Gareth Malone is a one-man guide to Britain | Viv Groskop

Amid all the singing, the ever charming choirmaster reveals the nation to itself

In a world where no one seems to know how to connect with anyone apart from their own tribe any more, guess who has their finger on the pulse of modern Britain in all its contradictions and awkwardnesses far more than any politician? Gareth bloody Malone, the Nation’s Choirmaster, that’s who.

Frankly, it’s extraordinary. Two episodes into his latest countrywide search for an amateur choir and the tribal affiliations of our land are laid brutally bare. Every week, there is an insufferable group of lecherous, middle-class women who are addicted to giggling and prosecco; a worthy group of elderly folk who mean no harm but look as if time has forgotten them and are left with only garibaldi biscuits as consolation; and a group of downtrodden mothers of toddlers who have lost the will to live and yet own many colourful, bosomy maxidresses.

It can appear twee and cliched and almost unbelievably Pebble Mill. And yet somehow he manages to make it all seem cohesive and normal and modern and so inspiringly, inoffensively, harmoniously British in a way that we can’t seem to replicate at all in our nation’s cultural life or at the ballot box.

We could have far worse alternative leaders of the new world order than this charming, self-effacing and overgrown chorister. Since 2007, Malone’s television programmes have seen him morph into the unintentional pin-up for Brexit-era Britain in all its complexities. While political parties tear one another apart and the “metropolitan elite” mocks the “alt-right”, one man in Harry Potter specs and a sensible pair of trousers from Boden’s brushed cotton range is quietly sowing reconciliation and contentment, using only close harmonies and some standards from a 1977 Billy Joel songbook.

As one reviewer wrote: “You might have thought there weren’t any choirs left for Gareth to discover.” But you would be so wrong. Last week’s outing of The Choir: Gareth’s Best in Britain, the second in a series of six, saw him take to “Wales and the Midlands” in his jaunty rental car, chuntering all the while to the camera that he must find something gritty and not too polished that “really represents a sense of place”.

Twitter wasn’t convinced about this pairing: “You lumped Wales (a country) in with the Midlands (a region)? Insulting!!!!” A fair point. In my experience, you do not mess with Welsh choirs. I once had the misfortune to appear at a karaoke night hosted by a Welsh choir and my contribution was the aural equivalent of drawing a stick man to compete with the Sistine Chapel. Do not mess with that vocal inheritance. And definitely not while attempting the Mariah Carey part on Endless Love.

But Malone got away with it, as he seems to be able to get away with just about anything, casting aside the Choir of Light from Treharris (near Merthyr Tydfil), which auditioned movingly in Welsh, in favour of Emmanu’-EL Apostolic Gospel Academy, a Pentecostal gospel choir from Leicester which appears to have named itself with in mind.

The choir has members from Jamaica, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nigeria, Bermuda, Canada, Ghana and the UK. They taught Malone mastery of an energetic Zulu dance. He taught them how to make an audience feel like you are singing about something you really care about, even if secretly you are just singing in a very happy way because you really want to praise God. This is basically what he does: teaches people that it’s all right to show that you care.

Fascinatingly, so far Malone has comprehensively rejected the Waitrose classes in this series. Every week, there’s a cohort of well-to-do, mildly hysterical Women of the Villages of Middle England who always greet him with a spread that looks like something out of the Good Housekeeping Institute, all gluten-free scones and homemade pies. One Bake Off-worthy pie featured his trademark specs lovingly rendered in pastry and he was forced to eat it on camera, grimacing with enforced gratitude. These women are treated with patience. They are heard out. But they are not what is required for Malone’s vision of Britain – they are too settled.

Malone is interested in the people who are a bit broken and a bit rough around the edges, who aren’t sure of themselves or of their place in the world and who don’t have the time, energy or inclination to construct a papier-mache poster of him posing as a Chippendale, garnished with a strategic cucumber. (Oh, Britain. Don’t ever go changing.)

He struggles similarly with the youthful a cappella groups inspired by TV’s Glee or Hollywood’s Pitch Perfect: they’re doing it all with too much of a knowing nudge and a wink. Even though Malone knows he’s working in the cheesiest medium and in the cheesiest of circumstances, he does everything he can to push for authenticity and something that feels fresh and different. Sometimes it’s like trying to stage Waiting for Godot on breakfast television. But somehow he pulls it off.

The other great joy in his programmes is his dogged celebration of long-defunct, abandoned “community spaces”. It is a regular trope in the programme that someone over the age of 80 is wheeled on to say: “I haven’t seen anyone perform in this village hall since VE Day. I remember the acoustic from when I were a lad.” (Or similar.)

This should be schlocky and worthy of Alan Partridge, but somehow it’s touching and real. Because this is the thing that a lot of people really care about and really miss: a physical centre of a community, a place where they could actually go, a place that isn’t Facebook or Netflix, a place where everyone is singing in harmony even when some of them are a bit out of tune and a bit rubbish. Broken Britain? Brexit Britain? No, this is Malone’s Patched-Up Britain. Some had to give it a go. As the late Leonard Cohen would sing: “Hallelujah.”


Viv Groskop

The GuardianTramp

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