Last Night's Viewing: The Choir: Sing While You Work, BBC2
Making Faces, Channel 5
A discordant note came from the bass section in the run-up to Gareth Malone's latest exercise in choral empowerment, The Choir: Sing While You Work. The source was Edmund Chaloner, a consultant vascular surgeon at Lewisham Hospital, and a man who seemed to fear that he would not appear in a flattering light.
In a Radio Times interview about the show he used the word "mendacious" and implied that the producers had arrived with a pre-existing narrative template into which he'd been fitted. It would hardly be the first time that such a thing has happened, but Mr Chaloner's indignant belief that they would pretend "I'm some sort of Lancelot-Spratt type character" turns out to be a little undermined by the fact that he seems to like doing the same thing himself. "In theatre, everyone knows how I like things done and they also know that if they're not done that way I'll get pretty cross about it," he said cheerfully, as he introduced himself to us. Not exactly a conscript for caricature, then, but a volunteer.
Edmund didn't actually come out of it badly anyway, though there was no question that he was cast in the role of "grit in the ointment", after clashing very politely with Gareth over the mawkish qualities of REM's "Everybody Hurts". Gareth was trying to get Edmund to get in touch with his emotions; Edmund was steadfastly resisting, on the grounds that empathetic weepiness isn't very useful when you're wrist deep in a chap's abdomen and he might bleed out in 30 seconds. The important part of "shrinking violet who blossoms", meanwhile, was played by Natalie, a speech therapist who'd been bullied at school and was pulled out of the chorus for a solo part precisely because she brought a lip-trembling emotional responsiveness to the lyrics. That was the essential narrative opposition, plus a bit of stuff about how atomised employees could be brought together by close harmony and learn to see each other as human beings, rather than departmental representatives.
Edmund's arguments weren't stupid and, as far as I could see, he wasn't ever obstructive about his dislike of the REM song, despite the fact that he was more used to giving instructions rather than taking them. I suppose some viewers might have dismissed him as sentimentally constipated after Gareth's exasperated remark about "collective terror of emotion". But you hope that some of them might have recognised that Edmund's rigour and professional detachment weren't a million miles away from the qualities a really good choirmaster needs as well. I don't imagine Gareth was swayed by sentiment in selecting his choir ("I want people who are absolutely top notch," he'd said sternly) and no amount of warm cuddles would match his insistence that they do the practice and hit the notes accurately. Next week, Gareth brings the healing power of music to Bristol posties, and the truth is that he'll need a little bit of Edmund to get the job done.
There was empathy in Making Faces, Channel 5's new series about the maxillofacial department of a Birmingham hospital, though most of it came from the technicians who work with silicone rubber rather than a scalpel. One man, apparently a regular customer, came in for a new ear, unfazed by the Mr Potato Head toy on a nearby shelf (a helpful joke, that, or a tasteless one?). But Anna, who'd lost her nose to cancer, was having more trouble adjusting, despite the fact that her new nose looked astoundingly good to me. Then again, I'm not the one who has to endure the furtive flicker in the eyes when people get up close and double-check. The point of all this being on television, incidentally, is that you can stare as much as you want.
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