The gentle and soothing (although sometimes heartbreaking) art of creating fabulous cakes and cookies has been attracting a huge following for many years. The Great British Bake Off. Now, its creators hope to do the same with another soothing and often genteel pastime: playing the piano.
This search for unknown ivory-tinkling talents will be documented weekly in The piano, which will follow amateur pianists to a final concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London. 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, who also does The big pottery jet and The Great British Sewing Bee.
The new series, which is due to air next year, emerged from a conversation with Channel 4 chief content officer Ian Katz. “Four years ago, we were both learning the piano and discussed the remarkable quality of these public pianos,” says McKerrow. “We passed the one at St Pancras station [in London] every day on our journeys. Ian asked, “Could you do a show about it?” I jumped at the chance.”
What started as a unique and heartwarming documentary quickly turned into something bigger. The first rounds were filmed at four major UK stations – St Pancras, Leeds, Glasgow Central and Birmingham New Street – with 20 amateur pianists performing at each. Then comes a major twist.
“Suddenly we had a great idea,” says McKerrow. “What if it’s a competition but they don’t know it? The pianists believe they are in a documentary, then they are told that it is also a competition. I can’t think of another show that’s ever done that. The best candidates take part in the grand final concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London.
The piano will be moderated by Claudia Winkleman. The hopefuls will be judged by two “masters” of classical Chinese virtuoso Lang Lang and Lebanese-born British pop star Mika, last seen co-host of Eurovision.
“We never imagined we would have such big names,” McKerrow says. “They agreed to do it for little money because they loved the idea and are passionate about the instrument. Lang Lang and Mika come from different backgrounds, classical and pop, but their bromance is wonderful. It reminds me of Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry when Pastry shop began – the high-end professional and the amateur baker, bringing their expertise together.
Candidates come from a wide cross-section of society. “Even by Pastry shop‘s broad standards, the cast is diverse,” says McKerrow. “They range from six years old to 95 years old. There are autistic, blind and handicapped pianists. For many of them, the piano is their escape. It’s magical and moving. The music is also eclectic, ranging from hip-hop to jazz to classical. It is an art form similar to Pastry shop in some ways. Pianists and bakers practice their skills for themselves but the results are shared with others. Food and music are international languages.
The last series of Pastry shop launched last week. Channel 4 decided to continue broadcasting despite widespread changes in television schedules following the Queen’s death. “It was a weird time to land, but I kind of felt right,” says McKerrow. “In times of national mourning, Pastry shop is therapeutic. It brings people together. »
The 13th edition of the blockbuster cake-making competition represents a return to basics. The production has returned to Welford Park, Berkshire, after two years of filming in a Covid-secured bubble at the Down Hall Hotel, Essex. “Welford is our spiritual home, so it’s great to be back,” says McKerrow. It teases the surprise coming this series, including a disguised theme week and a no-recipe tech 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 Pastry Show. Prue Leith joins him now as the series returns after a three-year hiatus due to the lockdown. What many viewers don’t realize is that The Great American Pastry Show is filmed at Pinewood Studios, with the bakers brought to the UK for the duration of the contest.
“We now have two British judges and we are filming here,” laughs McKerrow. “It’s getting more and more British every year.”
It’s been a tough two years for Love Productions, whose core business is factual formats with big cast and crew. During the lockdown, he has been focused on finding ways to make his existing series safely in bubbles – both to keep his teams employed and to entertain audiences.
This meant that new projects were put on hold. Now McKerrow and co are firing on all cylinders again. Next to hit our screens is The big blowa hairdressing contest that arrives at E4 in two weeks.
Meanwhile, Bake Off: The Musical premiered at the Everyman Theater in Cheltenham this summer and is in talks to move to London next year. “Fingers crossed,” says McKerrow. “It’s an exciting time.”