The Bake-Off team conjures up fresh keyboard stars in a new TV competition – with a secret | reality tv

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The gentle, soothing (if sometimes tearful) art of creating fabulous cakes and cookies has attracted huge audiences for many years The Great British Bake Off. Now its creators hope to do the same with another soothing and often posh pastime: playing the piano.

This search for undiscovered ivory talent is documented weekly in The piano, which accompanies amateur pianists to a final concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall. It aims to tap into the “street piano” phenomenon that has spawned viral videos of people playing in public and is the brainchild of Richard McKerrow, co-founder and creative director of Love Productions, which also produces The great pottery throw and The Great British Sewing Bee.

The new series, set to air next year, grew out of a conversation with Ian Katz, Channel 4’s Chief Content Officer. “Four years ago we were both learning the piano and we were discussing how remarkable these public pianos are,” says McKerrow. “We drove past St Pancras train station [in London] every day on our paths. Ian asked, “Could you do a show about that?” I took the chance.”

What started out as a heartwarming one-off documentary soon grew into something bigger. The opening rounds were filmed at four mainline stations across the UK – St Pancras, Leeds, Glasgow Central and Birmingham New Street – each featuring 20 amateur pianists. Next comes a big twist.

“Suddenly we had a brainstorm,” says McKerrow. “What if it’s a competition but they don’t know? The pianists think they’re in a documentary, then we tell them it’s a competition too. I can’t think of any other show that’s done it.” The best contestants will compete in the grand finale concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall.

The piano will be moderated by Claudia Winkleman. Hopefuls will be judged by two “maestros”, Chinese classical virtuoso Lang Lang and Lebanese-born British pop star Mika, who most recently co-hosted Eurovision.

“We never thought we’d get such big names,” says McKerrow. “They agreed to do it for not a lot of money because they loved the idea and were passionate about the instrument. Lang Lang and Mika come from different worlds, classical and pop, but their bromance is wonderful. It reminds me of Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry as baking began – the high-end professional and the hobby baker who brought their expertise together.”

Participants come from a broad cross-section of society. “Even from baking‘s broad standards, the cast is diverse,” says McKerrow. “They range from six-year-olds to 95-year-olds. There are autistic, blind and disabled pianists. For many of them, the piano is the way out. It’s magical and emotional. The music is also varied and ranges from hip-hop to jazz to classical. It’s an art form similar to baking 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 Great British Bake Off Team, from left, Matt Lucas, Prue Leith, Paul Hollywood and Noel Fielding. Photo Credit: Mark Bourdillon/Channel 4/Love Productions

The latest series of baking started last week. Channel 4 decided to continue its broadcast despite widespread TV schedule changes after the Queen’s death. “It was an odd timing for landing, but somehow it felt appropriate,” says McKerrow. “At a time of national mourning baking is therapeutic. It brings people together.”

The 13th edition of the successful cake competition is a homecoming. The production is back in Welford Park, Berkshire after two years of filming in a Covid-safe bubble at the Down Hall Hotel, Essex. “Welford is our spiritual home, so it’s great to be back,” says McKerrow. He surprises with this series, including a smartly dressed theme week and a no-prescription tech challenge.

The British jurors are also working together on the US version for the first time. Hollywood was already a judge on The Great American Baking Show. He is now joined by Prue Leith as the series returns after a three-year hiatus due to lockdown. What many viewers don’t know is this The Great American Baking Show will be filmed at Pinewood Studios with the bakers being transported to the UK for the duration of the competition.

“We now have two British judges and we’re shooting here,” laughs McKerrow. “It’s getting more British every year.”

It’s been a difficult two years for Love Productions, whose core business is factual formats with large casts and crews. During lockdown, it’s focused on finding ways to safely bubble its existing series – both to keep its teams busy and audiences entertained.

This meant that new projects were put on hold. Now McKerrow and Co are firing on all cylinders again. Next comes our screens The Big Breakouta hairstyling contest coming to E4 in two weeks.

In the meantime, Bake Off: The Musical premiered at the Everyman Theater in Cheltenham in the summer and is in talks for a transfer to London next year. “Finger your fingers,” says McKerrow. “It’s an exciting time.”

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