He’s the man who made it cool to sing in a choir. Sheena Hastings catches up with Gareth Malone, in Yorkshire to work with a very special brass band.
EVERYONE adores Gareth. Male, female, mums and dads, grannies, tots and teens, gay and straight - he’s that unusual animal, a TV presenter with universal appeal in the spoilt-for-choice multi-channel 21st century.
His many TV challenges that fix a tiny corner of humanity with song, are heartwarming and occasionally downright soppy. But they pull back from the edge of the cringe because the stories told in his choir programmes are so genuine.
The presenter is oh-so-familiar, but also musically uber-credible – after all, he’d earned a distinction as a postgrad at The Royal College of Music and was working with the children and youth choirs of the London Symphony Orchestra when a TV production company found him through a Google search for ‘choirmasters’. He wanted to work in telly and says he stopped to think for “about two and a half minutes” before responding to the message with a yes.
It’s no surprise that there’s an air of excitement and curiosity in the rehearsal room where the world-renowned 25-strong Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band rehearses every week. Gareth has asked the band to record the music for Paradise Street, an anthemic folk ballad he has written for a new album called A Great British Christmas.
He’s travelling the length and breadth of the British Isles recording choirs, orchestras, handbell ringers, Welsh harpist Catrin Finch (on Walking in the Air), children and community groups, for a compilation of songs. Ricky Wilson, frontman of Leeds band The Kaiser Chiefs, will record the vocals on Paradise Street, backed by Voices, Gareth’s own professional choir.
The band, fresh from winning second place in the British Open Championships (that’s like coming second in the world), and in between concerts up and down the country, jumped at the chance to work with Gareth, says band manager and soprano cornet player Alan Morrison.
“We knew this would be a good experience musically, it would be great for the band and people would be excited about it.” Gareth’s project is one of three albums they’ve been involved in this year, including the forthcoming Baker’s Dozen.
To give the flavour of his song about love and loss, Gareth sings it and then resident musical director Leigh Baker - who arranged the piece for brass - starts a run-through.
Certain corners are worked on and tweaked, bringing out colour and a sense of yearning with little virtuoso moments. Gareth hovers behind Leigh, unable to resist waving his arms around a bit, too. He’s very clear about what he wants, and the musicians respond immediately.
It’s hard to believe that they have only seen the full score for the first time tonight, and that these astoundingly gifted people are amateurs. All have day jobs, and a few are music teachers.
The ordinary people Gareth has fired up to sing for his programmes include reluctant schoolboys, ferry staff and bank tellers, nurses, shop assistants, and wives and girlfriends who used their Military Wives Choir as a kind of prayer for the safe return of their menfolk.
Wherever You Are, their Christmas number one, was fashioned from snatches of love letters between the women and their partners far away. Gareth’s Invictus Choir, made up of former services personnel badly injured or disabled in the line of duty, defied even the stoniest of hearts not to weep at the beauty of the sound they made earlier this year.
They appear on the new album, singing a new arrangement of Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits. Another track, Only You, features a ‘choir’ of 34 tracks of Gareth’s voice mixed together.
“In our house there was never any anxiety about singing (his parents James and Sian met at their local Gilbert and Sullivan Society). But for some people there is anxiety around it. When you think about it, it’s kind of a strange activity and it feels so revealing. You can tell a lot about someone by how they sing.”
Does he get very emotionally involved in each project? “Yes, you have a love affair with it. It’s not like any every day activity. It’s very intense, and everyone in the room feels the same way.
“But I’ve been performing my whole life and find that you do something, you give it your all, you have a moment of loss when it’s over, but then you put it to bed and move on.
“I’m lucky now to have choices between the different projects I’m offered, and there’s always an interesting new challenge. But I don’t have a ‘bucket list’ of things I feel I must do. I really like programmes where there is a competitive element, as it makes people work harder.”
He lives in north London with his high school English teacher wife Becky and their little ones, Esther and Gilbert, “...who sing all the time, as kids do”.
He doesn’t want to get embroiled in the state of education or music teaching in particular, but does add: “All I can say is that we should value our teachers and let them get on with it. It’s not about box-ticking.
“When it comes to music, teaching is very much personality-led and about creating excitement around the subject.” The never-to-be forgotten music teacher Gareth loved at Bournemouth School was Stephen Carleston, who gets a writing credit on the album.
“When I was about 13, Mr Carleston asked us to write a new melody for a carol. I did A Child Is Born, he helped by harmonising it, and I sang it.
“I still had the music, so when I started to work on this album, I called him and asked him to collaborate again, and this time we’ve added a baroque flute. It was fantastic to work with him, as he was a huge influence on me.”
Having children of his own has of course changed him, says Gareth. “I don’t sweat the small stuff so much now, and I can’t watch certain films - certainly nothing involving a dying child.”
After a decade on our screens and 15 TV projects, does he feel the love as much as ever as he walks down the street - and is his default setting always the empathetic, cheery Gareth we see on screen? Surely not.
“I do get a lot of good comments from people, which is great. But I have to say I wasn’t so cheery this morning in our hotel. We’d been working late and got to bed after 1am.
“When I went down to breakfast it had finished and I did get cross for a moment, as it still seemed a reasonable time to expect something to eat. They were probably surprised, but I am allowed to get a bit grumpy sometimes.”
Yes, he is...and it’s all the more endearing that, if you prick him, Gareth bleeds like anyone else in need of a restorative bacon sarnie.
A Great British Christmas will be released by Decca on December 2.