Gareth Malone is on a road trip in the north of England searching for Britain’s best community choir. He’s in the Peak District to hear the Honey Belles, who “might be a little bit like a hen party”. He watches them sing It’s Raining Men. Really loudly. A bit like a hen party. “Wow!” he proclaims afterwards, managing, in his Gareth way, to be both critical and enthusiastic; teacherly and boyish. “That’s a very loud noise. At the moment it feels like you’re having a great time …”
Earlier, when Gareth asked the women how the Honey Belles started, one of them simply lifted a finger and pointed at him. Such is the influence of the nation’s favourite choirmaster on singing, community spirit, redemptive television formats, life, the lot. Gareth was doing The Great British Bake Off vibe long before Paul and Mary, only with choirs rather than cakes. He’s so big that the title of his new series, The Choir: Gareth’s Best in Britain (BBC2, 9pm), dispenses with his surname. He is simply Gareth, crisscrossing the country in blazer, scarf and skinny jeans, gladdening the nation’s hearts and vocal boxes, making everyone be kinder to themselves and cry a little. Kind of like the anti-Simon Cowell.
This time he is on the hunt for a choir that says something “about what it is to be British”. The question is: who’s left? Gareth has coached military wives, resistant boys, shy teenagers, naked choirs and the Cheshire fire service. What next? The National Farmers’ Union? A Brexit leave vs remain sing-off?
First stop: Edinburgh, where Gareth hears a choir called Got Soul founded by an Iranian woman. “A bit shouty,” is his verdict, but it’s got “lots of heart”. Next to Inverness for some Celtic singing, the Yorkshire Dales in the rain, and the north-east where Mums in Durham, who are crippled by a lack of confidence, have baked Gareth a pie with a pair of specs moulded in pastry. By the time he is at Easington Colliery giving a brief history of pit closures, it has turned into Gareth’s Great British Tour, which, post-Brexit, feels quite elegiac. But maybe I’m just emotional from all the stoical singing in strip-lit community centres.
He whittles down the choirs then picks one to compete at the national contest, which will close the series. Obviously, it’s Mums in Durham, the terrified ones who have never performed and have the greatest potential for transformative telly. “Nobody has ever believed in us before,” one woman says. “It’s such a good feeling.” By the time Mums in Durham are at the miner’s welfare centre belting out Billy Joel’s She’s Always a Woman to Me to their weeping children, husbands and nans, I’m sold. Gareth is moved watching them sing. I am moved watching him watch them. The format may be tired but people singing together never grows stale.