The Piano


Channel 4

There is a point in the new series of The Piano when the popstar Mika looks at the large crowd gathered on the concourse at Manchester Piccadilly and exclaims to his fellow judge, “Lang Lang, things have changed!”

It’s a nice, “top of the world ma” moment in tune with a show that came out of nowhere to be a ratings smash for Channel 4, bringing in 3 million viewers every episode.

At first only a few travellers would turn away from staring at the departures board long enough to check out who was playing the station’s public piano. Now, as Mika says, they are watching in their droves.

The big difference between then and now is that the judges are no longer secret. You might think that would put a crimp in a second series but Mika disagreed, saying the best bits were not the “big reveals” about the judges but the musicians’ individual stories.

Is he right? One episode in and I’m worried. Could it be that you can have too much of a good thing?

The first to compete for a place in the final concert was a youngster whose mum bought him a keyboard from Argos when he was four. “I come from a single parent family in a lovely council estate full of needles and students,” he said.

He played Ballade No.4 by Chopin, “a very difficult piece” said Lang Lang.

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I’d have liked to know more about how the contestant got to that level without private lessons, but there was no time to waste as the next person was waiting. And yes, they had a story to tell too. One woman had been through a bad divorce. She played The Winner Takes it All so sadly, Mika ran after her and asked her to choose something else.

After one particularly poignant performance, presenter Claudia Winkleman went up to the judges’ room and declared that this contestant was going through to the final. “It’s not a debate,” she said. Eh? When did Claude become a judge?

There is still much to like about The Piano, not least Winkleman herself. She is a natural with the contestants and her off-beat humour makes a pleasant change from the wilful blandness of most presenters. At one point she introduced us to a dachshund named Henry, who could not be looked at lest he fly into a rage. “I had a boyfriend like Henry,” said Winkleman, with a grin that suggested it was she who had the last laugh in the end.

Mika’s attempt to introduce his fellow judge Lang Lang to the 21st century continues entertainingly. “There’s a pasty shop,” he says to Lang Lang. “Have you ever had a pasty?” Unsurprisingly the answer was no.

Back to the amateur pianists. It is good to know how each musician got there, and about any barriers they have faced. Last year’s winner was Lucy Illingworth, a blind 13-year-old. But she was first and foremost a brilliant musician with an exceptional way of communicating with an audience.

At times there seemed to be two competitions here - one to discover new talent, and one to find the most affecting back story. Keep going on this road and you come to the X Factor.

The show was so successful last time precisely because it let the music do the talking. The result was genuinely moving, inspirational TV. The final will be ticketed this time, with proceeds going to buy more street pianos. It’s another nice touch by Channel 4 in a show that is packed with lovely moments. Here’s hoping it finds its balance again, and soon.