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Claudia Winkleman on swearing, success and secrets: ‘I had to sign a contract promising not to sing’
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Claudia Winkleman on swearing, success and secrets: ‘I had to sign a contract promising not to sing’

Claudia Winkleman is convinced she gave the ick to Mika and Lang Lang, her co-stars on Channel 4 hit The Piano. “They’re so alarmed by my eating habits,” she says. “My mic’s always on and all they can hear is me munching beef-flavoured Hula Hoops.” To illustrate the point, she launches into an uncanny impression of loud crisp-crunching noises echoing down a lapel mic.

Winkleman recently wrapped filming a new run of the ivory-tinkling talent search, which has meant living off train station food. “I look up each one’s eateries in advance,” she admits. “I adore a Greggs and I’ve fallen in love with Upper Crust. They do a cheddar baguette that’s almost erotic. Obviously, I always have a Burger King. A Murder King, I call it. You know you’re in a different class of station if there’s a Leon. In Liverpool, they’ve got Krispy Kreme. I crashed and burned by 9.48am because I made the mistake of scoffing a tray of Original Glazed for breakfast. I was like: ‘Guys, I need a nap.’ The producer went: ‘Can somebody get Claud a coffee? And no more sugar!’ OK, boss, fair enough.”

Originally pitched as “a show about talent but not a talent show”, The Piano tapped into the street piano phenomenon by inviting undiscovered amateurs to publicly perform at mainline stations around the UK. The result was a life-affirming smash. Now it’s back – and nobody is more surprised than its host.

“I presumed it was a one-series deal because Mika and Lang Lang were hiding – nobody knew they were secretly being watched by these two maestros,” says Winkleman. “But we realised the magic wasn’t the big reveals, it was the stories. Reaction to the first series totally took us by surprise. My mum [journalist Eve Pollard] would phone me crying after each episode. She says it makes her feel better and fuller. It made friends of mine vow to learn an instrument, even if it’s the triangle. The big change this time is that the concert finale is going to be ticketed, with all the proceeds going towards buying pianos for train stations and hospital receptions. It’s the loveliest thing.”

Winkleman with Lang Lang Claudia and Mika for The Piano, season two.View image in fullscreen

The Piano is proof of the instrument’s healing powers. “People get through tough times by playing piano,” says Winkleman. “At Manchester Piccadilly, we met an 80-year-old man with dementia who played a beautiful original composition for his wife. Their love story is tremendously moving. A brilliant guy at Victoria Station told me: ‘I can’t say how I feel – but I can play it.’ An amazing woman had just retired after decades working in the NHS and spent her pension on a grand piano because it’s what she needed in her life. It didn’t even fit in her house. Her husband had to knock down walls.” Is she ever tempted to join in? “Absolutely not. I’m so unmusical, I once sang to Mika and Lang Lang and they made me sign a piece of paper promising I’d never do it again.”

The debut run was won by blind, neurodivergent teenager Lucy Illingworth, who stole the nation’s hearts with her virtuoso ability. The scene when she stunned Leeds station by playing Chopin was Bafta-nominated. Is there a comparable discovery in the new series? “Lucy was one in a gazillion,” says Winkleman. “You could never recreate that but there are more moments that took our breath away. One unbelievable boy in Liverpool brought Lime Street to a standstill. A crowd of 700 gathered. People missed their trains. There are certain times when somebody plays and the whole atmosphere on the concourse changes.” She pauses and adds delightedly: “I’ve never used the word concourse in conversation before! Love that.”

As presenter of three of the best-loved shows on primetime – The Piano joining The Traitors and Strictly Come Dancing in her enviable portfolio – is Winkleman on a hot streak? “Let’s not even discuss that because I’m very superstitious,” she says. “Now you’ve said it, I’m going to have to knock on wood, pull my ear and pinch my stomach. Any success has nothing to do with me.” Come on, it’s got something to do with you. “No, genuinely absolutely nothing. I don’t say that in a faux self-deprecating way. The shows are amazing. The people who work on them are geniuses. I mean, I turn up on time. Otherwise I’m incredibly lucky.”

Does she consciously play a different role on each? “Hopefully I’m still me on all of them. On The Piano, my only job is to chat and make the pianists feel comfortable enough to showcase their talent. On Strictly, I’m a cheerleader for the dancers, handing round sweets and saying: ‘The scores are in.’ And on The Traitors, I scare myself. I’m cold and aloof, but a lot of that is because I’m terrified of blowing secrets. I can’t chat too much to the players or I’ll tell them everything.”

‘I don’t know what comes over me! It reaches the stage where I seriously ask for an owl. I get lost in it’ … Winkleman on The Traitors.View image in fullscreen

The Traitors became a bona fide national obsession in January. What were her highlights? “So many! I loved Paul’s bow. He did it beautifully. That Round Table where the Faithful found him out was electric. They celebrated so wildly, chairs were thrown. Me and the crew came out physically shaking. And the final was so tense I couldn’t watch. I had to keep looking down.”

How about the gloriously camp funeral for Diane, poisoned by a chalice of sparkling rosé? “All I asked for was a veil. I was like: ‘Guys, I need to go to John Lewis.’ And when Ross [secretly her son] laid a rose on Diane – extraordinary.” I mention the flourish with which Winkleman closed the coffin lid. “I don’t know what comes over me. Up in the beautiful Scottish Highlands, not going home at night, nothing breaks the seal. I’m trapped in the snow globe of Traitors World. My kids, who are the love of my life, phone me and I’m like: ‘Can’t talk now, I’m going into the conclave.’ It reaches the stage where I seriously ask for an owl. I get lost in it.” A talking point came when she called out the Traitors for repeatedly recruiting men. “Maybe I shouldn’t have done but I just had to say it. I was like: ‘Come on, boys, what you need here is a really smart woman,’ but they were threatened by them.”

The castle-based franchise has entered the cultural conversation to the extent that the last two Comic Relief telethons have featured Traitors spoofs, with Suranne Jones and Dawn French playing Winkleman. “Both were utterly brilliant,” she cackles. “I wish I looked like Suranne, and Dawn was my teenage hero. I still can’t believe she wore my fringe and opened it like a curtain.”

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Who should play her next time? “Alice Cooper, my style guru. Or Noel Fielding. Often people mistake me for Noel. It’s the biggest compliment.” Rumours are rife of a Celebrity Traitors spin-off but Winkleman is tight-lipped. “I can’t say much but I trust the BBC and [production company] Studio Lambert completely. I’ll do whatever they want.” Theoretically, who would be her dream contestants? “Lenny Henry, Danny Dyer and Alison Hammond. I’d also love Victoria Coren Mitchell, who’s my best friend, even though I wouldn’t be able to tell her anything.”

Winkleman’s lady-of-the-manor wardrobe became a trending topic. “Hilarious. I’m just a 52-year-old woman who likes knitwear and tweed. The clothes are borrowed but I do kiss them before I send them back. Although not with lipstick on, I’d like to reassure the designers.” And then there’s that trademark fringe. “I have it extra weighty for The Traitors, so I can hide behind it,” she says. It’s teamed with “enough orange makeup to sink a ship”.

Does Winkleman worry about overexposure? “Yes, which is why you won’t see me do anything else. Nothing new, thank you very much.” Indeed, she recently stepped down from her fourth gig, hosting the Saturday mid-morning show on Radio 2. “I loved that job but I wanted my Saturdays back before the kids get too old [she has three children, aged 12 to 21]. They find me pretty annoying already but I’ll follow them around, sit on their laps and make them hang out.” Is it true what radio colleague Dermot O’Leary said in his farewell message about her sailor’s mouth? “Afraid so. I can’t dress it up for you. I respect nothing more than a good swear.”

She’s modest to a fault and quick to bat away compliments. “I’m allergic to praise,” she says. “I think it’s both a female thing and an age thing. I absolutely love telly. Without sounding like a total turd, it’s a privilege, so I don’t mean this in a bad way but it’s only work. If you came to my house and I made you my cheese and onion quiche – my mum’s recipe, by the way – or a roast chicken with my crushed potatoes, and you praised those, I’d go all gooey. If you said: ‘Your kid’s well-behaved,’ I’d beam. Work is different somehow. I’m a big believer in imposter syndrome. I try not to revel in successes because it’ll go,” she snaps her fingers, “like that. I’ll blink and someone else will have my job. That’s fine. It’s the way of the world. When the time comes, I’ll say: ‘Byesy-bye, guys.’”

The Piano returns to Channel 4 at 9pm on 28 April.

Source: theguardian.com