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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 August 2005, 17:28 GMT 18:28 UK
Piano Man: What's the score?
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

The mystery of Piano Man is solved, proclaim the papers. But is it really? And what does the whole saga say about us?

So that's it?

After four months of feverish speculation about the real identity of the man "washed up" on a Kent beach, we have the answer we didn't want.

A collective sense of anticlimax, maybe even a sense of being cheated, prevails as the mystery unravels around the haunted-looking stranger who suddenly appeared in our midst.

He isn't the tortured genius people willed him to be; he could speak all along; he wasn't a pianist of even moderate skill. And, we're told, he wasn't autistic.

Instead he is a 20-year-old Bavarian, named in reports as Andreas Grassl, who has flown back to Germany. And with him goes both the Hollywood ending and the magical possibilty that something would remain unsolved in a world which likes to explain everything.

Tantalising clues

But several unanswered questions remain. Why did no-one in Germany identify him, despite publicity there? Can he play the piano or not? Is he mentally ill?

What is known is that at half past midnight on 7 April, a Kent police patrol picked up a soaked man in a suit, at Minster on the Isle of Sheppey, after a member of the public said he had been wandering the streets. He did not say a word and was taken to hospital.


Despite local press interest, it was a month before the story took off, and every subsequent instalment offered a tantalising clue to the man's identity while at the same time adding to the myth of Piano Man.

The sudden interest was sparked the moment he sketched a drawing of a grand piano (maybe Artist Man would have been more accurate) and when led to one, members of staff at the Medway Maritime Hospital were apparently entranced by his virtuoso performance of Tchaikovsky.

He was transferred to the hospital's psychiatric unit, where social worker Michael Camp said he seemed to "come alive" when playing the piano, for several hours at a time.

There were some voices of scepticism early on, raising the possibility this was a publicity stunt, but they were overcome as the mystery deepened.

When he was found, the labels had been removed from his clothes and he seemed to be scared when people approached him.

As the world's media began to take an interest, hundreds of leads were followed up after people claimed to recognise him. But he was not the Czech concert pianist, the French street musician or the Canadian eccentric.

Voice-box theory

With Hollywood reportedly interested in the story, comparisons were made with the film Shine, featuring a brilliant pianist who suffered a nervous breakdown. And, as the Magazine revealed, there were uncanny parallels with the Judi Dench film Ladies in Lavender.

Medical experts went on the record to say he displayed classic characteristics of autism and one report said he may have had his voice-box removed.

Piano Man
The pictures added to the mystery
Then as if all possibilities had been exhausted, the story went quiet, until the Mirror claimed on Monday to have exposed the man as a hoax who could speak all along and could only play one piano note. The paper said he told staff he was a German who came to England on the Eurostar from Paris and was trying to commit suicide when he was picked up by police.

The hospital trust would not confirm the reports, but the German Embassy said the 20-year-old's identity was confirmed by his parents in Bavaria and replacement travel documents were issued so he could return home.

But this is not a story about one man fooling the health system, as some papers have called it. A silent suicidal man who spends four months in a psychiatric ward suggests some form of mental illness.

That can be difficult to define and he could have mimicked being autistic, says clinical psychologist Linda Blair. "I completely forgive the staff but I don't for a moment think he's not distressed and I hope that in Germany he gets any help he needs."

24-hour news

There are also wider implications for reporting - though it is scarcely the first time it has seemed as if the media has been playing a game of Chinese whispers with the facts of a story.

In fact it is symptomatic of a media which lacks rigour and too often gets it wrong, says Mike Jempson of MediaWise, an independent media ethics charity.

People are used to the news as soap
Mike Jempson
"Partly because of the increased competition and the 24-hour news agenda, there's always a tendency to over-write everything," he says. "Everyone needs to flam something up and will believe anything they're told if it pushes the story up. Once a story is up and running readers want to know what the next twist is. They are used to the news as soap."

As society becomes more aware of the price of information, so people are willing to give stories to the papers that may not be totally reliable, which further corrodes the trust between the public and the media, he says.

But, warns media commentator Vince Graff, don't blame the journalists. "They were only reporting what the health authority was saying and yes, they wanted it to be the truth, that he was a virtuoso pianist who had his memory erased like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but they weren't flamming it up."

The story's grip on the imagination was because it tapped into the most central question of human existence - our identity, he says.

"What would it be like if we woke up one day and said: 'Who am I?'"

Thanks for your comments. The debate is now closed.

How can you go from "virtuoso performance of Tchaikovsky" to "could only play one piano note". Surely you don't have to be educated in music to recognise the difference between a classical performance and one note? So which is it? All we know is we can't believe a single thing in the news.
Gerhard, London

For goodness sake, this is a person's mental health we are talking about here, what right has anyone got to be suggesting disappointment that he and his health care professionals wished to maintain patient confidentiality by not adding to the hype already. This is the worse kind of media intrusion.
Rachel , Newport, South Wales

I am not surprised that the media were fooled by this story. Maybe the poor guy was genuinely disturbed, and deserves to be cared for as such, but so what? Nothing unusual in that - many people have troubles in their lifetimes that cause them to do irrational things. Maybe there is a story there for us but maybe not. Besides, on Sheppey we do not consider that a man suddenly appearing on the beach half drowned as unusual - we simply smile and give him the help he needs. After all, we have scorpions living in our walls and a history that goes back to the Vikings who had a habit of suddenly arriving unannounced from the sea.
James Apps, Sheerness, Kent

So the British media report a story that is full of holes, half-truths and downright, dare I say, lies. So what's new? It was a great silly season story and now its over. Let's all move on.
john lynch, france

The media is as much of a business as McDonalds or Microsoft. We seem to forget that the whole point of the media is to attract customers to view their (and their advertisers) product. Truth and accuracy are negotiable.
Duncan, Gillingham, Kent

Do I believe the piano man was genuine, of course I do, he was geniunely in need of help, he was genuinely looking for a place to stay, he was most probably genuinely trying to dicover who he really was (just like most of us)! Do I believe the media hype was genuine, of course not, they seem to have taken the top spot of "least genuine" from MPs
Mark Rose, Folkestone

And your story does not dispel the myths surrounding this one - you have not said that he was not a virtuoso pianist, only hinted that he isn't.
Colin Hughes, Leamington Spa, England

It is a shame that the story has ended in this way but at least his parents shall see him again. Although I wonder how they never responded to the media coverage. It will make a good film one day and I hope that someone takes on the role of making it.
Keith Cumming, Edinburgh

The media did whisk this story out of proportion. It made their paper sell. The more fantastic the better. Now they feel disappointed and cheated that it was not the Hollywood story of their fancy. Well who is cheating who? Ultimately it is nobody's business who this man is.
Merel Geus, Cambridge

This is more or less the end I predicted. The media reported that none of the staff at the hospital were musically qualified, but that they witnessed a virtuoso piano performance. I believed the first bit but not the second. They were simply not in a position to judge, and nor were the reporters who quoted them. And nor were we, the readership. But we seem to have swallowed it hook line and sinker as usual.
Neil, Chichester UK

The journalist's maxim always has been "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story". In any case, the news has been reduced to just another form of entertainment and, similarly, a vehicle for advertising.
John, London, UK

The papers called this man a hoax because as it turns out he did not live up to the fantasy they had built it up to be {piano man} this poor guy traveled from Germany to England to commit suicide luckly for him and his family he was picked up and taken to a psychiatric unit and treated for mental illness , i have suffered from mental illness in the past and have been in several psychiatric units , i find it quite appauling at the press reaction that this man was not the goose that was about to lay the golden egg for them but mearly some forigner who was out to kill himself , now that woulden't sell many newspapers but it would certainly have devistated his friends and family back in Germany , i hope he gets all the help and support he deserves upon his return to Germany
Tommy , Norfolk , England

Stranger than the man himself is the fact that despite all the world-wide publicity, none of his friends and family in Germany missed him for four months...
Gordon, Kingston

If, as the Mirror reported, he could "only play one note on the piano" (surely everyone can play more than one note?!) then how did he manage to entrance the hospital staff by his "virtuoso performance of Tchaikovsky"? Was this Tchaikovsky's lesser known work "symphony for one note"?
Richard Speight, Barnsley, UK

I completely agree with you that it raises issues about the way medias are reporting stories in this country, and not only tabloids, because of the competition... It certainly undermines further the trust of the public in the medias. I'm glad the BBC talks about it and it would be healthy to see all the newspapers trying to think about the way they report, as the American press did in the past.
Catherine de Lestrac, London

We all know the "papers" get it wrong, for whatever reason. Some things are obvious such as was the Piano man capable of playing Tchaikovsky, or a single note, how can this be so wrong. Or with the recent Helios 737 crash, a report of a Mobile Text message saying the pilot had turned blue. Did no-one ask how the person sending this message could possibly know that?, and if he/she did what did they do, come back out of the cockpit, (which you shouldn't be able to get into now-a-days), and sit and write a message? Does any-one think these things through before they publish them?
Robert Clarke, Berlin

"What would it be like if we woke up one day and said: 'Who am I?'" - sounds like symptoms of binge drinking to me.
Gordon, Aberdeen

All this shows is the media is not vigorous in reporting standards as perhaps it used to be in a golden age of "real professinal Journalism". To get the real facts of a true story needs time and time is one thing that journalists do not have is this instant era. The errors are then compounded -taking your otherwise excellent article besides it is a rather stupid sound-bite poll asking if this guy is genuine- "genuine to what or who?". He obviously has problems but these have been taken to another level by the journalists and it is they that have deluded themselves- the sad fact is that they don't recognise it. This issue is serious e.g shooting of innocent Brazilian rush to denounce him inially in pres was this properly checked in first place and when true story emerges how quick were press to correct and even heaven forbid apologize?
Paul Thomas, Cardiff

So again! who is he whats his name where did he come from and why, can he play the piano or not and is the story true? we still dont know!
G morris, corby

The newspaper and broadcast media are the people who come out of this story with the least credit. As with their willing gullibility in the Southall shooting case, they dont really care about facts so long as they have a good story. And these events are to the hacks who cover them nothing but a story- something to scoop on and sell as sensation. They cant hide behind the dishonesty of blaming the public for wanting to read this stuff. If it was proper journalism, then that is what people would have to read. The decadence of the media is beginning to really stink.
John Thomas, Cardiff, Wales

"Don't blame the journalists"? - so can the journalists now absolve themselves of the responsibility to check the veracity of stories?
Ben, Leicester, UK

I for one remember a clip on one news show about three days after the whole thing began, where a social worker was saying "Yes, he can play the piano, but this was not the 'Virtuoso' performance that has been reported by some," and since then I've been sceptical of any articles that tried to make too much of his ability at the piano.
Philip, Swindon, UK

I think it is wrong the way that some of the media has turned on this man, accusing him of being some sort of elaborate fraud, just because the end of the story was not what they hoped for. The evidence still suggests that this man was clearly in some sort of distress and needed help, and i for one am glad that he seems to have recovered from whatever troubled him.
Tess Kullander, Isle of Wight, England

Lucky for him he was found in Britain where the authorities are brought up on a TV diet of romantic mysteries and other pleasant fictions. In Australia he would most likely have been locked up as an illegal alien and the only mystery would have been where the Minister of Immigration lost the key.
Les Crompton, South Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

I cannot give a pass to the press like the Vince Graff in this story. "They were only reporting what the health authority was saying..." That, as you say in England, is rubbish. I doubt very much that any health authority close to the story, within the building the man was residing, was saying these things, and the journalist should be diligent enough to go to the source, not just repeat what some figurehead is saying. This is symptomatic of the lazinness that prevails many professions in the world today. I see doctors prescribing by hearsay, engineers not sharpening their pencils (see Columbia), and, most of all, journalists doing nothing but "picking things off the wire" and not taking the time to check out the facts. All it takes is one GOOD journalist, and these stories would not last more than a fortnight, at most. But, alas, it was months in this case to have a good journalist show up to check the facts. Maybe the good journalists are all off covering terrorism o! r the financial district, but I doubt it.
Grant Anderson, Tucson, AZ United States

The question remains, did he play the piano exceptonally well as initially reported or not? If it is true he did, to me he remains The Piano Man ! no Fraud about it!
Murisi Chirikure, Leighton Buzzard UK

I think this story raises some very interesting points about news coverage & the way news is reported. It seems that all news is now sensationalist with the emphasis switched to being the first to have the latest "development" in any big story without truly verifying the facts. It is farcical how many news stories now include the word "allegedly", what happened to cold hard facts ?
Matt , London UK

I reckon this would still make a cracking film - everyone likes to see pompous medics getting bamboozled.

Piano Man highlights the need for caution in the way that what we're given isn't always what is really happening. When seeking attention people will do pretty much anything - take Big Brother and the coverage it gets in the main news broadcasts as an example.
Pete, West Midlands

Yes dopes, there really is one born every minute...! What a scam and what a great idea for a peformance art piece and the reaction of today's society to it, yah.... Sounds like the guy who filmed the destruction of all his worldly possessions...
Tony McLachlan, London UK

This is yet another example in a long line which merely demonstrates that we in the UK are suckers and ripe for anyone who chooses to milk our system
Stephen J Stringer, Nuneaton, England

I think it was a complete publicity stunt. He is working in conjunction with a PR company who knew he could play the piano very well, placed him on the beach and told him not to speak, but to impress with the piano playing, the media would pick up the story and make him a star. maybe?
Emma, Brentford, Middx

I hope the press and public will now leave this obviously disturbed and formerly suicidal man to recover. I also hope that the possible legal action against him that is being spoken of won't be taken. I'm sure this man needs help, not more to contend with.
Terry, Vilnius, Lithuania

As long as he is not a reality TV contestant I'm happy.
jon ayers, swasnea

I like this ending. It is refreshing to see an emotionally vulnerable man's privacy and secrets preserved despite intense media interest. The perfect outcome.
Michael Grazebrook, London / UK

Once again we have a situation where our media report unqualified assertions and assumptions as if they were fact. Undoubtedly the commoditisation and commercialisation of "news" leads to scenarios whereby papers (and tv channels) run the scoop without first verifying its claims and this is to an extent understandable. What gets me though is the hypocrisy of the media when they turn on and vilify the monster that they have created, and also they way in which their sensationalist reporting can prejudice legal proceedings and/or tarnish the innocent. Sad to say, but the notion of collective (or even individual) responsibility within the media, was long ago sacrificed on the altar of convenience and the media equivalent of the quick buck.
Ben, Manchester

I think your article says all there is to be said. Its none of our business any more, now he's apparently back where he belongs.
Andrew, London

I doubted this story immediately because they were happy to show the picture of the piano, but not to issue any recording of the music he allegedly played. Incidentally, a media studies professor recently wrote that we all need to be media studies graduates simply so we can see through distortions such as this. What a strange justification!
Steve, Exeter

I was fascinated from the start by Piano Man. Much of what we read about him in the press seems to be a mixture of speculation and fabrication. I don't believe the newspaper reports that he couldn't play the piano at all. It contradicts the original story too much. Probably the hospital people wouldn't be able to tell a good pianist from a virtuoso, but for the story suddenly to change so radically smells a bit of journalistic invention. I hope Piano Man speaks to a responsible newspaper soon so the true story can be revealed.
Notapotato, germany

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