Bake Off team whip up fresh keyboard stars in new TV contest – with a secret

The gentle, soothing (though sometimes tear-inducing) art of creating fabulous cakes and biscuits has for many years drawn huge audiences to The Great British Bake Off. Now its creators hope to do the same with another calming and often genteel pastime: piano playing.

This search for undiscovered ivory-tinkling talent will be documented weekly in The Piano, which will follow amateur pianists all the way to a finale concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall. It aims to tap into the “street piano” phenomenon, which has spawned viral videos of people playing in public, and is the brainchild of Richard McKerrow, co-founder and creative director of Love Productions, which also makes The Great Pottery Throw Down and The Great British Sewing Bee.

The new series, due to air next year, grew out of a conversation with Channel 4’s chief content officer, Ian Katz. “Four years ago, we were both learning the piano and discussed how remarkable these public pianos were,” says McKerrow. “We passed the one in St Pancras station [in London] every day on our commutes. Ian asked: ‘Could you make a show about it?’ I jumped at the chance.”

Judges Lang Lang and Mika are from different worlds, classical and pop, but their bromance is wonderful

Richard McKerrow

What started out as a heartwarming one-off documentary soon evolved into something bigger. Opening rounds were filmed at four mainline stations around the UK – St Pancras, Leeds, Glasgow Central and Birmingham New Street – with 20 amateur pianists performing at each. Next comes a major twist.

“Suddenly we had a brainwave,” says McKerrow. “What if it’s a competition but they don’t know it? The pianists think they’re in a documentary, then we tell them it’s a competition too. I can’t think of another show that’s ever done that.” The best contestants go through to play in the grand finale concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall.

The Piano will be hosted by Claudia Winkleman. Hopefuls will be evaluated by two “maestros” in Chinese classical virtuoso Lang Lang, and Lebanese-born British pop star Mika, last seen co-hosting Eurovision.

“We never dreamed we’d get such big names,” says McKerrow. “They agreed to do it for not much money because they loved the idea and are passionate about the instrument. Lang Lang and Mika are from different worlds, classical and pop, but their bromance is wonderful. It reminds me of Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry when Bake Off began – the high-end professional and the home baker, bringing their expertise together.”

Contestants are drawn from a wide cross-section of society. “Even by Bake Off’s broad standards, the casting is diverse,” says McKerrow. “They span from six-year-olds to 95-year-olds. There are autistic, blind and disabled pianists. For many of them, the piano is their escape. It’s magical and emotional. The music is eclectic too, ranging from hip-hop to jazz to classical. It’s a similar artform to Bake Off in some ways. Pianists and bakers practise their skill for themselves but the results are shared with others. Food and music are international languages.”

The latest series of Bake Off launched last week. Channel 4 decided to go ahead with its broadcast despite widespread TV schedule changes after the Queen’s death. “It was a strange time to be landing but felt somehow appropriate,” says McKerrow. “At a time of national mourning, Bake Off is therapeutic. It brings people together.”

The 13th run of the hit cake-making contest represents a homecoming. The production is back at Welford Park, Berkshire, after two years of filming in a Covid-safe bubble at Down Hall Hotel, Essex. “Welford is our spiritual home, so it’s great to be back,” says McKerrow. He teases surprise to come this series, including a fancy-dressed theme week and a no-recipe technical challenge.

The UK judges are also working together on the US version for the first time. Hollywood was already a judge on The Great American Baking Show. Prue Leith now joins him as the series returns after a three-year hiatus due to lockdown. What many viewers don’t realise is that The Great American Baking Show is filmed at Pinewood Studios, with the bakers brought over to the UK for the duration of the contest.

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“We’ve now got two British judges and we’re shooting it here,” laughs McKerrow. “It’s getting more British each year.”

It has been a tricky two years for Love Productions, whose stock in trade is factual formats with large casts and crews. During lockdown, it focused on finding ways to make its existing series safely in bubbles – both to keep its teams employed and audiences entertained.

This meant new projects were put on hold. Now McKerrow and co are firing on all cylinders again. Next to hit our screens is The Big Blow Out, a hairstyling contest coming to E4 in a fortnight.

Meanwhile, Bake Off: The Musical premiered at Cheltenham’s Everyman theatre in the summer and is in talks to transfer to London next year. “Fingers crossed,” says McKerrow. “It’s an exciting time.”