Gareth Malone with the wives and girlfriends of Armed Forces personnel at RMB Chivenor
[Picture: Courtesy of the BBC]
For the new series of his BAFTA-winning programme 'The Choir', musical maestro Gareth Malone has embarked on his most ambitious and emotional challenge to date - teaching wives and girlfriends of Armed Forces personnel serving in Afghanistan to sing. Interview by Lorraine McBride.
The three-part BBC2 series, which starts tonight, is called 'The Choir: Military Wives'. It sees Gareth working with the families of tri-Service personnel based at Royal Marines Base Chivenor in North Devon from just before the troops deploy on operations to their homecoming parades several months later. Gareth describes this period as 'an emotional roller coaster' for the women:
"I think a tour to Afghanistan is always difficult for military wives," says the presenter during a rare break from filming.
Over eight months, Gareth threw himself into life on base with the fearless and funny military wives:
"It was very interesting because we hear a lot about troops which is positive but we never hear about the women," explains Gareth. "To my mind, we only ever see military wives when something tragic happens. I wanted to show what they are doing and literally give them a voice."
Gareth describes choral singing as harder than people think and teaching novices is a challenge:
"It is vocally and emotionally demanding," he continues. "And at times, it's like doing a crossword, you have to really concentrate and use your brain."
But, he adds, it is also very rewarding to sing in a choir:
"There is something special about singing in harmony and being part of a pack. It gives great benefits to people."
Gareth, a born diplomat, describes the standard amongst his troupe as surprisingly high:
"There are some great singers, some not so great…"
And he debunks any ideas that all that military discipline somehow rubs off on the wives:
"Sometimes they were a bit shambolic and ambled in late, clutching their cappuccinos," he says, arching an eyebrow. "It is never going to be a military choir but it definitely has a flavour.
"Trying to teach these women and get them to work as a team like the military meant I had to break them down a bit. And at times I felt like a sergeant major whipping them into shape!" he chuckles.
"Trying to teach these women and get them to work as a team like the military meant I had to break them down a bit. And at times I felt like a sergeant major whipping them into shape!"
But what won him over was their enthusiasm. The choir began gently with hits by Adele alongside 'The Grand Old Duke of York' and gradually picked up a military sensibility as they grew in ability. Despite the pressure - "It's really hard work, stressful and terrifying if you've never performed before," says Gareth - the wives and girlfriends got their greatest support from the front line:
"The biggest stress for troops while they are away is if things go wrong for their families back home," says Gareth. "So it felt like they were really supportive because it gave the women a focus. They obviously have their daily lives, kids and jobs, but this was for them. It gave them a chance to knuckle down together and that's been really positive."
Gareth had no military ambitions himself, although his dad, Jamie, is a former TA soldier, while his granddad loyally served in the RAF:
"He stands up to salute as soon as the Queen comes on TV."
Gareth admits that as a music-mad youngster he spurned his boy's grammar school cadet force for the lure of the choir:
"At my school there was a real divide and they never broke down the barrier," he says. "There were kids in the Combined Cadet Force and kids in the choir. And I'm afraid that was me, namby-pamby Gareth going off to choir practice while everyone else did press-ups."
Gareth, a classically trained tenor at the Royal Academy of Music, has an enormous respect for military bands:
"They are absolutely incredible," he says. "We work with the Band of the Royal Marines at one point in the series which was just such an honour."
Ask how important his work has been with the Armed Forces and it's clear that the project is close to Gareth's heart:
"For me, all my work has been about getting singing more broadly accepted and it felt like singing and the military were two polar opposites. As far as I was aware, there was no singing in the British military, whereas the Americans have their battle chants, when they jog, 'I DON'T KNOW, BUT I'VE BEEN TOLD'.
"We don't do that, we're British, good lord," he jests. "No, it's been really interesting trying to challenge that preconception."
Gareth Malone conducts the choir
[Picture: Courtesy of the BBC]
One of the series' highlights, says Gareth, was performing for the locals in Barnstaple:
"It felt really important to see what they made of us," he says. "We had a fantastic reaction and it was just a memorable moment when they all stood up and sang. It was incredibly emotional because for those women to know that they have the support of the town and the impact that had on them was unbelievable."
Asked for his own impressions of Britain's servicemen and women, Gareth says:
"They are a really inspiring bunch. I've learnt a lot through this, about finding grit in tough times. They are amazing and some of their families are in the direst circumstances, really having to think about possibilities that the rest of us just don't think about. It's incredible and the can-do attitude of Britain's military is just exemplary."
Gareth trained with some of the rear party and sampled the 'Marines playground' in full kit:
"It involved a lot of mud and was absolutely gross," he reports. "But I perversely enjoyed it and it gave me a new respect for their fitness, dedication and camaraderie. Even though they give each other a hard time, they are so knitted together, it was endearing and I think that's what the women got out of the choir experience, that sense of togetherness."
I ask Gareth if he has a message for troops:
"I think there is so much support and understanding for what they are doing than even a few years ago and I hope that our work has made them feel a bit better about going away and leaving their wives at home."
Gareth has a baby daughter, Esther, but would he support her if she opted for a future career in the Armed Forces?
"I suppose it depends what the world looks like in 18 years," he says. "Before I came into this, I found it very hard to understand how a mother could watch her child go off to danger zones but for a lot of these women, their fathers, uncles and grandfathers all served so there is that tradition and immense pride.
"When a lot of the guys joined up, I doubt they were thinking about going off to Afghanistan. It was a very different world 18 years ago but if it was my child's decision to join up, I would support her and be incredibly proud."
This report by Lorraine McBride appears in the November 2011 issue of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.
The Choir: Military Wives starts tonight, 7 November 2011, on BBC2 at 2100hrs.