They were sweet, innocent, angelic - then they became MPs

Choirboys are not what they seem. Yesterday, as choristers from Southwell to Salisbury prepared for the Christmas services, a magazine revealed the facts behind the innocent faces.

Some of those beruffed, angelic creatures, it appears, are heading for an unlikely future - as members of parliament.

Several well-known MPs, according to the Choir Schools' Association magazine, served their time in the nation's cathedral choir stalls.

Michael Mates, Conservative MP for East Hampshire, and Robert Key, Conservative MP for Salisbury, in Wiltshire, both once sang sweetly as pupils of Salisbury Cathedral School.

John Wilkinson, Conservative MP for Ruislip and Northwood, was a pupil at St George's, Windsor.

The magazine has failed to unearth any Labour MPs with a choral past but Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat MP for Bermondsey, used to sing at Llandaff in Wales.

And hard-nosed MPs speak with misty eyes of the days when their lives were ruled by matins and evensong rather than whips and select committees.

Mr Mates, who attended Salisbury Cathedral School from 1943-1947, told the magazine of "treats beyond the dreams of any normal prep-school boy" dished out by residents of the Cathedral Close in the period before Christmas, when the choristers stayed on to sing services after the other boys had gone home.

Mr Mates says: "What has remained with me is the beauty of the music, the solemnity of the Book of Common Prayer and the majesty of the King James's Bible. Add to this one of the most beautiful cathedral closes in Britain with the soaring grandeur of the cathedral itself, and it is easy to understand that it is an idyll which will stay with me to my grave."

Philip Titcombe, the magazine's editor, suggests that it is the qualities of "discipline, intelligence and communication" that help choristers to distinction in public life.

It will be interesting to note, he adds, how girl choristers, now being admitted to some schools, flourish in "the establishment".

Other former choristers who have made their mark include Oz Clarke, the wine expert, Clive Mantle, who plays Mike in television's Casualty, Jon Snow, the broadcaster, and Rodney Galpin, chairman of Standard Chartered Bank and a Bank of England director.

There are 39 schools which educate choristers and which are attached to cathedrals, churches and college chapels. All but two are independent but most choristers' fees are subsidised. On average parents pay less than half fees.

St Mary's, Edinburgh, has had a mixed choir for many years but the first English cathedral choir for girls was set up five years ago at Salisbury. Exeter, Wells and York have followed.

The introduction of girls was resisted by traditionalists who maintained that boys produced a unique choral tone that girls could not replicate.

But a report in the magazine of research into the differences between boys' and girls' voices challenges their view.

Professor Graham Welch of Roehampton Institute says that his research shows that even expert listeners cannot tell the difference between all- boys, all-girls and mixed choirs. What counts, he says, is the sex of the trainer. He asked two panels of listeners, one of choral music experts, and one of musicians without special knowledge of choirs, to identify the sex of 15 choirs.

He concluded that sounds that are perceived as "masculine" are made by choirs trained by men and "feminine" sounds are made by choirs trained by women.

Earlier studies have shown that the sex of untrained singers can usually be identified but the Roehampton study shows that the same is not true of trained singers. Professor Welch says: "We find no evidence in their results that the introduction of girls into cathedral choirs will necessarily have any effect on the choral tone that is produced, nor that the much valued Anglican choral tradition will be changed."