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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

BBC’s ‘The Choir’ Spurs Britons to Sing

By Norman Lebrecht / September 22, 2009

The new season on British television has opened with a slew of talent contests, reality shows and personality cook-ins.

On the British Broadcasting Corp., a dozen would-be designers slug it out for a slot in Philippe Starck’s Paris studio. Public-owned Channel 4 has sent volunteers to survive in extreme climates, while commercial ITV Plc awaits the next desert-island edition of “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!”

Both ITV and Channel 4 are urgently seeking new chief executives to replace Michael Grade and Andy Duncan, squeezed out by the advertising recession.

The BBC is under a two-pronged attack for unfair competition from James Murdoch, chief executive officer of News Corp.’s European and Asian division, and from Labour Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw, who wants to “top slice” its license fee to pay for local news and children’s shows on rival channels. The Conservatives have pledged to freeze the BBC’s funding if they’re elected next year.

Seldom has U.K. television faced so dreary a prospect of fading formats, boardroom shakeouts and the loss of the next generation to Web clicks and electronic games. As the millennium enters its second decade, television is neither popular nor cool. Yet, out of this decline, one series on the BBC’s second channel has overcome the anti-reality backlash to win both high praise and good numbers for its elevated purpose.

Corraling Chorists

“The Choir,” fronted by Gareth Malone, operates from the premise that singing together can create a better society. Malone, a professional chorus leader with the London Symphony Orchestra, goes to a neglected housing estate on London’s industrial fringes and tries to corral its residents into a rehearsal hall.

South Oxhey is one of those nowhere places, neither town nor community but a road sign that passing motorists ignore and inhabitants would rather forget. It has a reputation in nearby Rickmansworth for being “a bit rough” and unsafe after dark.

The people who sign on for choir practice are a medley of the bewildered and the hopeless, the long-term unemployed and the recently bereaved, the disenfranchised immigrants and the post-school girls battling dim job prospects and even dimmer male partners.

Morale Booster

Malone, dressed in V-necked sweaters of startling cobalt hue, delivers no illusions. Singing, he proclaims in a Web-site statement, is good for the body and is a rewarding challenge. “But the most important factor is what it does for people’s confidence; it lifts people in the way no other activity can,” he says.

The proof has been seen already in three hour-long episodes where men and women who would not open a door at night to a neighbor’s knock come together in Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”; where pupils from state schools, some educationally disabled, achieve harmony; and where both groups put in months of preparation to deliver a four-part vocalization of U.S. composer Samuel Barber’s Adagio, with Latin words, in St. Alban’s Cathedral.

In the apotheosis this week (Sept. 22), Malone attempts to achieve a South Oxhey Festival that will embed choral singing in the life of the place and earn a pride that none of its snootier neighbors can profess. Using YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and all the devices of instant communication, “The Choir” has become an overnight hit though it has had little press coverage.

Singing Community

The show ranks seventh on BBC Two, with 2.65 million estimated viewers -- outscoring a Beatles special -- according to the latest available ratings from the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board. Malone is fast becoming a household name and his thesis that singing creates community has been seized upon by the BBC to foster a host of learn-to-sing initiatives and a spinoff documentary, “How a Choir Works.”

Few shows in recent memory have put such a positive spin on the human condition, or so avidly demonstrated the values of art to the nation’s most forlorn parts.

In a television culture that nurtures Simon Cowell’s practiced scorn and the me-me-me ethos of wannabe celebrity, “The Choir” is a tonic for television itself, a reminder of what the medium can achieve when it reflects real life, rather than simulated reality. Stand by for next year’s international spinoffs.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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