Gareth Malone from The Choir: Military Wives is a most unlikely pin-up

A most unlikely pin-up: No, he ISN”T gay. In fact, Gareth Malone says being in a choir makes you catnip for ladies

Gareth Malone is appalled. His face is asking: ‘What is wrong with this country’

The problem (apart from recession, gales, unemployment and Jeremy Clarkson, obviously) There is no piano at No 10 Downing Street.

‘Can you believe it’ harrumphs our favourite choirmaster, declaring it a national disgrace that there isn’t at least one Steinway behind the most famous front door in Britain. Little wonder we are in such an unharmonious state.

“People think I am posher than I am. I sound posh because all the vowels got rounded out at grammar school,” said Gareth Malone

‘I was so impressed with No 10,’ he continues, genuinely anguished.

‘The dcor wouldn’t have been to my taste, necessarily, but you can’t help but be blown away by all that panelling and the history that goes with it.

“But no piano! What is that all about Apparently, Edward Heath used to have one. But he must have taken it with him, and there hasn’t been one since. We had to bring in an electronic one, which I wasn’t pleased about.

“If I’d had my way, they’d have been taking out the windows — even if they were nuclear blast-proof — to get a baby grand in.’

Gareth was at Downing Street performing with the extraordinary group of women he brought together, through song, for the BBC show The Choir: Military Wives.

In just a matter of weeks, he took the women — united only by the fact they had loved ones serving abroad, not by their musical ability — to the point where they could hold their own at the Royal Albert Hall.

It was television to feed the soul: warm, uplifting and inspiring. It mixed pathos with patriotism, passion with pride. And it left most of us bawling into our Kleenex.

When the programme’s producers first talked about the possibility of releasing Wherever You Are — the song they performed at the Royal Albert Hall, its lyrics compiled from letters the women had sent their partners — Gareth approved, but didn’t think it would be a big deal.

The Military Wives are now 5/6 favourites to be No 1 on Christmas Day

The Military Wives are now 5/6 favourites to be No 1 on Christmas Day

‘It was going to be download only, the smallest release possible,’ he grins.

‘It was really just for the family and friends of the women involved. I didn’t expect anyone else to go out and buy it.’

Suffice to say, he is ‘gobsmacked’ at what has happened: hundreds of thousands of us have been buying and downloading the song to the point where it is now favourite to be the Christmas No 1.

Without trying — which makes it all the more delicious — Gareth appears to be about to steal the top slot from under the nose of Simon Cowell, a man as far removed from him in the musical maestro stakes as is possible.

‘It’s tradition now, isn’t it, that the X Factor winner will have that No 1 slot. And now we are the favourites,’ says Gareth.

‘It’s preposterous really. I mean, X Factor is such a juggernaut. No expense is spared in making it, and everything about it is so  . . .  unstoppable.

‘The Choir, meanwhile, has a crew of four. We have an embarrassingly small budget.

“One of my mother’s friends expressed surprise recently that she still had to work, given that I was ‘on the telly’, which I thought was hilarious. I’m about as far from Simon Cowell’s league as you can get.’

Yet it is the Military Wives who are now 5/6 favourites to be No 1 on Christmas Day.

‘Right at the start, someone in Plymouth put 50 on us at 33-1,’ Gareth laughs.

‘They are going to be even happier than I am if we pull it off.’

“I was so impressed with No 10. But no piano! What is that all about Apparently, Edward Heath used to have one. But he must have taken it with him,” said Gareth

In truth, everything about Gareth and his audacious bid to get communities all over Britain singing defies the odds.

He still can’t quite believe the BBC wanted to make a programme about choirs in the first place: ‘I’m still amazed that anyone took a punt on it. I mean, a show about choirs. Seriously’

Even more shocking, he concedes, is that anyone took a punt on him: a slightly built, classically trained tenor, unashamedly middle-class, with a penchant for loafers and cardigans, whose musical tastes leaned more towards Gilbert and Sullivan than Lady Gaga.

And yet, for four series, off he’s marched into the classrooms of troubled teenagers and into dismal housing estates to make sweet music while the cameras roll.

‘There was an element of them sending me into the lion’s den,’ he concedes.

‘With hindsight, I wonder if they thought I would fail — and make great TV from that.’

If so, he disappointed.

For each series of The Choir has been better than the last, and Gareth has turned into quite the Pied Piper, leading his now army of choirs to places they had never even dreamed of going. And with the rest of us tagging along, enthralled, in his wake.

Everyone loves the ‘magical Mr Malone’, and all week Twitter has been awash with fans calling for him to be knighted, sainted or at the very least made Prime Minister.

‘It just baffles me, to be honest,’ he says when I ask if he ever finds the adulation a little overwhelming.

‘There will be people reading this who have worked with me and are thinking: “Nice! I’ve worked with Gareth Malone — he’s an a**e.”

‘I was much harder on people when I was just starting out. Before I started working with choirs, I directed a few plays, and I don’t think I was the sort of person people remember with affection.

“My directing of Macbeth was more like a dictatorship. I think it was down to insecurity — you kind of feel you have to be tough in order to show them who is boss.

‘I did it that way for a while, but I don’t think I got results. For me, it works much better when I am nicer. And, let’s face it, you can’t bully people into singing with passion. So if I am nicer now, that has come from experience.’

Gareth has turned into quite the Pied Piper, leading his now army of choirs to places they had never even dreamed of going

Gareth has turned into quite the Pied Piper, leading his now army of choirs to places they had never even dreamed of going

He still looks 15, is actually 36, but sometimes sounds like an elder statesman. He talks a lot about leadership. And patriotism. And community. Not for effect, either; he really believes in them.

‘Well, they are all old-fashioned values that we are clinging to now for a reason. They are comforting. They matter. People matter. People think The Choir was about music; I say it was about people.’

His approach has led to claims that The Choir is true reality TV; and the likes of The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent just crude fakes.

Does Simon Cowell represent everything he hates in the music business Surprisingly, no.

‘He gets called a bully, but I don’t think he is, actually. He’s just matter-of-fact, like a shoe salesman who is presented with turquoise shoes and says: “I don’t think these will sell.” ’

‘I have done my fair share of auditions and, believe me, the X Factor people get off lightly. The problems arise when the contestants don’t know what they are signing up for.’

He believes that it wasn’t the musical anorak in him that made him such a success on The Choir, but his inner performer.

Although Gareth trained as a classical singer, he studied drama at the University of East Anglia, believing that the world of theatre, not music, was where his future lay.

‘Now I can see that what I always loved was leading people. It’s remarkable really that all the threads have come together, and in a TV programme. I could never have predicted that.’

He says he comes from a very ‘ordinary’ background. He was brought up in Bournemouth, where his father still works in a bank. His mother is a civil servant.

‘People think I am posher than I am. I sound posh because all the vowels got rounded out at grammar school, but I’m probably resolutely middle-class.’

His was a musical home. His beloved grandmother, who was a huge influence, was Welsh, and imbued with the tradition of male-voice choirs.

His parents both sang in choirs, and to this day gather with their friends ‘in the dining room to sing Gilbert and Sullivan’.

Does he charge in, brandishing his baton

‘Absolutely not! I wouldn’t dare.’

Gareth isn

Gareth isn”t gay, and is bemused – as is his wife Becky, an English teacher – by the fact he has such a strong gay following on Twitter

With a young daughter himself, Gareth has strong views about passing on a love of music to children.

‘My parents were very musical, but it was never forced upon me. The piano was there to be played whenever you felt like it, but they never said: “Now have some lessons.” They left it for me to say I wanted to learn.’

He went to an all-boys, state-run grammar school in Bournemouth, where it was assumed he was gay because he was ‘heading off to do music when the alpha males were on the rugby pitch’. J

oining the choir was ‘tantamount to shouting it from the rooftops’.

But he isn’t gay, and is bemused — as is his wife Becky, an English teacher — by the fact he has such a strong gay following on Twitter.

‘Camp I don’t think I am,’ he says, before adding: ‘Well, maybe a little. Whatever, I get messages which suggest people think they are going to be able to “turn” me, which I find bizarre.

‘I love women. I have always loved women. The irony was that being in the choir when I was a teenager was a surefire way of meeting them.’

He never had a problem getting girlfriends ‘as, ironically, some of those alpha males did. I could always talk to women. Maybe it was because I had a strong mother and grandmother, but I never saw them as these strange alien creatures.’

The fact that he used to write love songs for his girlfriends can’t have harmed his chances, either. Is he a good songwriter ‘I’m not sure Gary Barlow has anything to worry about,’ he grins.

‘Funnily enough, I’ve been reading a book recently called The Singing Neanderthals. It suggests that men who can sing and dance make better mates. I kind of like that idea. My theory is that women like performers. And men who listen to them. I’m not afraid to show my feminine side.’

These days, he genuinely doesn’t care what people think of him — ‘A lot of the time I come across as a complete dweeb on The Choir.’

In the past, it was a different matter.

‘As a teenager, I wanted to fit in. I did pretend to like things I didn’t, like dance music. I’d wear baggy clothes because everyone was wearing them. I’d go to nightclubs, hate them, but be too afraid to say: “This so isn’t me.” Now I’m not afraid to say it.’

He’s at his most enthralling when he is talking about the music he likes, for despite his infectious enthusiasm, there’s no musical snobbery about him.

His favourite singer is Bryn Terfel, Bach makes him cry and if he had to tell you his top ten songs, there would hardly be an upbeat one among them — ‘I like miserable when it comes to music.’

He isn’t anti-pop music by any means. In fact, he uses it widely in his work ‘because of the accessibility’.

He adores Adele’s voice, but worries that the gravelly quality will mean a short career (‘You can’t sustain that, physically’), and screws his face up when you mention Beyonce (‘too frilly, florid and baroque’).

The biggest shocker is that he is a not-so-closet Demis Roussos fan.

‘Yes, really. My wife bought the Greatest Hits as a joke, but I love him.’

He can sound rather like your Dad when talking about the music he doesn’t like, though. Rap ‘Pointless, isn’t it,’ he says. ‘Why not just sing’ Dizzie Rascal

‘I think that sort of stuff will be like The Bay City Rollers in years to come. We will look back on it and think: “That was embarrassing.” ’

What comes next for Gareth Devastatingly, he says there are no plans for further series of The Choir. What

‘Yes, I’m going to kill The Choir,’ he shrieks, with a flourish that reminds you of those drama school days.

He chats away about the success of Military Wives and it being the ‘apotheosis of the genre’. I guess he means that he feels the programme can’t be bettered. Or maybe he just wants to spread his wings.

There is another project in the pipeline, which will be ‘very different’, but he won’t say more.

Worryingly, he is also off to the States soon to film a pilot show for a U.S. network. Is he sure about this, given that it’s almost law that you have to have pearly-white teeth and orange skin on U.S. telly

‘I like to look on it as flying the flag for Britain over there,’ he says. ‘If only through my teeth.’

Tragically, the U.S. might be more ready for him than we ever were. Does the White House have a piano in situ

Of course it does — and one adorned with gilded eagles, to boot.