Pianos in railway stations: they are like the sets of miniature TV talent contests. Anyone can play, for the approval of an audience of passing commuters who film it on their phones if the music is good. Sit down, do your thing, hope for a moment of recorded fame. So it makes sense for telly to complete the circle, upgrading the station-piano craze with The Piano (Channel 4), a reality show that arranges for some of Britain’s best amateur pianists to play on the country’s busiest concourses.
The first venue is the spiritual home of the impromptu tinkle, London St Pancras, where the presenter, Claudia Winkleman, enjoys easy pre-performance chats with musicians who prove to be even more diverse and delightful than the bakers, seamsters, potters and portrait artists previously showcased by series with a similarly celebratory intent.
So many are instant stars. Harry is 92 and has been married for 49 years, but recently – as shown in a deftly packaged short film, sketching his home life – his wife Pat’s worsening dementia has taken more and more pleasure out of their time together. Playing keyboards is one way Harry has left to connect with his beloved, because she can recognise songs even if she can’t place Harry – and, as we sense when he approaches the St Pancras piano, it’s also a way for him to escape. But what will he give us? A quicksilver slalom through Rodgers & Hart’s The Lady Is a Tramp, a song that is almost as old as Harry but sounds, in his hands, as if it’s stepping out for the first time.
They keep coming. Ilya, an 11-year-old English-Ukrainian whose teacher gives him lessons over Zoom from Kyiv, bangs out a fearsome Dance of the Knights by Prokofiev. Jared, a 21-year-old mechanic, plays boogie-woogie with astonishing proficiency for someone who started the piano from scratch in lockdown. The amateur pianists playing their own compositions are doubly fascinating: Melissa has written something that is like a lot of brilliant people’s early works, jagged and mannered but bristling with ideas; by contrast, Fiona, whose singing career stalled when her son received his autism diagnosis two decades ago, plays a piece that has virtuoso flourishes but flows with reassuring maternal affection.
As well as serving as a tribute to the talents of the players, The Piano shows off the wonder of the instrument, sitting there full of all possibilities, with every semitone on view. Show tunes rub up against Classic FM favourites. Someone gives Piano Man by Billy Joel a torrid hammering; the keys are still warm when a drag queen powers through Crucify by Tori Amos.
But there’s a twist. It isn’t just Claudia, a joanna and the public. The players don’t know they are being observed by a pair of big names, hidden in the back room of a station restaurant, ready to choose one pianist a week to play at a specially staged gig at London’s Royal Festival Hall. We do, though, because the camera keeps cutting away from the piano to bring us the judges’ comments.
Their identity requires a bit of artful flummery from Winkleman, since one is a casting coup and the other, on the face of it, isn’t. Lang Lang is “the most celebrated pianist”, which is fair enough, while Mika, who had a No 1 with the song Grace Kelly in 2007, is “the most celebrated performer”. The latter might be a stretch but Mika is here probably for the same reason he did The X Factor in Italy and The Voice in France: he’s a solid pro, generous and empathic, with a fine general musical knowledge that means he’s always ready with a plausible comment to keep the show moving along.
Would it be so strange, though, if Mika and Lang Lang weren’t there? If this were just a documentary where we meet the person, hear them play and then say farewell? Perhaps the rhythms of this sort of television have evolved to the point that it would feel empty if there were no judging, no winning, no cathartic Gareth Malone-style concert finale. But the judges rarely observe anything we couldn’t have heard or seen ourselves, and the eclecticism of the pianists makes the idea of choosing one over the others seem even sillier than all TV music competitions already are. Winkleman regularly points out that the performers have ended up surrounded by rail passengers, the intrigue of the music inspiring hurrying strangers to stop and absorb the music, agog. Viewers might also be able to make it through a whole piece uninterrupted, were it not for the celebrities reassuring them that they are having the correct feelings in response to the music.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much, though: jazzed up or not, the chance to share ordinary people’s extraordinary gifts is a fine prize.