Bouncy, unstoppable choirmaster Gareth Malone admits that he hit a wall after his Military Wives adventure. The turbo-charged Malone engine was running on empty. “I was wrung out,” he admits. “There’s only so long you can go on working at that emotional level.” So when he was offered the next programme proposition, he knew it was time for some fine-tuning. “I had a conversation with the director and we agreed: if Military Wives was about emotion, this one is about joy.”
Emotional burnout isn’t the only reason Britain’s favourite choirmaster has revamped his TV formula. The extraordinary success of Military Wives, which culminated in a Christmas number one and Malone collaborating with Gary Barlow and Andrew Lloyd Webber for the Diamond Jubilee concert in June, turned the housewives’ darling into a bona fide celebrity. There could be no more turning up unannounced, having his bookish looks and puppy-dog zeal greeted with suspicion, before slowly but surely winning over hearts and voices. These days they queue around the block for an autograph.
“The success of Military Wives was so total and everyone in the country seemed to be aware of their success, it felt absolutely wrong to then turn up somewhere else. I wanted to change it.”
So in his new series, The Choir: Sing While You Work, Malone starts not one but four choirs, in four very different workplaces: Lewisham Hospital in southeast London; Manchester Airport; the Royal Mail at Bristol; and Severn Trent Water. What’s more, he pitted the choirs against each other, with one eventually crowned winner.
“I’m quite competitive by nature and I really like the idea of a choral contest. What it does is raises everyone’s game; it sharpens things up. If you are in the choir, you know you really deserve the place because you had to fight for it. “
Which isn’t to say that Malone has forgotten what it’s all about – he remains as evangelical as ever. “Singing is unique. It’s so absorbing. It takes your mind off whatever you’re doing. This opened up a little space in the day when they could be with colleagues in a different mode, and that has mental health benefits; it just makes you feel good about your work. A lot of people who had been a bit down in the dumps started to spring into work because they were looking forward to the choir.”
Neither is it only the employee who benefits, insists Malone. “Singing brings people together. You’re all working for a common goal and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a consultant or a porter. There are loads of examples from all these choirs where people who had never really met are now firm friends – and that’s got to be good for business.”
It’s not all plain sailing, largely because the choirs vary so much. “The challenge with Lewisham Hospital was getting them to open up and sing with emotion. By their own admission they tend to be quite clinical, quite matter-of-fact. Whereas posties at the Royal Mail are incredibly expressive, but perhaps less chorally experienced. So part of my job was to find out what made them tick as people.”
Next stop for the irrepressible Malone is America where USA Network has commissioned a series in which he will take choirs from first rehearsal to final concert in just eight days in what he describes as “choral bootcamp”.
Will he have to change his tune for US viewers? “You have to speak their language. The slightly cynical, embarrassed English approach doesn’t wash in America… They don’t understand why you’re not blowing your own trumpet. I can be bold there, whereas I have to slightly tiptoe around the British.”
The Choir: Sing While You Work starts tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2.
What did the choir think of their experience?
“Mum cried when I told her”
Derrick Kiteke, Kitchen porter, 23
I used to sing when I was a kid back in Uganda. My mum sang in church choirs and would take me along and say: “I’m here and I’ve come with my own tenor.”
I thought we’d go in front of judges and sing our favourite song, like in The X Factor. But Gareth told us to sing A Spoonful of Sugar, a song that I’d never heard before. I was scared because there were doctors, nurses, surgeons – people I rarely talk to. But as time went on I realised they were very friendly.
I really feel that I’m now so much more connected to the hospital. Before I used to deliver my trolley to the ward and then rush out. These days when I go onto the ward I’m not afraid to have a little conversation with the doctors and nurses. I’m quite a small person so singing brings out the real me. That’s why I really like it. My mum’s still in Uganda and she cried when I told her about this – she‘s proud her little tenor is still singing.
“Every hospital needs a choir”
Elem Nnachi, Staff nurse, 45
I was really, really nervous at the auditions. There were a lot of people and the cameras were in your face. After I’d sung Gareth said, “go higher.” I was like: “I beg your pardon?” But the pianist played it again a few notes higher so I sang again.
Gareth said: “higher.” I remember I was perspiring. “I think this is my highest,” I pleaded. But he insisted: “no, you can go higher.” And I did – I didn’t know I could reach that range.
By the end people were clapping and I was really chuffed with myself. When you get that adrenaline rush, there’s nothing like it.
One of the best things about the choir was that it brought together different people from different parts of the NHS. I work with neo-natals, tiny babies, and ordinarily would have nothing to do with the surgeons or porters or speech therapists. It gave me the opportunity to interact with them, to get to know what they do, to socialise.
Every hospital should have a choir. I’ve used what I learned to form a singing group for small children in my church, although I don’t pretend to be as good as Gareth!
“If asked again I’d refuse”
Edmund Chaloner, General surgery consultant, 48
I thought the rehearsals were the best part. Trying to make it note perfect was a quite a challenge and required real concentration. If you could have deleted the television bit, I’d have enjoyed it twice as much. I thought the television was a pain in the a**e.
The programme makers knew exactly how they were going to play this. They’d put different people in different stereotypes in order to display how we all come together in an example of wonderful musicianship. They would play on me being a surgeon, pretending that I’m some sort of Lancelot Spratt-type character. And I find that… I think it’s dishonest, actually.
I think it’s mendacious. I think it’s misleading. It will purport to show reality but it’s not reality at all, I’m afraid. I found the whole TV thing a nuisance and if I was asked to do it again, in retrospect I would refuse because of that – not because of the music.
As it happened, that was sensational: I didn’t realise we could make a sound like that; that I could make a sound like that. So if we can get the choir going again, I’d be very keen to stay involved. I miss it a lot.
“When I sing I feel free”
Natalie Beaumont, Speech therapy assistant, 37
Gareth took me under his wing and told me that my voice was a fabulous instrument and I had to believe in myself. But no matter how many times he told me how well I was doing, I struggled. I found myself backing away. I can give out compliments, but I don’t know how to take them. I think that goes back to when I was bullied at school.
Eventually I let that barrier down and wow: I couldn’t believe what he got me to do – it still feels like a dream now.
Now I don’t think twice now about bursting into song wherever I am. I get funny looks, but I don’t care because nine out of ten times it puts a smile on someone’s face. My colleagues were shocked – they couldn’t believe that this big voice was coming from shy Natalie. It has totally changed their view of me.
When I sing, I feel free. Most of all, I love that spine-tingling, hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck feeling when we hit a high note. We don’t have to say anything; we just look at each other and smile.