Jailhouse blues – TV, Gareth Malone and singing as a route to redemption

When the nation’s choirmaster wanted to work with young offenders, a charity that creates choirs behind bars lent a hand

It all started when I bumped into Gareth Malone at a party. We had met a few times before, and he was always the friendly figure you see on television. Part of the choirmaster’s appeal is his authenticity and, even though his hair is now greying, the phrase “boyish charm” clings to him.

But at that particular party, I was giving him a piece of my mind. “Gareth,” I said, “could you please drop this television project immediately.” The project in question meant we were competing with one another – with Gareth as Goliath and us as David, but with only one logical outcome, at least as far as the BBC was concerned.

Since 2014, my partner – choir director MJ Paranzino – and I have been creating choirs in prisons, a combination of prisoners and volunteers, the latter mostly from MJ’s choirs in the community. When the prisoners come out, they join the choirs or just keep in touch and are supported in their rehabilitation. The full-circle charity is called Liberty Choir. Our flagship prison is one of the largest and most challenging in Europe – HMP Wandsworth – but there are Liberty choirs in High Down and Downview, both in Surrey, and we are about to expand into two more prisons.

The work is rewarding and challenging but attracting funding is always tricky, which is why, if a charity such as ours sees the chance to tell its story on television, we will do all we can to grab it. And over the years, a number of producers and directors have shown interest in us to make a sort of musical version of The Shawshank Redemption.

In 2015, the film-maker Sara Martin made a documentary about one of our patrons, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, when he released a solo album whose title single – Rattle That Lock – featured Liberty Choir. Two years later, she approached us about making a documentary purely on the choir. The BBC was interested but she was warned there was a rival production company with a similar project: no guessing who was involved in that.

So I said to Gareth that, for a small charity like ours, to have the chance to show our work to so many people could be transformational, bolstering our future. Whereas he would be going in with the cameras to create something For Television. Once the filming had finished, what would be the legacy and where would it leave the prisoners? We were not a made-for-television choir, we were the real thing, working in prisons week in, week out, year after year.

Roll on to 2019. We had forgotten all about the documentary when MJ was approached by Twenty Twenty which makes all Gareth’s choir documentaries for the BBC. They wanted to know whether we would be interested in participating in a two-part documentary that had the nation’s favourite TV choirmaster trying to set up a choir in Aylesbury Young Offender Institution.

The idea was that he would come to one of our rehearsals at Wandsworth and ask advice from MJ – the voice of experience for prison choirs. MJ was “Yes, yes, yes…” and I was, “Er, hang on a minute, what do we get out of this?”

On balance, it seemed that although nothing was guaranteed (we could even be cut out), we didn’t have anything to lose apart from our time, and being featured with Gareth should raise our profile.

Initially, two of the production team came to a rehearsal to check that we would work in their format. MJ and Alex, her gifted accompanist, jammed while everyone sang and clapped, and some of the prisoners and volunteers danced. One of our older ladies cha-cha’d with a six-foot five Idris Elba lookalike; a young Somalian refugee took my hand and we bopped around in our chairs; three teenage versions of the Drifters started to croon and lay down beats. It was a moment of pure joy and, of course, the TV team asked if we could recreate it when they came back with the cameras. The answer, equally obviously, was no. Can you imagine the tabloid headlines – “Jailhouse Rock” or perhaps “I Predict a Riot”?

Next came the time-consuming process of getting permissions from the Ministry of Justice for which of our singing prisoners could be captured on camera.

Finally, all clearances given, it was the day for Gareth and the crew to arrive. I reminded him of our conversation at that party, and he said that it was he who had put my name and the choir forward.

Filming started outside the prison with Gareth and MJ chatting about the difficulties of creating a choir in a prison. He particularly liked her idea of creating a pop-up choir on the wings for recruitment purposes.

Gareth Malone rehearsing staff singers at Aylesbury prison.
Gareth Malone rehearsing staff singers at Aylesbury prison. Photograph: Ryan McNamara/BBC/TwentyTwenty

Once we were in our chapel, Gareth was just part of the furniture. The singers who had been picked by the MoJ to talk were naturals. Volunteers were equally at ease. Funnily enough, it was the only TV pro in the room who seemed uncomfortable. When we broke into My Way, Gareth grinned awkwardly and went into ironic mode as though embarrassed by the the song’s cheesiness. And yet the inmates had no problem: they have come to enjoy a broad repertoire and keep coming back for more. Being in a space where they can drop having to put on a tough pose is liberating.

After this session, Gareth came to the primary school where the South London Choir (one of MJ’s four choirs), which includes Liberty Choir graduates, rehearses. Here, he talked to Richie about the young men he was trying to work with at Aylesbury. In his teens, Richie had killed another youth in a pub brawl, beginning a lifetime of incarceration in an institution similar to Aylesbury. When Richie broke into one of the songs from Wandsworth – the spiritual Down by the Riverside – Gareth joined him, adding a harmony, the two men singing in the empty playground as the sun went down. It was beautiful – but unfortunately did not make the edit, we were later told.

Our last time behind the scenes with Gareth was when we were invited to the concert at Aylesbury. The choirmaster had had problems recruiting singers and ultimately failed to create a choir among the young inmates. But he succeeded in getting a dozen of them to make the most difficult of journeys: creating their own songs, which mined their pain, bewilderment and remorse, and which they performed in front of a live audience. Prison staff became a backing band to the young offenders. In the audience were family members and friends of the performers.

I spoke to the brother of one. He had come with a pal, and it was hard to tell whether he was proud of his sibling for performing. The boys were so young and still at the bashful stage of adolescence, despite the severity of some of the crimes. Parents openly wept when their sons sang. It was a heartbreaking event and one that even those of us who were unrelated to the young men found emotional.

It would be good to think that some form of music programme in Aylesbury was developed on the back of the documentary. The door to creativity once opened – even a crack – should not be slammed shut after the caravan has departed.

In the meantime, we will be back singing with our Liberty men and women in prisons next week and all the weeks after that – and we will be waiting for them when they come out.

The two-part The Choir: Aylesbury Prison will be on BBC Two on 6 and 7 January at 9pm. If you would like to support Liberty Choir, go to libertychoir.org

Ginny Dougary

The GuardianTramp

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