Crafts magazine's Will Wiles reviews the Channel 5 show – in all its fluffy glory
The ticking clock is at the heart of reality television. Reality itself, for all its ups and downs, doesn’t naturally generate a consistent flow of comprehensible drama, so sometimes it must be artificially injected, and nothing works quite as well as the end-of-episode deadline. In Channel 5’s The Wonderful World of Crafting, this deadline comes in the form of a craft fair. But it’s more than a craft fair: it’s a rendezvous with destiny. It’s the arena that will answer what’s implied to be the fundamental question of all the participants’ disparate hobbies: can this be made to pay? As such, Wonderful World is a show that casts a revealing – if slightly stark – light on how we value private creativity.
Each hour-long episode follows the same format. We’re introduced to three crafters who have private creative enthusiasms somewhere on the spectrum between the purely whimsical to the fairly practical – from decorative clay gnomes through to hand-carved furniture. We learn a little about them and what they do, mostly that they’re self-taught and would love to make a living from their craft, but for the time being don’t. Presenters Michelle Ackerley and Rosie Wolfenden, one half of Tatty Devine, who turned her homemade jewellery into a successful business (see Crafts, no. 279), offer a little advice.
Sometimes they visit experienced practitioners, who also give guidance. In the distance, a few weeks hence, looms the fair, where they will try to peddle their wares, often for the first time. There lies the interface between private passion and public perception, expressed in cold hard cash.
It’s in the advice given to the makers that The Wonderful World of Crafting gets most interesting – and useful. Heather, who sculpts the aforementioned clay pixies and fairy folk, is urged to develop the stories and universe that accompany her characterful little creatures, and is shown by a puppet-maker how to put simple poseable joints into her models. Already bubbling with enthusiasm, she is given renewed creative purpose.
Other guidance is more practical and usefully hard-nosed. Brian from North Wales, who makes upcycled furniture out of discarded wood, is urged to be more ambitious in his pricing: knowing the humble origins of his materials, and unable to put a value on his own work, he’s undercutting himself. Crocheter Toni from Oswestry is advised to make her own patterns and do-it-yourself kits so others can make her desirable but time-intensive creations.
All want to discover if they could make a living from their hobby. Some yearn to quit their day jobs, and others have already taken the plunge but are struggling to make ends meet. Do they succeed? We never find out. Having stated its intention to ‘see if they’ve got what it takes’, The Wonderful World of Crafting chokes. It proceeds in a fog of encouragement and genial loveliness, or Wonderfulness, unable to answer its own question with anything but ‘yes’.
It doesn’t really have any choice. The alternative is unpleasant. A kernel of harshness, or even cruelty, does often form the centre of reality TV, exemplified by the mendacious dirtbag gladiators of The Apprentice. But in the Wonderful World, all we have to go on are the results of one craft fair. ‘Success here could be life-changing,’ Ackerley portends, but even relative failure is portrayed as making rather than breaking.
Some of the participants have real triumphs. Lynda and Katie’s beautiful felt animals and Bridget and James’ home-spun alpaca yarns bring in a grand for their makers. When the results are more modest, we’re told it’s not about the money and more about building confidence and taking a first step.
Partly this is down to the constraints of the format, but it’s easy to see the constraints of society itself expressed through that dark glass. Anyone who makes money from a creative pursuit will be familiar with the paradox. We are expected to be passionate about what we do and not expect reward, but when it comes down to it, the fundamental measure of success is commercial, otherwise you’re only amusing yourself.
Similarly, confidence and self-belief are absolutely crucial, but so is a hard-hearted recognition that success is not guaranteed. The Wonderful World of Crafting has some valuable nuggets of advice buried in its comforting fluff. But to fully express the long and difficult path of turning a hobby into a business, it would need to be open to the possibility of failure, which would be at odds with the uplifting message it wants to convey.
Will Wiles is a freelance journalist
The Wonderful World of Crafting Channel 5, series one. This review was featured in the January/February issue of Crafts magazine