Claudia Winkleman on Channel 4's The Piano, The Traitors' success and being mistaken for Davina McCall
The Piano presenter and her fellow stars Mika and Lang Lang spoke to Radio Times magazine about Channel 4's brand new musical competition.
This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.
Claudia Winkleman has presented some of the most successful TV shows of recent years, from Strictly Come Dancing and The Great British Sewing Bee to The Traitors – but apparently, she still doesn’t know what will become a hit.
“I have absolutely no idea. Of course not,” she says via Zoom, enveloped in a huge stripy jumper and nursing a cold. The creators of the latest show to secure her involvement will hope she’s just being modest, because despite being under the weather, she’s brimming with enthusiasm for yet another new entertainment format: Channel 4’s The Piano. Developed by the creators of The Great British Bake Off, the series follows amateur pianists giving it their all on public pianos in train stations across Britain, blissfully unaware they are being secretly watched by two star judges.
Winkleman is sharing the Zoom screen with the two judges – Mika, the Lebanese-British pop sensation, and Lang Lang, the Chinese superstar classical pianist. But following the word-of-mouth hit success of The Traitors, it’s hard to resist grilling Winkleman about what’s next for her.
The presenter, however, is particularly skilled at the art of deflection. At one point, I ask if The Traitors was so wildly embraced by the public because of its unpredictable format. “I hope so. I don’t know. I hope people watch The Traitors because it’s a good game. I hope people will watch The Piano, but you can never take anything for granted.”
I try again: is she ever tempted to reveal the winners of Strictly, The Traitors or The Piano? “Well, I’m 51 so I can’t remember most things. That’s very helpful.” OK, then – is there a skill to hiding which contestants she has an affinity with? “I don’t think it’s a skill,” she says, with a Cheshire cat smile. “I don’t have favourites. Although I am winking.” So she does have favourites? “I know that professionally I should say, ‘No, I love everybody.’ But Mika and Lang Lang will tell you that in this show, I became slightly obsessed with a boy called Jared who plays the piano in St Pancras in the first episode.”
Jared is a 21-year-old truck mechanic who lives in Kent and taught himself to play in lockdown by watching YouTube. After performing some Jools Holland-esque boogie-woogie, Winkleman tells him he is “ridiculous”, while Mika wonders how good Jared would be if he’d started playing as a kid. During the episode, more contestants turn up – ranging in age from 11 to 92 – assuming they are performing for a documentary. Towards the end, the judges are revealed and the contestants told that one of them will play in a concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Next week, a new train station and a new crop of contestants.
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The standard is indeed, to quote Winkleman, ridiculous – wait till you see 11-year-old Ilya rip through Prokofiev, or 24-year-old Jay mash up classical piano with rap – and reflective of the recent craze for playing public piano in train stations and airports across the world. The piano is, of course, an expressive instrument that can replicate an entire orchestra; its public presence simply expresses its enduring attraction. Lang Lang, who started studying the instrument when he was three, points out that he’s made friends around the world through playing the piano. “I see it as a kind of cultural ambassador; it’s important for the future of education to include this magic power in our lives.”
Mika agrees. When he was a kid, he spent an entire year communicating only via the piano. “I had issues. Real trauma. I was so poorly that I stopped talking, but I played piano the whole time. Too many of the people in the series had no access to a private piano. Access to music education is massively important; it’s not a frilly extracurricular thing. It doesn’t matter what kind of school you go to; it should be a fundamental part of education.”
What about Winkleman, who attended the City of London School for Girls before reading history of art at Cambridge – did she have music lessons as a kid? “No. I’m not allowed to sing Happy Birthday to any member of my family, not even the tortoise,” she says. “I was just there, on The Piano, as a miniature orange cog. As a musical outsider, it was amazing for me to watch everyone rushing through the stations and then stopping as soon as someone started playing the piano. I was blown away by the power of it.”
Mika, who has been a judge on other talent shows concentrating on vocalists, says that The Piano is very relaxed in comparison. “The X Factor and The Voice have what they call a bible, which is probably longer than the Old Testament. I always tried to forget all that and just talk about music. The Piano, however, has no bible, no guide. Lang Lang and I had never met and we weren’t forced into any kind of relationship or narrative. It was just, ‘Nice to meet you’, and then we talked about each contestant.”
Winkleman is nodding furiously. “Mika and Lang Lang were squirrelled away in a tiny cupboard with ancient biscuits. What I loved about the show – and I know this is a disgusting word – is that it’s so excruciatingly authentic. We were so lucky that the three of us got on brilliantly. It was love at first sight. We were led by what was going on in the station – if a child was crying, we might try to calm them down – but it was very empowering because the producers were like, ‘OK, Mika and Lang Lang are hidden away and Claud, you’re out with the public and yes, you can be fluorescent orange. Off you go.’”
This kind of self-deprecation is very much Winkleman’s thing. It’s almost impossible to tell her that she’s good at anything; she simply bats it away with a dry retort or a joke at her own expense. She’s one of the most powerful and influential women on TV but she isn’t interested in having her ego massaged.
When Mika talks about “the tenderness in the way the public respond to her”, Winkleman laughs. “Yes. They thought I was Davina.” Surely no one mistook her for Davina McCall? “I signed someone’s book, ‘Love Davina.’”
But in reality, most people on the show were excited to meet her – you can see how delighted they are on screen. She pauses and, for a moment, I wonder if she is about to acknowledge her status as a national treasure.
Instead, she flicks her fringe and says, “Can I just say how blown away I was by Mika and Lang Lang’s humility? It was amazing.”