Gareth Malone: "I don’t know if my telly life will continue"
The veteran choirmaster on growing up, his acting aspirations and why he's getting (sort of) naked in his new series
His benign work is delivered with a brilliant lightness of touch, yet contrives to be lasting and meaningful, because it makes both those participating and those watching feel enduringly better. Say his name and people smile beatifically. He must be the only public figure who remains free of trolls on Twitter.
“It’s quite strange becoming famous. It would be disingenuous to say fame isn’t nice. The reaction I get is wonderful – if I was an evil villain in EastEnders it would be different. I think my audience is really diverse – they’re not all white Waitrose shoppers. When people see me out and about, they always respond positively. They say they like what I do. I think they like seeing people given encouragement. I use the Tube like anyone else who lives in London, and nobody who sees me there tweets ‘Why isn’t he travelling by helicopter?’ because nobody thinks of me like that.
“It’s very odd to have an image – to watch the edited version of yourself coming over all clean and shiny. I don’t look like that, I don’t speak like that. There’s an adrenaline rush about being on camera and on stage that doesn’t exist in the rest of your life. If you behaved all the time in the way that you do on camera, I think you’d be very mentally unwell. I’m probably theatrical in my manner because it’s in my family background and I’m happy on stage.”
That lineage was clearly established during his appearance in the current series of Who Do You Think You Are? At least two forebears were in the theatre, while his parents met at an amateur dramatics group. Malone describes himself as having “the ‘ta-dah!’ gene”, and says he always wanted to be a performer, yet he is perceived as a teacher. He regards this as an accident – a regular in school plays throughout his teens, he studied drama at the University of East Anglia and taught music “to pay the rent”, which resulted in a role in the educational department of the London Symphony Orchestra.
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Then the production company behind The Choir googled “community choirmasters” and his name came up, leading him to the small- screen stage where he excels.
“I don’t see myself as a choirmaster,” he says, startlingly. “I wanted to sing and act. What I’d really like to be is Kenneth Branagh. I loved his films of Henry V and Much Ado about Nothing, and he was the reason I studied drama at uni. Delivering the speech from The Tempest at the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony – I’d have been up for that. I’m a bit star-struck. I was at an event he was at and I was too frightened to say hello. I really do admire him.
“But of course I love what I do. I can’t imagine a life without music, or a time when music would be unbearable for me to hear. It’s always a balm. The thought of going deaf terrifies me. Your hearing becomes less sharp as you get older. Even for me, I notice that the top-end frequencies aren’t as sharp as they were.”
Malone is two months shy of his 40th birthday. His extraordinarily youthful skin belies the approaching landmark, but his hair is now clearly grey, and the combination makes an unusual mix. Married to Becky, an English teacher, his children are two-year-old Gilbert and Esther, five, and he exudes contentment.
“For my midlife crisis, I bought a very expensive guitar,” he confides. “Professional quality. Couple of grand. I’ve not gone wild. I definitely won’t be dyeing my hair. That’s a fool’s errand. It would look weird, and I’m fine with who I am. I have much more of a sense of self than when I turned 30. Ten years ago I really didn’t know what I was doing. It’s been a huge journey of experiences and mistakes and victories. I do feel I’ve learnt a lot, and the road ahead looks really fun.”
The Naked Choir with Gareth Malone begins on BBC2 tonight (Tuesday 22nd September) at 9.00pm