Song is in the air again. Maybe you’ll be waiting for an appointment with Birmingham City Council about planning and get distracted as a soaring soprano unexpectedly shivers through the air from some distant corner of the building. Or perhaps you might hear a rumbling bass warming up privately in some echoing marbled corner of a sumptuous gents’ toilet in London’s Canary Wharf. Or maybe catch a string of notes being practised by a pair of buddies from a passing fire engine on their way home in Cheshire. If so, you can probably put it down to Gareth Malone OBE.
The firm, relentless but strangely lovable young choirmaster is back. Malone has drilled shy military wives and paralympic athletes, filled our TV screens with singing schoolboys and airport workers, postmen and nurses and even – for Comic Relief – celebrity chefs. Now a second series of the The Choir: Sing While You Work takes him to four more workplaces to audition, assemble, balance and teach a cross-section of employees, and spur them on to compete for a trophy in front of professional judges.
As I meet him, half-costumed as Superman for the Radio Times photoshoot, there is a noticeable change since I met Malone three years ago in the middle of his exhausting, emotionally charged year with the military wives and girlfriends. He’s still friendly, attentive and thoughtful company, but the slightly studentish air has vanished, replaced by a new maturity that comes with success, a high profile and a developing family life.
“Well, when I started in TV I was 30 [he’ll be 38 on 9 November] and I had just been a student. Now I’ve got a three-year-old and a five-month-old baby. It makes you eager to get home, more settled.” And it is reasonable enough that he would also have developed a starrier, more self-protective polish: he has become a national figure and almost single-handedly proved, absolutely and publicly and in the cultural mainstream, that there is huge value and possibility in choral singing. It has been an important contribution after years in which singing atrophied in many schools, and popular musical glory was heaped on characterful soloists and manufactured pop bands.
He doesn’t leave the company choirs flat at the end of a series – indeed, he seems quite miffed that I should ask whether any of the first wave are still singing. “Yes! The four I did last series are all still going strong.” He puts in place a professional leader to replace him, and “I keep an eye on them. Sometimes,” he bristles with restless perfectionism, “sometimes I do long to get my hands on them. Not because they aren’t doing well, but because every musician has different attitudes and methods. About tone, how people stand, diction, musical shapes. They’re all still my babies!”
He’s nurturing other “babies” as well at the moment. An unrelated project has seen him put together a choir of trained young singers to produce a new album, the tracks including covers of rap, rock and R&B songs. The man just can’t stop singing.
The five workforces in the new series are P&O Ferries, Birmingham City Council, Sainsbury’s, Citi (the multinational banking empire) and the Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service. But when Team Malone turns up in your office or warehouse, the raising of a choir isn’t an all-comers affair of signing up on a noticeboard. He doesn’t have to go begging for volunteers, either. “We audition. It’s got so popular that otherwise we’d have choirs of 600, not 22. But I try to represent the company in a balanced way, with people from every department.”
Ah, I say – so if it turns out that all the middle-management croak away like frogs with tin ears and all the cleaners sing like larks, you have to compromise? He laughs. “It’s not too bad. Oddly, though, people who just sing a lot around the place, or go to karaoke, are often better than the ones with slight choral experience. It’s not always an advantage having sung in a choir before. Being able to read music a bit is not the same as having that tenacity I need: to hang on, learn by heart, keep the tone right. For instance, Geoff the chef in P&O and his brother the quartermaster are definitely not Bach Choir types, but they’re great. It really comes down to who’s got a musical ear and can retain notes and hold on to the harmonies.”
Indeed. In a choir of only 22 there’s no place to hide or fudge it (certainly not, I admit to him, to do as I do and sneak along to the 4,000-strong Messiah at the Albert Hall hoping to cheat by edging closer to a more competent alto). Oh no. This is serious choral work not singalong, and Malone’s ear is tuned tightly and mercilessly to every individual voice.
“There are bad habits you have to iron out,” he says severely, and demonstrates a few. “The vocal frog is one. That grating rough thing you hear in some pop. Or putting in the vibrato.” He mimics those emotional tremblings that we love in favourite pop singers, but which won’t do in choirs. “And then there are people who think that taking lots of breaths makes them sound like Ella Fitzgerald. It doesn’t. You need to get down to the natural voice, the pure sound. How people stand can make all the difference: I always start with posture. Just adjusting position can make you attain a high note better.”
Given the huge therapeutic and morale boost of singing together, which we saw in the Military Wives series, I ask him how necessary it really is for these workplace choirs to be in a competition? Is that just a reality TV compulsion, a need for winners and losers and suspense? His reply is firm, with that enhanced certainty of tough training and experience. “Look, music is immensely competitive. It just is. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a joyous personal experience, and people do say it transforms their workplace, improves the whole feeling of it. But any choir needs to be getting better, working to a high standard. The Military Wives was a different thing. It was a year of my life – I moved the whole family down there [Devon]. I was slaving, begging people to get better, because it was so important.” What he achieved there, for the women and the armed services, was remarkable. But The Choir: Sing While You Work, for all the jaunty title, is closer to the reality of professional music-making.
“But of course,” adds Malone, “there are enormous individual moments. One girl in Sainsbury’s, Alex, hadn’t sung for years after she was in a house fire. Her voicebox was damaged. She sings again. It’s wonderful.”
He enjoys his encounters with diverse working worlds, whether on board a P&O ship, in a fire station or supermarket warehouse, but admits that the oddest experience of all was with the banking industry, so lately vilified.
“Going into Citi at Canary Wharf was really strange. The island is hermetically sealed – you go through security to get on it, and then there are these impenetrable, daunting towers of steel and glass and concrete, buildings where people can’t even go from one floor to the other without separate security. Private banking people might never meet the trading floor, and so on.” He formed a choir containing 11 nationalities, from the grandees at the top of the financial stratosphere and the go-getting traders, to the cleaning and security staff.
“Nobody ever says ‘I’m a banker,’” he reflects. “They just name their role. They’re all a bit apologetic about the b-word.” Indeed, their chosen song is U2’s One, which has the line: “Will it make it easier on you now, you got someone to blame?” Nice. He senses that concentrating on singing has particular value here. “These people need an outlet, their lives run on strict tracks.” In the process of learning about them, Malone found himself having a strange outing with David Poole, Citi’s head of private banking. “He looks after the affairs of people with more than $25 million. We went to [F1 racing mogul] Eddie Jordan’s house one afternoon and he suddenly said he could play the spoons. I sang while David played the guitar, with Eddie on the spoons.”
You might expect a musician, in a profession where very many gifted people live on very little, to be a bit sniffy about the world of super-rich banking, but Malone says peacefully: “The thing is, we need them. When I found out how much money floods in to the City! And anyway my dad worked for a bank.” He digresses, marvelling at big numbers. “Do you know, Birmingham City Council have got to cut £615 million by 2016-17? So the song they chose is Yaz and the Plastic Population’s 1988 hit, The Only Way Is Up.”
Choosing the right song is vital, one that is relevant, has an emotional punch, and suits the sound that Malone looks for: “That British choral sound, singing something contemporary, but keeping that simplicity, not vibrato, a pure choirboy sound if you like.” All the chosen songs have something the workers can put their hearts in. “The fire and rescue service chose The Rising, Bruce Springsteen’s 9/11 tribute song. There’s a sense of solidarity.” I bet that number, sung by fire-fighters, sends a shiver down your spine. “Oh yes, that has to be there. We choose great songs. Big anthemic songs. If I can’t croon it badly in the shower and get a real shiver, it won’t do.”
Yes, Gareth Malone knows his trade, this strange new TV-choirmaking business, and understands not only the musical technique he grew up with, but the barnstorming theatricality of telly. He did, after all, go to drama school.
“They could have got a better choirmaster, there are plenty of us out there. But I suppose that as well as the musicality, it’s about knowing, when people walk on camera, which ones will work. The camera either enhances or diminishes people. Some just light up the screen. They aren’t performing, they’re just doing what they do. First thing you learn as an actor is that you mustn’t ‘act’, you must ‘do’ – perform an action. I do my job, work with a choir. And they work with me.”
The Choir: Sing While You Work is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2
Image taken from an exclusive photoshoot for RT. Photographs by Andy Earl.