Twenty Twenty Television
Gareth Malone leads three new choirs over the course of BBC America's The Choir, which premieres tonight.
Let me tell you a story.
When I was at press tour all the way back in January, BBC America had a panel discussion about The Choir, which has been airing on the BBC in bits over a period of several years (and has won a bunch of awards). On the panel was Gareth Malone, the young choirmaster (he was 30 when filming started) who, on the show, goes to places where there's no tradition of choral singing and starts new choirs. Over the 13 episodes BBC America will air, starting tonight at 10:00, he starts one at a coed high school, one at a boys' school, and one in a fairly beat-down town with a reputation as kind of one big bad neighborhood.
Malone talked about the show, about his work with the choirs, and so forth, and at the end, he said he wanted the room full of critics to come up on stage and sing something, because that's what he does when you put him in any room containing a group of people.
Now, let me explain: by the late part of press tour, which this was, the critics in attendance are tuckered and grumpy. They've been listening to various versions of "Seriously, you guys, Past Life is going to be so awesome" for more than a week. And when an overly happy British dude announces that he wants them to come up on stage and sing a tune, you seriously would think they'd been asked to strip naked and dance the Macarena. More than anything, the vibe that wafted back in his direction was an ice-cold, "Uh, we don't do that."
He didn't care at all. Did not care. Just kept chirping away. In fact, here's the transcript.
I promise not to do opera. I think away from the tables would — thank you. As comfortable as you are down there, you will feel more comfortable next to somebody else. That’s what singing’s about. Thank you, sir. You absolutely are a star. Up you come.
Please come up. Honestly it’s going to be very, very gentle. I promise. Risk it. There won’t be very much. Typists, abandon your typing. Do one of you come on. I can see a lady in the technician desk. Come on. Come on.
I have to say, the entire time this was happening, I was thinking, "You're lovely, but there is no way — at all — that this is happening."
Aaaaaaand then we were up there — not everybody, but a good chunk — singing "Barbara Ann."
TV critics. Grouchy, angry, tired, cynical TV critics who had just survived Conan Gets Fired Week.
Now, the reason I go to the trouble of telling you this long story is that this was a very telling introduction to the freaky Gareth Malone mojo that comes out on the show. People don't want to do it, and then they're just ... doing it.
I have to take a small detour to point out that one of the things I think is terribly sad is that the New York Times review of the show, which will probably be the most widely read, misses its point entirely. I don't mean to pick a fight, but apparently, Gina Bellafante takes the position that the reason the kids are shown is to emphasize how bad they are and how big Malone's job is.
This is absolutely, positively not the case. The entire point of the show is that you do not have to be a great singer, or a potential solo singer, to love singing in a choir. It pains me in particular that she singles out the "Tainted Love" auditioner, claiming that's played as a bad audition, when it simply isn't. Malone's immediate reaction to that kid is that she's wonderful, because she snaps her fingers and dances, and her audacious attitude is like catnip. Of course some of them are bad, but he mostly sees them as untrained.
This is the show's position (and Malone's): To like choral singing, and to get a lot out of it, you basically need to be able to carry a tune (accompanied, not a cappella), learn a part, and work hard. You do not have to be someone people would pay to hear in a club. Entirely contrary to the claims in the NYT review that the show goes to great lengths to demonstrate how bad everyone is and how uphill Malone's battle is, it actually goes to great lengths to demonstrate how many undiscovered singers there are in the school. Not potential recipients of record contracts, but people who are ripe to receive joy from singing and to produce lovely music who, because of the decline of school music programs, are not currently doing it.
I watched all thirteen episodes — the stories of all three choirs — in one weekend shortly after I got back from press tour. And this weekend, I watched the first choir (the one that premieres tonight) again. It's that much fun.
Yes, I've been in a bunch of choirs, and I'm sure that helps. (For a lot of these kids, the first piece of classical choral music they ever sing is the Vivaldi Gloria, and when I was 13, that was my first piece of classical choral music, too.) But it's really going to work, I think, on anybody who was in band, or did theater, or made science fair projects, or drew on a notebook. It's about the importance of music and music education, yes, but it's also about helping kids (and adults) explore the way that expressive activities can bring a lot of happiness even if you stand almost no chance of making them your career.
In that sense, it's really the anti-Idol, standing for the proposition that singing is not about getting a record contract or becoming famous; it's about the experience itself.