Gareth Malone on how he started a singing revolution – and why he killed off the bow tie
The Pitch Battle judge also reveals they'll be a mic-dropping granny on his new talent show
It is an unexpected first encounter with the nation’s favourite choirmaster. Gareth Malone is bouncing on a trampoline and dabbing like a rapper. Even the clothes are suddenly, remarkably, on trend. Where’s all the tweed gone? Where, more to the point, is that other famous trademark?
“There is no bow tie! The bow tie is dead!” He almost sings it, with triumph. Whoa. It’s like Len Goodman denouncing the pickled walnut. This is huge.
But it’s this new-look Gareth we will be seeing from Saturday, when Pitch Battle hits our screens. He’s swapping the draughty community centre for the shiny floor of the television studio. Instead of driving around the country worrying into his wing mirror about the trouble with the soprano section, he’s laying down his baton and taking his place in the judge’s chair.
He’s clearly loving every minute of it, but then his positivity is as famous as his neckwear. Even without the aid of a coiled steel spring, Gareth Malone is a bouncy sort of chap. Sitting down now, he fizzes when he talks about what we can expect over the next six weeks.
“These are the singers of this world, the people who elect to sing. So there’s a heart to it, a warmth. The sheer number of great singers on this show is really exciting – singing joyous, upbeat songs to a really high standard, with a great band.”
In each episode of Pitch Battle, six groups – of various sizes, styles and backgrounds – will fight it out in a series of challenges. They will start by giving us their showstoppers, then go head-to-head in a “riff-off” – more of which later.
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When those six have been whittled down to three, they all nominate one member to perform a solo, albeit with choral backing. And then the last two choirs standing are through to the Final Battle.
Every week, there will be a different superstar guest judge – Seal and Chaka Khan are just two of the names mentioned – who will be part of that last round.
But all the decisions will be down to Malone and Kelis – whose own musical career began in a church choir in Harlem and who found global fame with hit song Milkshake.
Isn’t that something of a crossover, after all those years of encouraging and improving and being on the singer’s side? “I’m fine being a judge,” he says, breezily. “That’s exactly what you are when you’re a choirmaster. You’re listening and judging the sound all the time.”
So he’s perfectly at ease being Simon Cowell? He pauses, let’s the name just hang there, waits for the air to clear and then says that this show is “just about musical performance. It’s not a popularity contest. We don’t have our own acts.”
Nor will we be hearing any details about the contestants’ lives, and certainly no sob stories. If someone’s granny dies just before the show, we won’t even know. That certainly makes a change.
“I will be giving proper feedback, using technical terms, talking about dynamics and choral support. What Strictly does for dance, we will do for music and I can hand-on-heart say that that hasn’t happened on a Saturday-night music entertainment show before.” So Simon Cowell, without the… well, any of it, really.
Malone and Kelis
For Malone, Pitch Battle is really just a logical progression from all that he has done before. It was back in 2006 when the fresh-faced young drama graduate with a voice and a passion first hit our screens. That was with The Choir, in which he turned up at a comprehensive in Middlesex on a mission to make music with a recalcitrant group of adolescents.
Against all the odds, he won their confidence, and the nation’s hearts. Since then, he’s infiltrated all pockets of society up and down the country – the rundown town, the workplace, the army barracks.
“It’s been great telling that story on TV for 12 years, saying, ‘You can do it, you can improve.’ I feel like most people have got the idea now. That argument has been won.”
It certainly has. Hundreds of thousands of people now sing together in their communities on a regular basis – me included.
So for a passionate, committed, practising choral singer like myself, meeting Gareth Malone is something of a big deal; like a Catholic getting an audience with the Pope, or a vision of the Angel Gabriel.
He confirms my faith in everything I already believe in: that a choir is the perfect metaphor for a good society. It doesn’t matter how able you are; the weak are carried by the strong. Everyone does their bit, and together they make something better. It bonds us together – “like being part of a shoal of fish,” as he puts it, rather nicely. The credit for making singing so popular should be all his.
So has he noticed a difference in the landscape since he first started? “Yes, it’s changed in three ways: more people are baking cakes; more people are learning ballroom. And more people are joining choirs.”
It’s a cheering thought, at a time when cheering thoughts are welcome. The terrorist atrocities of recent weeks are weighing heavily on all of us. But the One Love concert in Manchester – the most-watched TV event of the year so far – was the perfect expression of the Malone message.
To see all those young people, some of whom were in fear of their lives just a few days before, all together – singing the same tunes, mouthing the same words, happy, at least in that moment – was the most beautiful sight. They felt the power of their own voices. They started to heal before our eyes.
“And that,” he says, “is what singing evolved for: to bond us together.”
The joy of choral singing – and, for Malone, of this series – comes not from the quality of individual voices but the quality of those voices combined. “What makes the choral sound is the variation. Voices come together, vibrate against one another and make a micro-dissonance that creates a shimmer… a bloom.”
You can put together 50 singers of equal technical brilliance, and it doesn’t necessarily make for a brilliant choir, because their relationship to each other is vital. “Skill is important, but sometimes the sense of joy and community and heart can trump that entirely.”
Gareth Malone, Kelis and guest judge Will Young
Pitch Battle is made possible by the great new variety of choirs around now. What used to be the preserve of the church or the middle-aged ladies of the Home Counties has now been embraced by all sorts. The musical director is Deke Sharon, who was behind the work of cinematic genius that is Pitch Perfect, which did a lot to make singing cool among young people. And that’s where we first saw the riff-off – two groups trying to out-sing each other with songs fitting a particular theme.
Sounds a bit newfangled to me. Doesn’t bringing in something like that favour the younger acts? Isn’t it a bit unfair on the Home Counties ladies who have been going for years before these upstarts?
“Not at all,” insists Malone, ever inclusive. “We’ve got all ages in this. In fact, there’s a woman in her 70s doing a mic drop.”
In all of his nine series so far, Gareth Malone has shown that he doesn’t care who is singing or what the song is. “What gets me up out of my chair is when you get a group of people and they love it and they are really good at it.”
But where previously he has been all about encouragement and community, Pitch Battle is serious competition, and he’s preparing for the flak. “There’s always someone telling me that competitiveness is anti-singing. Nonsense.”
He sees it as the next stage – he’s got everybody singing, now they need to get better. “Performing is scary and exciting. You produce your best work on the stage.”
And it makes for good telly, too. “Yes, this is a competition, but we’re also making something to entertain. It’s a jolly, upbeat show in what is really quite a bleak time.” Exactly what we need, then. I can’t wait.
Pitch Battle will air at 7:30pm on BBC 1 on Saturday the 17th June