tue 23/07/2024

First Love, Sky Arts 1 | reviews, news & interviews

First Love, Sky Arts 1

First Love, Sky Arts 1

Sue Perkins, going back to the piano after 25 years, movingly unveils a vulnerable side

'I just feel like I could throw up': Sue Perkins performs Beethoven at her old Croydon primary school

We’ve been this way before. A few years ago the BBC screened a series called Play It Again, in which celebrities had a crack at performing on musical instruments which they had not visited in decades. Sky Arts have revisited the concept with a series called First Love, whose first six programmes went out last year and featured a usual array of celebrity suspects starring in a game of friends reunited, the musical version. 

The new series includes among others Stephen Mangan on acoustic guitar, Shaun Ryder on saxophone, the inevitable Alastair Campbell on bagpipes, but it begins in the right place with Sue Perkins. Having won the slebz-wave-batons vote-off show Maestro, she has become the BBC’s go-to comedy muso, most recently conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra at Tim Minchin's superlative Comedy Prom. You wonder what took Sky Arts so long.

I should probably declare an interest here, having been down the same crazily paved path myself on the French horn (not on television, mind; merely in print, followed by a one-man stage version). What is apparent from Play It Again and First Love and my own odyssey as a midlife instrumentalist is that it’s the same rock-solid narrative arc every time. An apparently confident adult confronts long suppressed demons by returning to an instrument of torture which through fear and fecklessness they renounced in youth. The themes are humiliation, regret and redemption, and the greatest of these is – well, that all depends on how the performance goes.

The recital - gratifyingly filmed in full - revealed an enchanting new side to Perkins

Scheduled in a prestigious slot on Sunday evenings, Play It Again played to an audience that didn’t really want to know. First Love has a more intelligent feel. It helps that, as a musical stuntperson, Perkins is in a different league. For a start, it turns out that she was once a grade-eight pianist. But she is also, as we all know, an extremely engaging talker. In her day job the talk is all about front. As she promptly admitted, the task of playing the piano to an audience would deprive her of the sword in her scabbard with which she keeps anxiety at bay. "I have enough wells of self-loathing to make most processes quite difficult," she explained. Words - or wordplay - is her talking cure. As a perfectionist who values her emotional privacy, she was exposing herself to a double risk: of making a fool of herself in public, and of having to let down her guard and make herself vulnerable.

To help her along Perkins was mentored by the pianist Paul Lewis. “Welcome to the most challenging hour of your life,” she said as she shook his hand. And off she went through the hoops. Though technically competent, she was burdened by unhappy memories of playing the piano when young. We were walked through these, visiting Croydon where she grew up and returning to the primary school where she had a particularly hideous memory of seeing a prodigy outdo her at the keyboard. To give herself a road test she played her chosen piece, the slow movement from the Sonata Pathétique, to an audience of schoolchildren. “I just feel like I could throw up,” she confided before going on, and proceeded to chat nervously through her performance.

All such hurdle programmes tend to stick to a trusty formula. The will-they-won’t-they narrative is expertly tilted in the cutting room by the clever tactic of not revealing degrees of improvement. In her four months, Perkins clearly practised like stink, but we didn’t see any of that, so that when she went out to perform at the Pump Room in the Cheltenham International Festival, there were no grounds for optimism. The recital - gratifyingly filmed in full - turned out to be technically flawed but full of emotional honesty, revealing an enchanting new side to Perkins. If not a scrap of it felt manipulative, that comes with the territory. Just as there is nowhere to hide when you perform music to a knowledgeable audience, there is no need to ramp up the stakes. Movingly, this was Perkins unplugged: “It’s the best I can do and that’s enough, which is going to be a first.”

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