithographer-turned-designer was shunned by so many men with whom she crossed paths – told to speak when spoken to and to make the tea.
But Colley Shorter – played by The Crown’s Matthew Goode – saw talent in the young creative ceramicist, taking a chance on the go-getting feminist at his firm, A.J. Wilkinson.
The feelgood film sees Cliff’s rise from factory floor to a signed designer with her own factory and new-found fame, with Phoebe Dynevor making a wonderful casting. Fair of face, a dress sense as bold as her Bizarre collection, complete with cloche hat of course, Phoebe brings confidence, ambition and limitless self-belief to Clarice’s character. The movie is not without its emotional moments, but defiant and determined, Clarice wasn’t a woman to take no for an answer, or to be downtrodden when the odds were clearly stacked against her.
Phoebe portrayed Clarice as a ceramicist who knew what she wanted, and went out to get it. She wanted to change the world and people’s way of thinking, knowing that “the modern woman is forward looking, not backward looking”. Following a disastrous Trade Fair where her wares were snubbed by middle class white men, Clarice went on to appeal to her direct audience – appealing to their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters through magazine advertising.
Ever the empowering feminist, the potter employed only female workers in her Newport factory, which was given to her by Colley in 1927. Not shown in the movie, her success led her to manage an army of 70 young painters – 66 women and four men – who she affectionately named her ‘Bizarre girls’.
The biopic is as bright and cheery as Clarice’s creations, setting out to do just as she had done in the early 20th century – to put a smile on people’s faces. As a Staffordshire viewer, there was one convincing Potteries accent, from Bronwyn James, playing lithographer Betty, whilst others had only mastered our unusual dialect, And it was incredible to see the likes of Gladstone and Middleport pottery brought to life to offer an insight into the potteries industry pre-WWII.
Clarice Cliff was a creator with her finger on the pulse – one who challenged the preconceptions of what a working woman looks like, and famously didn’t know when to stop. She paved the way for female ceramicists, put Stoke-on-Trent on the map and remains a household name within her home city of The Potteries. The Colour Room follows not only her journey from humble beginnings to ceramic stardom, but also her secret romance with Colley Shorter, who she did eventually go on to marry.
And whilst the cast has a very Hollywood feel, with the likes of David Morrissey and Kerry Fox – a whole bunch of talented Stoke-folk were also roped in as extras, with friends like Kate Windsor and Kidda Kinsey who were asked to recreate the ceramic horse alongside renowned potter Emma Bailey.
The film concludes with a contract, after Colley was ‘the only man who liked Bizarre’ – ending before we were able to see the sheer scale of her success. Cliff went on to sell 8.5million pieces of her Bizarre collection, going on to be one of the most highly regarded designers in the ceramics industry, and a role model for female creatives. It was truly joyous to see her story immortalised on screen as a female entrepreneur that was way ahead of her time, and one that should be remembered and celebrated for a long time to come.