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The Piano review – cockle-warming TV with a major problem at its core
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The Piano review – cockle-warming TV with a major problem at its core

The new series of The Piano confronts the obvious problem head on. “I thought we were one and done,” Claudia Winkleman says to the talent show’s judges, Mika and Lang Lang, because everyone will know now that the pair are hidden away somewhere, assessing all the amateur musicians who step forward to take their place at the public pianos stationed at various – well, stations – and selecting the winner from each concourse, who will go on to perform in a special concert at the end of the series.

No matter, says Mika, wholly unconvincingly. It was the stories of the people that drove the series, not the big reveal. So, that apparently dealt with, on we go.

The Piano is undeniably a cockle-warming endeavour. How could it not be? You’ve got Winkleman’s warmth plus iron control over the scene. You’ve got a variety of ordinary punters who wander up to the gleaming ivories – in Manchester Piccadilly for the opening episode – sit down, and are suddenly transformed into gods of music before an adoring crowd and exclaimed over by the world-renowned pianist Lang Lang and pop musician-of-the-people Mika.

The selection process for these punters is still a mystery, but they are clearly a far cry from a random assortment. Everyone has a good story to tell or a revelatory taste in music. The Instagram-ready young blonde Brooke turns out to be a law student who loves classical music and plays Poulenc’s Novelette in E Minor, though narratively speaking she is beaten by Ellis, a boxer from a rough council estate (“high crime rate but we’ve got a Costa, so it’s all good,” he says, deadpan) whose mother saved up to buy him a keyboard from Argos when he was four. There was no money for lessons so he learned through council-funded schemes and his own hard work. He plays Chopin’s lyrical, lovely Ballade No 4 and takes everyone’s breath away. “Do you think he’s aware of how difficult this piece really is?” says Mika. Is that an odd thing to say? I feel it’s an odd thing to say – as if anyone from a council estate who can play such a piece must be a kind of idiot savant rather than a true musician.

But The Piano has always had these odd moments, when we are pushed up against our prejudices, because they are (at least as much as the big reveal or the stories) what drives the show. Look, an old man can still play! Look, a nine-year-old who seems to be on the autistic spectrum can play with emotion! There is an unspoken agreement that it is as amazing Amy has pink hair and still likes Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata as that she is self-taught, via tutorials on the internet.

Lang Lang, Claudia Winkleman and Mika standing next to a pianoView image in fullscreen

But I am undoubtedly overthinking this. I would like to let the music soothe me, but unfortunately the same problem that plagued series one is back with a vengeance here. With the odd exception – such as the 18-year-old Caribbean gap-year student Fred’s transporting performance of Labrinth’s Beneath Your Beautiful – we get to see and hear almost none of it. We chop back and forth between player, crowd and Mika and Lang Lang’s commentary and get no real sense of what they are accomplishing. And the commentary itself remains hopelessly vague. The best of such reality shows – like Strictly Come Dancing, especially in its early days – educate the viewer slightly and add to the enjoyment by unpacking the skills and allowing us to appreciate them more. Here, the judges confine themselves to assuring us that they have just watched a very “mature” or “elegant” performance or that someone has “good technique” or “a soft left hand” (I don’t know if this is recommendation or not).

Nobody, moreover, seems clear on what the criteria are for anointing a winner. Is it the amount of raw talent on show? Comparison between the single performances? Or the heart-tugging nature of their backstories? It seems to be a bit of all of these, but applied thoroughly inconsistently. Claudia herself seems to have sway over the judges too.

It all makes The Piano feel a bit empty. Of course, the formula still works well enough overall. Even the fragments of music we get, and the love people express for it, suffice to get the tear ducts juicing. But with a little more thought, a little more bravery, a little more confidence in the amount of rigour and knowledge its audience would willingly bear, it could be so much more.

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Source: theguardian.com