Gareth Malone: Note perfect
He’s the nation’s favourite singing teacher. Women love him. Gay men adore him. And his efforts to turn reluctant state-school pupils into convincing choristers have made him the BBC’s latest – and most unexpected – star. But where exactly did Gareth Malone spring from? And what on earth will he make of our intrepid interviewer's, er... 'voice'?
Saturday 15 March 2008
Everyone is in love with Gareth Malone, the choirmaster who first appeared in the BBC2 documentary series The Choir and then again in Boys Don't Sing. Or, to put it another way, I don't know anyone who isn't in love with Gareth Malone. My girlfriends are all in love with Gareth Malone. My gay friends are all in love with Gareth Malone. My mother is in love with Gareth Malone. My sister is in love with Gareth Malone. I am in love with Gareth Malone. Just before I am due to meet him, I say to my partner: "You do realise that I may not come back, that if he wishes to run away with me I'm off, leaving you, our son, the two cats and the dog." My partner looks worried then says. "Oh, please, please take the dog." I will not take the dog. We have a very naughty dog. He eats doors and skirting boards. Our dog is not the sort of dog you would ever want in a love-nest. Sorry, dog.
So I say "bye" to the dog – "it's been fun" – and go off to meet Gareth. We meet at St Luke's, the renovated, deconsecrated church in Islington that is now the home of the London Symphony Orchestra. Gareth works for the LSO, running their youth choir and their community choir. This is his job; his proper job. Some people who appear on telly don't really exist off it, but he does. According to his CV, he was also once the LSO's "Edward Heath Assistant Animateur". I would like to imagine that this, in some way, involved animating Edward Heath – "Get up, you fat bastard!" – but it didn't. "I didn't even meet him, which was a shame," he says.
Gareth is there when I arrive. He is 32, slight, wears glasses and is a little freckled. Either love is truly blind or it all just comes together somehow. He has had a good day spent with a group of year six primary school children – "so responsive" – but it has also been a bad day because one of his wisdom teeth is playing up and "it hurts". (Damn. I should have offered to nurse him.) He never set out to be a TV star. He was just nicely, and happily, doing what he does at the LSO when the TV company behind both series, 20/20, got in touch. They wanted to make a series about singing in schools, had Googled "community choirmasters" and there he was. "I got a phone call asking: 'Would you like to be on telly?' and I cautiously jumped at the chance." He had his reservations, but was a big fan of one of their other series, Brat Camp.
"I'd sat and cried my way through the last episode," he says, "and I thought, if that's the sort of programme they like to make, then it's good enough for me." I sat and cried through both of Gareth's series, which is why he is good enough for me.
The premise of both The Choir and Boys Don't Sing was simple: send Gareth, a classically trained choirmaster, into a state school where music isn't any kind of priority, to see if he could put together a choir that could compete in China (The Choir) or perform at The Royal Albert Hall (Boys Don't Sing). In the first he had a peculiarly persuasive way of getting the kids to sign up: "We have some nice girls... we might be going to China... we also have biscuits." As for the second – set in the Lancaster School, a particularly sporty, large boys' secondary in Leicester – it has to be as profoundly a moving piece of television as has ever been made.
The boys could not, initially, have been less interested. Choir singing, after all, is just so "gay". And the staff weren't that sold, either. (Yes, I am talking about you, Mr Foreman.) But they did make it to the Albert Hall, where their "Stand By Me" ("Darlin', darlin'...") not only made me cry then, but has done several times since on YouTube. Gareth is a great teacher: supportive, caring, enthusiastic, and those kids knew it. Most moving was seeing them slowly reveal that beneath the hostility and the yawning and those trousers that come half-way down their bottoms, they were actually decent and rather sweet. Even Imran, the most gifted singer but something of a pain for quite a while, got there in the end. Whatever, the performance was fantastic which, considering it involved 110 teenage boys, must have meant that the Lynx effect was quite something. "God, it was," says Gareth. "Horrible. What is it about teenage boys and Lynx?"
Anyway, Gareth and I leave St Luke's and walk over to the Barbican, because a music room has been booked so he can give me a singing lesson, something that this magazine thinks will be "hilarious" as I cannot sing a note. We walk down Old Street. I want to talk about some of the boys from the second series. I say I loved Michael, who was funny and looked like a mini Peter Kay. "Didn't he!" says Gareth. But that's about as far as I get because we are constantly pestered and not just by oldies, but by everybody. It is: "Loved the show!" And: "Great work, mate!" And even: "I like your hair." This last throws Gareth a bit. "Um... thanks for taking an interest?"
I put it to him that it doesn't stop here. Did he know, for example, that the week after the final episode of Boys Don't Sing two of the most asked questions on Google were: "Is Gareth married?" and "Is Gareth gay?" Both sides, obviously, want a look in. "Oh, how sweet!" he says. You don't look at this stuff? Sometimes, he replies, "but it's a dangerous and dark world of narcissism; a person could go mad". The answers to the above, by the way, are "no" and "no", but he is engaged. He is rightly guarded about his fiancée so all I know is that she's called Becky, is Jewish, they are due to be married soon, they live near Kilburn and while he is quite keen on dogs, she is not. (Hang on in there, dog. You could be back on board!)
As it turns out, we are too early for the music room – thank God – so head for the Barbican café where Gareth thinks about ordering a slice of cake but then doesn't, because of his sore tooth. (Damn, I should have offered to mash it for him.) I ask him about Imran. What was his problem? "Imran had a lot of fear about being made to look stupid," he says. I say it was so smart of him to get Imran back – to ensure the prodigal returned – by nibbling away at his peer group. "Very calculated," says Gareth. "I've worked with teenage boys for 10 years now so do know what makes them tick." Really? I say. I've got a teenage son. Do you know how I might get him to put his dirty dishes into the dishwasher? "Put them on his bed," he says. I might actually try that.
I ask what it is about choirs that is intensely moving, generally. He says: "Partly it's this feeling as if the social dream, where everyone comes together and is united, has been realised. It can feel quite Utopian." Gareth is probably about as musical as musical people can ever get. When I ask him what it would do to him if, tomorrow, he woke up to find that there was no music any more, that it had all just disappeared, and that nobody would ever be able to make any again, he says: "Life would be just so dull and dreary. I love art, literature and other forms of expression but for me music, and singing, is the greatest art form." Actually, I think it would kill him. Music is him. Later, he says: "Music does help me make sense of things. My first port of call in times of trouble is to put on a piece of music that will just put me back together again. It's the absorption in someone else's life experience. It's different from a novel, say, because you just get so carried away."
He knows that if he ever did Desert Island Discs he would have to take Bach's St Matthew Passion. He is mad for Bryn Terfel. He thinks Pavarotti had his day long before he stopped, but what the hell. "My parents saw him in the Seventies and he was fantastic in those days. Even I knew, when the World Cup came, that he was past his best, but then he carried on for an awfully long time. I do understand why. He was a very magnetic personality and a magnetic performer." Gareth does not, though, cling on to his passion just for himself. He spills over with it, wants to communicate it. I put it to him at one point that some of the boys in the Lancaster choir must have had pretty ropey voices. He says, more or less, and so? In full, he says: "There were a few... well, I mean, there were plenty of boys whose voices hadn't been used who thought they would give it a go and started to discover they really liked it. It will be a long time before they make world-class singers but, for me, that's not really the point. There are people who are interested in nothing but musical excellence, only working with the very best, and that is a wonderful thing, but for me, when somebody makes a note for the first time or connects with it for the first time, that is really fascinating, endlessly fascinating."
He was born and brought up in Bournemouth where his parents were not musicians, or if they were they kept it a very closely guarded secret. As far as Gareth ever knew, and still knows, his dad, James, worked in a bank while his mum, Sian, worked in M&S on Saturdays, and now works in the civil service. They were musical, though. Sang in a choir themselves and there was always music on in the house. He thinks his first musical memory is a record of Vivaldi's Gloria. He always loved the piano.
"As a very young boy I would sit at it and make up pieces which consisted of just pushing the pedal down and bashing, but I enjoyed it a lot." He always sang in a choir and, yes, he did get ribbed for it at school. "I got a fair amount of bullying. I was kind of a bit soft and gentle and into the piano and I liked classical music. I was not a particularly rough-and-tumble sort of child, much more into intellectual pursuits, and so you know in an all-boys' school how that can get you a ribbing. It took me a good six or so months of being in year seven at secondary school to pluck up the courage to go to the choir. A new teacher came, a man, and I think that's probably what got me to go and do it. Same old story."
He later studied drama at the University of East Anglia and singing at the Royal College of Music. He thought he might be a singer himself, and maybe he still will. "I still do bits and bobs, I keep my hand in. But I'm a pragmatist. A lot of my friends are singers who are out of work. And I do love doing the education work."
Alas, the music room is now ready. Damn. He was right when he said, earlier: "It can be terribly frightening singing in front of someone for the first time. It has so much to do with someone's sense of self." I think I wanted to do something from Joseph – I am so musical that it's the only thing I know off by heart – but he distracts me with a Beatles song. I am bad but, amazingly, he does make me think that maybe I'm not as bad as I think I am. Still, he does not invite me to run off with him, so home I go. The dog is very pleased to see me. He is a good and trusty dog and, actually, there is no way I would have left him for Gareth. Unless he'd asked.
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