Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Choir

The Choir - Boys Can't Sing (Fridays, BBC2) is the sequel to last year's series (which won a BAFTA) in which Gareth Malone started a school choir from scratch and took them to the World Choir Games in China. It struck me as odd that it was called the 'Games' but maybe choral singing is for many people a competitive sport. As a non-competitive person I find it strange that people need to turn music, literature, art and every other damn thing into a competitive activity, however inappropriate that might be.

But the first series of The Choir was unexpectedly compelling despite - or perhaps because of - Gareth the choirmaster being so intensely irritating. This time round, I find him less so, possibly because I've got used to him and because so far he hasn't worn any of those calf-length trousers and flip-flops.
The Guardian's TV critic Sam Wollaston described him as an "irritating little twerp". I think that's unduly harsh. Certainly the noun is unjustifiably insulting. But the phrase does sum up my opinion of Sam Wollaston, a reviewer who never lets the facts get in the way of a sneer. In the same review he said the boys thought singing was for gays. But not one person said any such thing. What they said was "singing is gay", meaning 'uncool'. I don't like this new usage but now most people (apart from Mr Wollaston) understand it, it will probably disappear from youth culture as quickly as it arrived.

In the first episode Gareth stood in front of the assembly, 'got a note' from his recorder (the very word 'recorder' chills the blood) and sang what sounded like a medieval, romantic ballad. Some of the boys (this is a single sex state school - I didn't know they still existed) remarked on the fact that he did this without blushing or any sign of embarrassment or discomfort. I wish I could say the same for myself. I blushed, I sweated, my toes curled, my fists clenched and I emitted a strange keening sound that may have made the neighbours think I was engaging in tantric sex. In that excruciating few minutes I had time-travelled back forty years and our far more bonkers music teacher, a gangling man with a Hitler moustache, was singing some equally insipid Elizabethan ballad to a group of 13 year old boys who had just bought The Beatles' Hard Days Night album.

I am one of those people who simply cannot sing. I can't even sing along to records in the privacy of my own home without telling myself to shut the fuck up.
But my school had a weird alternative to singing which was all-inclusive. It was called 'choral speech'. It involved standing in choir formation and reciting a poem in unison while the music teacher stood in front and gesticulated wildly like Simon Rattle on acid. I had no escape from this particular torture, despite the fact that, even today, nobody hearing my voice would ever find the word 'mellifluous' at the forefront of their mind. That's why I've never ventured into podcasting on this blog.
But one day I found myself on the stage in front of the entire school, along with all the other singing rejects, clutching a book in clammy hands and reciting a poem by Walter de la bloody Mare in the rasping tones of a newly-broken voice, while the music teacher's bony fingers sliced the air as though he were addressing a Nuremberg Rally. And I knew that whatever life had in store for me, it couldn't get much worse than this.
Have any of you ever endured the oxymoron that is Choral Speech?

But back to The Choir. If Gareth's first appearance before the school was certain to put most boys off signing up for the choir that may be because there were four hours of television to fill and a 'narrative' to be created in the editing suite. Resistance must be overcome. There will be setbacks and tantrums and tears but also group hugs and high fives and lives changed forever.

As with all forms of 'reality TV', the reality that dare not speak its name is the presence of the camera crew. This must surely heighten the nervousness and embarrassment of some boys and also lure others into participating. It would be interesting to see how Gareth fared in a series that relied entirely on secret filming.

But that's a minor quibble about a programme that is entertaining and inspirational. It also raises questions about the neanderthal image of masculinity that teenage boys have to contend with.
A number of boys are closet singers. One or two sing in cathedral choirs but keep this secret from their school friends. Many others secretly sing in their bedrooms. The first episode had some moving footage of 11 year old Michael, who had been bullied at school, with a karoake machine in his bedroom, singing I Will Survive. It reminded me of an Oscar winning film (I've forgotten the name) about a young, gay American boy which had a similar scene of him singing in his bedroom. I'm not suggesting that Michael is gay. But a love of singing seems to be as much a stigma as being gay and that's odd after 50 years of pop-dominated teenage culture and the recent popularity of shows like Pop Idol and X Factor.
It may be worse at this particular school which is a specialist sports college and I think the whole concept of specialist colleges and academies, be it in sport, business, technology or music, is seriously misguided.

I hope tabloid journalists have been watching this programme. For this is a large multi-ethnic, state school in Leicester, but you would search in vain for the feral youth that have dominated the tabloids this week. Plenty of moody teenagers, some with educational and behavioural problems no doubt. But they seem to be the same diverse collection of boys as my contemporaries over forty years ago, no better and no worse. Yet recently the demonisation of young people seems to have reached the same level of hysteria as the paedophile scares and the 'war on terror'. The programme does carry a warning about 'strong language' but so far all of it has come from the saintly Gareth and none of it from the boys.

The Choir is comfortingly predictable in a way that life usually isn't. It's as predictable as a McDonald's meal though vastly more satisfying. You curse the production team for manipulating your emotions so effectively. But in the end it's the glorious sound that the boys make and their joy in doing so that will have you reaching for your handkerchief - and never more so than next week's finale at the Royal Albert Hall.
I hope it has a wider impact on the value of music and arts education in schools and I hope another BAFTA is on the way.


At 10:15 PM, Blogger cello said...

I could get you singing, Willie. It's just about muscles and listening, like running. Some of us find it easier than others - just like running - but we can all do it.

The phrase 'tone deaf' is inaccurate I think. Most people can hear when someone else is out of tune. They are more 'tone dumb'; they know the note they want to make but just can't make their body do it.

Gareth is a bit of a twerp, but a rather brave and charismatic twerp. Singing is such an ecstatic experience and softens the stoniest heart and it's a scandal more children aren't given that experience. I think prisoners should be made to do singing and gardening and flower-arranging rather than lots of aggressive, competitive sport. But then I'm a bit 'gay' too.

On the 'cunt' issue, I'm trying to reclaim it as a word of beauty, as D.H. Lawrence exorted us all to.

At 3:46 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

I agree up to a point. You could perhaps make me sing rather less badly but not necessarily sing well.
And those of us with 'dyscalculia' find music very difficult, other than listening to it.

Aren't you from the same part of the country as Lawrence? I don't hold out much hope of you reclaiming the word and if you did we'd need another one of equal strength for swearing purposes. We need at least one word that represents a linguistic 'nuclear option' when the occasion demands it. But I know a lot of women aren't happy that it should be that one.


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