Culture Trips

‘A beacon of change’: new film to celebrate life of ceramicist Clarice Cliff | Film

She was born into a working-class Staffordshire family in 1899 and was sent to work in the potteries aged just 13 before going on to become one of the country’s most influential ceramicists. Now Clarice Cliff has inspired a feature film that will show how she broke the mould in the pottery industry, revolutionising the workplace and bringing art to the masses with plates, jugs and teapots that were as affordable as they were colourful.

In the Sky Original production, to be announced on Wednesday, she will be portrayed by Phoebe Dynevor, who played Daphne the debutante in Netflix’s hit series Bridgerton. The factory owner Colley Shorter, who recognised Cliff’s talent, sending her to the Royal College of Art in London and setting her up in her own studio, will be depicted by Matthew Goode whosefilms include The Imitation Game.

The film’s director, Claire McCarthy, said its title, The Colour Room, reflects Cliff’s artistic achievement in making colour and beauty accessible to everybody.

Phoebe Dynevor, who plays Clarice Cliff in The Colour Room, prepares for the role.
Phoebe Dynevor, who plays Clarice Cliff in The Colour Room, prepares for the role. Photograph: Ali Painter

She said: “She managed to find really innovative ways to bring ceramics into production. They were cheap and cheerful in a sense, but they were inspired by cutting-edge modernist artists.”

The film will portray Cliff as a vivacious young factory worker, whose father had worked in the iron industry and whose mother took in washing to make ends meet.

With the support of other women in the factory and Shorter, she went on to design her art deco Bizarre range, with abstract, geometric and figural forms. During the Great Depression, she ensured the factory’s survival and her future as one of the greatest art deco designers, becoming one of the first women to launch a line under her own name. She found inspiration in cubism and other artistic styles to create pieces adored by the public for their bright colours, vibrant patterns and innovative shapes, bringing modernity to the kitchen sink.

Clarice Cliff in 1929.
Clarice Cliff in 1929. Photograph: ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

McCarthy said that Cliff, who died in 1972, rewrote the rules of “an entrenched hierarchical world”. “Modelling or designing was never territory where women were represented … at that time, there was a rigid understanding of how a person lived their lives. Particularly for women, the opportunities were very slim. Clarice was a beacon of change,” she said.

Cliff’s timeless designs are widely collected worldwide. In 2003, Christie’s sold a 1933 charger, inspired by a Modigliani painting, for a record £39,950. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum in New York are among public institutions in which her work is represented.

The film has been written by Claire Peate, winner of the 2016 Bafta Rocliffe new writing competition, who said: “The story was inspired by a single image – a young factory worker leaving her grim, industrial reality behind her and stepping into the rainbow of the Colour Room – a world of joy and possibility.”

The film’s cast includes David Morrissey (The Walking Dead), Darci Shaw (Judy) and Kerry Fox (Rare Beasts).

Dynevor said: “The script is a beautifully written contemporary take on the 20th century, and I feel proud to be working with such a strong female team, both in front of and behind the camera.”

Co-produced by Sky, Caspian Films and Creative England, The Colour Room will start production later this month in Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham and will be released in cinemas and on Sky Cinema later this year.

McCarthy, whose previous productions include Ophelia, a reimagining of Hamlet starring Daisy Ridley, said that they have secured permission to reproduce Cliff’s designs for a film that will be “very faithful” to her story.

She said: “Back in the day, there were 2,000 kilns firing up 24/7, and now it’s only about 25 that still remain. So there are remnants of original factories that we are using to make our … factory in the film. We are enlisting so much support from the local community … fantastic skilled workers, craftspeople and artists … who have such a strong history and connection to the Potts.”

Pottery has been recognised as a calming activity during stressful times, with the television competition The Great Pottery Throw Down – which has a similar premise to The Great British Bake Off – attracting big audiences.

“There seems to be a zeitgeist about, not only pottery and ceramics, but things made by hand,” said McCarthy. “Quite a few shows celebrate that … the magic that one can make with one’s own hands. There’s something comforting in that.”

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