Review: First Love, Sky Arts 1

Sue Perkins re-learning the piano sent her - and us - on an extraordinary emotional journey

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There’s a small genre of reality TV, led by Who Do You Think You Are? on BBC1, where celebrities show us their inner selves. It’s all about the tears: producers might as well be poking the stars with sticks, saying, “Go on, cry, you bastards!”

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But although the sobs can win the slebs a new audience, really the revelations are mild. In the case of WDYTYA, they’re about someone else from 200 years ago. 

Last night, however, the return of a Sky Arts series where famous people re-learn a musical discipline, and then play a concert, really told us who someone is. As redemptive celebrity soul-baring goes, First Love with Sue Perkins made Who Do You Think You Are? look like Blankety Blank.

Perkins passed Grade 8 piano as a teen, then gave up. She had tales of dreaded lessons and joyless teachers, but this was a lot more than a bitterly remembered childhood chore. As soon as Perkins set to work with her expert tutor Paul Lewis, the 88 keys unlocked her neuroses with extraordinary speed. Those inserts where the subject talks to someone just behind the camera all seemed to end half a second before Perkins broke down.

As a presenter and panel-show regular, Perkins is in that peculiar strand of stardom where you’re celebrated for your facility with words, but nobody writes them down. First Love showed her besting Stephen Fry with a quip on Just a Minute – clever, but the audience wouldn’t remember it the next day. As soon as she said it, it was gone.

What’s it like to be pleasant and plausible for a living, when there must be so much more to you than that? Watching First Love, you saw that this is how Perkins has arranged it. Not committing to concrete creative work (although she is now reportedly working on a semi-autobiographical drama script for the BBC) means no need to let the defences drop: “In my line of work there’s no such thing as a wrong note,” she said, admitting that throughout her life, her feelings have been fenced off. 

The task ahead would radically overturn that. Merely scanning the manuscript for the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique – which she had to play six weeks later at the Cheltenham Music Festival – prompted her to open up about how when people tell her they love her, she makes jokes, afraid of “losing control”.

This highly emotive, slowly unravelling sonata would, Perkins realised, force her to stop hiding behind her wit. She’d have to be herself and risk doing the thing she fears most: trying and failing.

The story of when that demon first came to stay could form the pivotal scene of a novel. At school, Perkins had begun to play piano pieces in assembly, and was starting to enjoy the attention: “I was coming out of my shell.” Then a new girl arrived, sat at the piano and played Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu, note-perfect. That was the day Sue Perkins stopped playing the piano.

First Love took her back to the school. “Oh god, it’s the same f***ing piano!” she said, walking straight back out of the hall. “This piano represents failure and being underwhelming and… shortcomings.”

But once this Proustian nightmare had been confronted, partly by playing for the current pupils (“This is Beethoven and I’ve never been more frightened and I mean that quite genuinely”), Perkins threw herself into the challenge. A lovely little scene saw her share a piano with jazz musician Neil Cowley, who encouraged her to improvise with him – something she’d never done before.

Watching her thaw in front of us was captivating. Soon it was showtime and, at Cheltenham, a programme that had been handsomely filmed and wisely edited throughout delivered a mesmeric finale. As Perkins walked onto the stage in front of hundreds of classical music fans (rather brilliantly, the director cut the sound altogether as the crowd loomed into view), by heaven you were hoping she’d nail it.

Nail it she did, not just hitting the notes but getting lost in the piece. We did too, because First Love showed the performance in full, when you suspect a BBC programme-maker might have panicked about restless viewers and edited it down.

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Afterwards, a visibly freer Sue Perkins spoke of ending the “25-year grudge match playing out inside my skull”. First Love’s attempt to show us the healing power of music had succeeded, but something else had happened too. As a moved but jubilant Neil Cowley put it: “I think we all fell in love with you.”