Gareth Malone on getting men to sing, loving pop music and not being gay

And choirmaster tells of his surprise at being asked by Gary Barlow to participate in the Diamond Jubilee pop concert


The nation’s sweetheart, Gareth Malone, is treating me to my own personal world premiere of the official, newly unveiled Diamond Jubilee song – called Sing – by Gary Barlow and Andrew Lloyd Webber.


We are endeavouring to talk (and sing) over a booming reggae beat in a crowded café, which is a local of Malone’s in Crouch End, north London, and a favourite with him, partly because – as he points to the very stool – this was where Bob Dylan once sat.

“Some words that can’t be spoken/only sung/ to hear a thousand voices shout as one,” he sings, utterly unselfconsciously, in his fluted, tenor tones, gathering speed – “There’s a place, there’s a time, in our life, when you sing what you are feee-eeee-ling…” and so on.

Malone had a similar experience to the one I am having now when Gary Barlow invited the choirmaster to his house to see if Malone was interested in participating in the Jubilee Concert, along with the Military Wives Choir. “He said, ‘I’m off to write this song with Andrew’ – The Lord, as he calls him – ‘are you interested in being involved?’ And, of course, I said ‘Yes’ – why wouldn’t I?”

Later, when the song was almost ready, Malone was invited back again to hear it. “He took me to his little Man Den and we were sitting as close as you and I are now, and I thought ‘I am in Gary Barlow’s Man Den! There are a million women in this country who would kill for this experience, and I am just taking it in my stride’ – but, actually, I was thinking it was pretty amazing.”

I (whisper it) wonder whether the whole caboodle might not risk being a bit naff, a bit lowest-common denominator-ish [this was before I saw the documentary on the making of the single – Gary Barlow: On Her Majesty’s Service, BBC1 Sunday] although the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee is hardly going to be the occasion for showcasing the edgy or avant-garde.

At any rate, Malone is mock-outraged, “No! I contest that!” and says that he always “respected Barlow above all the other ones in Take That.” As a human being? “No, musically. He writes songs, sings well…” What’s his best song? “Oh,” he clicks his fingers trying to recall and then he’s off again, singing, ‘I guess now it’s time… got a picture of you beside me… got your lipstick marks on my coffee mug…’ No?”

I don’t recognise it until he breaks into the chorus of Back for Good “Whatever I said…” etc.

He is dead chuffed that Barlow said to him last week that “he thought I should have been in a boy band – which, coming from him, I took as a great compliment.”

I had read that he had been in various bands when he was at school, and asked him about another rumour. Is it true that you want Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go played at your funeral?

“Yes, I do,” he says. “I mean, I love classical music above all other forms, as I said at the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards the other day, [where he said, baldly, ‘I firmly believe that classical music is best. End of.’] but there’s another side of me that doesn’t want to listen to classical music all the time. I like something frivolous in the morning.”

Like what?

“Something completely disposable, like Domino by Jessie J. It’s great and at the moment it feels very current, and it’s nice to be connected with the here and now, to know what people are listening to and feel that you’re listening to something that’s brand new. I don’t want to be one of those people who has disappeared into the past. But in 20 years time we’ll listen to Domino and think ‘Oh, isn’t that quaint’.

“Pop is about youth and sex, the sort of things that matter when you’re 15 to 30, perhaps. But classical music is infinitely rich and is always going to be there; it’s about death and life and love and great passion and, for me, it’s much deeper.”

Malone describes himself as a Celt, and says that in purely English company, “I feel a bit other.” His father, Jamie, is “very much the Glaswegian – the full Scottish accent ‘Hayeee pal’, you know, describes himself as a headbanger. He’s actually a very gentle and cultured man but was brought up in a tenement in the east end of Glasgow.”

“I remember singing a Lloyd Webber Pie Jesu and it started off that I would do the tune and my mum would do the harmony, then I did the harmony and she did the tune, and then, eventually, I would just play the piano because I couldn’t reach the notes any more.”

One of the reasons that it is so hard to get men to sing in amateur choirs is that, in this country at least, guys seem to lose confidence in their singing after their voices break. Malone, in fact, refuses to use that term, saying “Your voice grows; it doesn’t break.”

So what can be done about men’s poor, battered psyches? It is such a shame, after all, that so many of them miss out on this simple pleasure.

“I don’t know,” he says, rather sadly. “It’s an ongoing problem and I think it’s been the spine of all my work. Boys don’t sing [the name of his second The Choir telly series in 2008]. Every single series, it’s been about the men. Actually, Military Wives is about the absence of the men. But it’s always there.

“They just don’t want to open up or they don’t want to make idiots of themselves or believe that singing is only acceptable under certain circumstances. [Football matches; in the bath]. ‘It’s a bit gay’ – that’s one I’ve heard a lot. ‘Singing makes you gay!’ ‘Singing gay-ifies you!’ ”

I wonder how he deals with bullying now in his role as a teacher/choirmaster? Or in his pre-telly role teaching under-privileged children how to sing? “It’s ugly and as an adult you don’t always see it – it is very under the radar. It can be a look, it can be a sound, it can be a breath.

“The key is to give people the tools to deal with it themselves, which is how I ended up getting through it – find your own strength in something, which for me was in music and the arts. But it is just ghastly – you have those moments where you don’t want to get up and go to school.

“I was always on the edge of exploding into violence – I definitely have a temper – but I never did because I always somehow didn’t want to lose my dignity. It never quite got to ‘I’m just going to lamp them’, but looking back I kind of wish I had because it would have solved it. I am not endorsing violence, but maybe it would have been better to just have a bit of a scrap in the playground.”

There is something very genuine and heartfelt about Malone, an absolute authentic sense in all his television series that he really wants to improve the lives and communities of the people he works with. And that, along with his talent, his perky manner and cute looks, goes towards explaining his appeal.

Malone is in the thick of filming another series of The Choir, which will be ready in the autumn, but won’t tell me what sort of community he’s landed in now – clutching his keyboard and landing on people’s front-door steps to coax them to sing. He’s been in America to shoot a pilot.

Are you going to be another Nigella or Jamie?

“Oh my gahhhhhhd,” he sighs, in a faux Valley Girl drawl. “Well, I’m not quite there yet. We await the decision to see whether we are commissioned. It’s like a voracious machine over there. They’re just looking for ideas all the time. You know, they saw The Choir first and then they made Glee – that’s what I tell everyone!”

The Diamond Jubilee Concert is on BBC1, Monday at 7.00pm


This is an edited version of article that was published in the Radio Times (2-8 June)