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

Gareth Malone is grinning at the results of his latest Radio Times photoshoot, specifically at a picture (below) of him smashing a cello to smithereens. “I look furious!” he notes happily, adding in the mildest possible tones, “I’m known for my constant rage, obviously.”

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Perhaps it should be clarified that no instrument was harmed in the making of this picture. The cello was carefully sourced as already being beyond repair; besides, the nation’s favourite choirmaster is horror-struck at the mere thought of destroying any playable instrument.

“I couldn’t do it,” he shudders. That said, he loves the photograph as a visual metaphor for his new BBC2 series, The Naked Choir. It’s a nationwide contest between eight amateur singing groups performing a cappella. Their sounds vary from doo-wop to hip-hop through gospel to barbershop, while the material ranges from Elvis to Edvard Grieg. But all the groups rely solely on the versatility of their voices, without backing tracks or musical instruments.

“So it’s not naked because it’s about nudity,” explains Malone helpfully. “It’s naked because a cappella is such an exposing form of singing. Only once you’ve stripped away all those musical crutches is it possible truly to see, and test, a group’s quality. The spirit of the series is very pared down. Nobody gets a makeover or has their teeth whitened, like on The X Factor.

“It’s a music contest, but with real bite. At its heart is the desire that they get better, rather than…” He leaves that sentence unfinished, but the name of the Saturday-night show is hanging in the air.

Later, he says: “The X Factor and The Voice aren’t to my taste. People get very het up about it, as if The X Factor is the antichrist and is destroying music. I don’t hold with that. I see it for what it is – a Saturday-night ITV show. The Naked Choir is on BBC2 on a Tuesday. The musical quality is very high, and no one is getting humiliated or laughed at.”

Buy why, if the series features groups, give it a “choir” label? “The word ‘choir’ is in the title because it’s what I’m known for. The Naked Group wouldn’t quite work. The thing is, I don’t want to start any more choirs for the time being. It’s ten years since I first did The Choir and I feel like I don’t want to do it again. But I’m not interested in jungle celebrity type stuff – God, no. I’m always going to be a musician. That’s what fires me – along with people.”

So where does he see his small-screen career going in the future? “I don’t know if my telly life will continue. I’m quite nervous about it. No, I don’t have stuff in the pipeline except a recap of The Choir ten years after. I have nothing booked. It’s a void.”

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It would certainly be a shame if he were somehow permitted to disappear from our screens. This is not to imply that being on television is in itself fundamentally valuable, and of course his career in music will continue. But he not only enjoys television, he is uniquely good at it.