'The Piano succeeds where Britain's Got Talent fails'

The second season of Channel 4's musical reality show with Claudia Winkleman delivered real emotion, and true talents.

Duncan and Fran experience sitting on the main stage
Duncan and Fran experience sitting on the main stage in the final of The Piano. (Channel 4)

The second season of Channel 4's The Piano has proven that, sometimes, the simplest ideas can produce the most amazing results. Install some TV cameras at railway stations across the UK and invite members of the public to come and tickle the ivories of a grand piano you’ve left on the concourse.

Then throw in a twist — that they are being secretly watched from a hidden location by the best pianist on the planet, Lang Lang and world-renowned plinky plonk pop star Mika — and see what happens. When Channel 4 first tried this trick in 2023, with added Claudia Winkleman, it produced one of the TV moments of the year.

A blind and developmentally delayed 13-year-old girl called Lucy absolutely nailed her Chopin recital and left everyone who was watching her either speechless or in floods of tears. Or both.

It was easily the most life-affirming piece of television of the year. There was a problem though. The cat had been let out of the bag: Mika and Lang Lang could hide no more. So if the producers wanted to make another series how could they possibly hope to create a similar impact?

Mika, Caudia and Lang Lang
Mika, Claudia Winklaman and Lang Lang are the faces of The Piano. (Channel 4)

Seven weeks ago we found out. During a quick chat on the train up to Manchester for the first auditions, Winkleman, Mika and Lang Lang addressed the elephant in the room and quickly — and handily — decided that their jumping out of the giant birthday cake moment wasn’t that important to the show after all.

It was a bold call. But it proved to be absolutely spot on. The second series turned out to be even more joyful and exhilarating than the first, culminating in Sunday night’s grand final from the Aviva Studios in Manchester.

It also provided, on a weekly basis, the sort of genuinely gut-punching emotional backstories that Simon Cowell can only dream about these days. By the way, that must be extra satisfying for Mika, considering Cowell famously turned him down for a record deal over twenty years ago.

I don’t want to go too over the top, but one of the stories in last night’s finale could have been the ending of a movie. Alzheimer’s patient Duncan had a last-minute attack of the jitters and requested that his wife and carer Fran be allowed to sit next to him as he performed, in case he needed a verbal nudge.

He then gave a virtuoso performance, preceded by this address to the audience: "This is by way of saying thank you to Fran. I hope to give her a lasting memory of my love for her. Incidentally, I hope you enjoy it too."

The producers could not have scripted it better had they tried. However, the big difference between the backstories on The Piano and the likes of Britain’s Got Talent is that, even though you are fully aware of what Channel 4 is up to, it never feels like the audience or, more importantly, the contestant is being played. I’m not quite sure how The Piano manages to pull it off, but the results are often magical.

 Daria and Claudia
Daria and Claudia in The Piano. (Channel 4)

Perhaps it’s that we are not being asked to vote for anyone or to even have a favourite. We are simply being invited to enjoy each and every one of them.

Or maybe it’s because in some cases their life stories are fundamental to their music, rather than being useful bullet points on a judge’s script. There’s also no weary feeling that we’ll subsequently find out that some of them have a record deal or professional performances lurking on their CVs.

It could even be that Winkleman, Lang Lang and Mika appear so honest, and genuinely invested in the performances themselves that it rubs off on us.

I trust them so much I even managed to suppress my natural cynicism during the penultimate episode when Mika and Lang Lang threw a surprise wildcard, quirky Glaswegian singer-songwriter Alice, into the final at the last minute.

Now, some people may have thought this was because someone upstairs in Channel 4’s inclusion department had realised the two male judges had put five guys and just one girl through to their final six. However, I was happy with Mika’s explanation that the grand finale would benefit from having something a little more poppy on the bill.

As it happened, he was completely correct, with the addition of a string quartet further elevating “Edie”, Alice’s ode to her sister. It wasn’t enough though to win her the coveted Performance Of The Night award from Mika and Lang Lang. That went to a 22-year-old budding film score composer from Liverpool called Brad Kella.

Daria & Brad see the Performance space for the first time.
Daria & Brad see the Performance space for the first time. (Channel 4)

Brad dedicated his — let’s be honest, pretty bloody breathtaking — piece to his foster carers, Ev and Frank, who had encouraged him to take up the piano back when he was a scared and confused little boy. If Brad’s performance didn’t have you dabbing your eyes, Ev and Frank’s real-time response to it in the stalls certainly would have done.

The thing that struck me the most, however, was the way Brad — at his moment of victory, and with no prompting — went along the line of his fellow performers and told them individually how wonderful they all were.

And that’s the real essence of The Piano. Nice people being nice. I know, right? Who would have ever thought that would make a great telly show?

The Piano is streaming on Channel 4.

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