It’s a hot sunny day in mid-September and Gareth Malone is wearing a green felt Christmas tree on his head. “The more you sing this carol like you’re singing to granny at home,” he tells the London Youth Choir, “the more heartfelt it is – and the more the microphones will pick it up.”
Britain’s best known choirmaster is making a Christmas record in Abbey Road studios. But, true to his roots, he is also doing it in the community. In fact, he’s doing it in lots of communities: in Cornwall with Perranarworthal Hand Bell Ringers; in Birmingham with its Gospel Choir; and in Wales with the Coed Eva primary school (whose building was burnt down in an arson attack on New Year’s Eve).
Over the past decade, Malone has shown he can transform pretty much any group of no-hopers into a decent choir. In Boys Don’t Sing, he took a bunch of Leicester schoolboys who hated the idea of singing in a choir and nine months later had them performing at the Albert Hall. Then there was Sing While You Work, in which P&O saw off the likes of Sainsbury’s and Cheshire Fire Service to become Britain’s top workplace choir. Most famously, in 2011 he took the Military Wives to a Christmas No 1 with Wherever You Are.
Malone is a boyish 40, with the air of a children’s TV presenter, part Simon Cowell, part social worker and part teacher. The son of a civil servant mother and bank manager father, he grew up in Bournemouth and did a drama degree at the University of East Anglia. “I thought I was going to be Kenneth Branagh in Henry V, that’s what I wanted.”
Malone was convinced he would conquer the world, that he would make his name as an actor, a director or a singer – and, if things worked out well, all three. But his ambition was not matched by his talent or dedication. “I had moments of realisation at university. I saw other actors and thought, ‘Yes, you’re a bit more dedicated and a bit more serious and a bit better than me.’ So that was a little knockback. I think I had the same with directing: there were these people who had a singlemindedness about what they wanted to do that I didn’t.”
He took a postgrad in classical singing at the prestigious Royal Academy of Music – passing with a distinction – but again he felt he was lacking. “I didn’t have a huge operatic voice. It’s a smallish instrument. The people who get picked up tend to be the ones with opera-sized voices.” To even stand a chance, he says, he would have also had to show unwavering commitment for six to eight years. “It’s like brain surgeon-type commitment. A lot of my friends who I was in college with are just starting their careers now.”
So he returned to Bournemouth, worked in a bar and sold ice creams on the beach. He was at a bit of a loss. “One day, a friend of my parents called and said, ‘I’ve seen an advert for a youth worker to work with young teenagers and I think you’d be really good at it.’” Malone applied, got the job, and it changed his life. He worked with disadvantaged youngsters, encouraging them to take an interest in music, and he saw a world he had been oblivious to.
“I would teach them to play bass guitar, try to organise them. I found it deeply traumatic in some ways, because it was my first realisation that people had not had the same advantages I had. People would tell you their parents were on drugs or whatever and I found it difficult to deal with because I was young and didn’t know much about the world.” Was he naive? “Yes, I was sheltered till I was in my 20s.”
After the youth work, he got a job with the London Symphony Orchestra running its youth and community choirs and working in inner-city schools. “I got a real kick out of seeing teenagers you’d never expect getting involved in classical music.” The experience knocked some of the arrogance out of him. “It was quite humbling. I came out of school fairly cocksure and confident – I thought I was marvellous.”
Disappointment had given him a new perspective: he now regarded himself more as an enthusiastic amateur than an unheralded divo. He certainly did not see community work as a stepping stone to a career in TV. I read that his wife Becky, an English teacher with whom he has two young children, said that he had grim prospects when they met and she took him on as a project. “Oh, what a lovely thing to say!” he says. “I think she spotted potential, but I wasn’t like a high-flying city lawyer with bags of cash. I was a bohemian with grand plans. I think she felt I’d always do something but she didn’t know what. Then this TV thing came up and it just clicked.”
In 2006, he was invited to make a series for BBC2, The Choir, in which he taught choral music to teenagers. And everything fell into place. The skills he had learnt over the years – acting, directing, singing, teaching, mentoring – all played a part in this new career. I ask what he thinks makes him good on TV. He ums and ahs. “Well, I’m certainly not camera-shy.” He also says his bossiness comes in useful. “I’m a back-seat driver in life. You know, ‘You might want to turn the oven down to three.’ Back-seat baker, cook, organiser, back-seat everything. I have always got an opinion on how I’d like things to be.”
Older women, including my mother, tend to adore Malone. She says what she loves about him is that he is an enabler: giving people the confidence to do things they wouldn’t have dreamed they were capable of. A great example is Boys Don’t Sing, the BBC2 series Malone cites as his favourite. “I just lived and breathed it for nine months, in and out of that school every day trying to make it work. It was the joy of going from not knowing what we were doing to standing on the stage at the Royal Albert Hall for the first time in my life with 150 people – and it working. I was really proud of that performance.”
What makes him particularly proud is that he was working with schoolboys. Why do they tend to be resistant to choirs? Malone says it’s a such complex issue, involving masculinity, biology and language itself. “You’re always struggling to prove it can be as manly and as cool as football and Xbox. The term boy is quite complicated in relation to music. We talk of boy bands, but they are actually young men.
“And the changes that occur to a young man’s voice are very traumatic. We don’t deal with that very well. We always talk about boys’ voices breaking and of course they don’t break. It’s a source of anxiety for so many men. They say, ‘Oh, I sang in a choir and then my voice broke and I stopped. What happens when something breaks? You throw it away and get a new one. Well, you can’t get a new voice, so a lot of men just fall out of love with their own instruments.”
Does he never get bored with the TV formula of turning dross into gold? He looks surprised. No, he says, he loves it. “I like performing and working with people. Simon Rattle doesn’t say, ‘I’ve played in all the big halls in the world, so I’ll stop now.’ You keep going on and learning. Every scenario is different.”
Would he be tempted if a good acting offer came along? He nods. “I’d be the right kind of nervous I think.” He grins. “I should be careful because Coronation Street will call me up and I’ll be the resident choirmaster!”
For now he’s focused on the task in hand – getting the best out of the London Youth Choir, whose female singers are here today, as well as four of Team GB’s gold-winning women’s hockey team (who tweeted him to ask if he would teach them how to sing the national anthem properly). There is a great buzz: the girls are thrilled to meet the athletes who are equally thrilled (and a little scared) to be performing with Malone and the choir.
As soon as he gets back to work, a change comes over him. He’s more focused, more animated, and all enthusiasm. “Cute. That is lovely! That is a lovely sound!” He’s virtually jumping with excitement as they sing Oh Holy Night. Now we see Malone the teacher as he explains the line: “And in his name all oppression shall cease.”
He tells the girls: “The point of this verse is it’s an end to slavery. Oppression is the word. Oppression is when people are put down. When it says oppression shall cease, that’s a big deal. It’s a really important verse, so let’s try again.” And next we see Malone the perfectionist. “I think we’ve got pretty much everything. I’d just like two more takes. Maybe three. Here we go!”
Malone is in his element working with all ages and abilities. “Ladies of the hockey team, I suggest we stick you slap bang in the middle.” As the dark draws in, they work away at O Come All Ye Faithful, with Malone gently ticking off the more experienced singers for overshadowing the others, complaining that some words are indistinct, and suggesting they harden “Lord”. Finally, he seems happy.
“Absolutely killer,” he shouts. “Brilliant! We did it! Hurrah!” The choir and hockey players look relieved and happy – for all of one second. “Right,” says Malone, “one more take.”
• The Choir: Gareth’s Best in Britain starts on BBC2 on 1 November. A Great British Christmas is released on Decca Classics on 2 December.