Is this TV’s toughest challenge Sleepless nights. Cold sweats. Total fear. The four stars learning to conduct on this year’s Maestro relive the horror



00:32 GMT, 21 April 2012

Craig Revel Horwood is a man who’s been pushed to the limit of his physical and emotional endurance. Fear, fatigue and a determination not to fail have been driving him on through the past few weeks. But the real terrors come at night.

‘I’m having night sweats and waking up drenched,’ he says. ‘Often I can’t sleep at all. I just lie there with music going round and round in my head.’

So what is it that’s taken one of TV’s coolest customers to the brink A new series of Maestro, this time called Maestro At The Opera, the reality show that puts celebrities on a podium and asks them to take charge of a huge professional orchestra – attempting to learn in just four weeks what it takes professional conductors ten years to perfect.

Craig Revel Horwood says fear, fatigue and a determination not to fail have been driving him on through

Craig Revel Horwood says fear, fatigue and a determination not to fail have been driving him on through

When the first series of Maestro ran in 2008, comedienne Sue Perkins managed to pip pop star Goldie to the title and earn the chance to conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra. Now the programme is back for a second run – but this time the three-part series is based at Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House, and the four trainee conductors – Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig, comedienne and actor Josie Lawrence, TV presenter and maths professor Marcus du Sautoy and Radio 1 DJ Trevor Nelson – are charged with conducting the world famous Royal Opera House Orchestra, plus full choirs of adults and children, not to mention a troupe of actors.

Working beside them are their mentors – professional conductors given the almost impossible task of teaching four complete beginners to become musical maestros within a few short weeks. And deciding who stays and who goes are the judges – soprano Danielle De Niese, renowned double bass player Dominic Seldis and world-famous conductor Sir Mark Elder.

‘Conducting an orchestra is like being handed the controls of a jet airliner and being told to land it at Heathrow,’ says Trevor, 48. ‘And the judges are watching our every move. Danielle is firm but fair. Dominic is fair but firm, and Sir Mark is like Simon Cowell – he can make you shrivel.’

Josie Lawrence

 Trevor Nelson

Craig Revel Horwood

Marcus Du Sautoy

The four trainee conductors: Comedienne and actor Josie Lawrence, Radio 1 DJ Trevor Nelson, Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig, TV presenter and maths professor Marcus du Sautoy

It could have been called Strictly Maestro – but according to Craig, 47, and his fellow competitors, ‘Strictly Hell’ would be more fitting. ‘On our very first day we were given MP3 players with opera music to listen to,’ says Craig. ‘We were then led into a giant rehearsal room at the Opera House and told to conduct an entire amateur orchestra. It was like jumping into a frying pan that was already alight. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was trying not to look like an idiot but everyone was out of time. In the end I was moving my body as well as my arms, and dancing.’

Viewers will see the orchestra trying hard not to laugh. But it wasn’t just Craig who made a hash of his first attempt. The other wannabe maestros fared little better. The mood afterwards was sombre. After just a week’s training there’s another baptism of fire – conducting the imposing Royal Opera House Orchestra in front of an audience in the world famous Opera House atrium.

Josie, 52, says, ‘We had just 15 minutes with the orchestra to rehearse, and I was shaking with nerves. I was thinking, “I hope I don’t make a fool of myself.” Controlling the different sections of the orchestra was like spinning plates.’

This time the three-part series is based at Covent Garden's Royal Opera House

This time the three-part series is based at Covent Garden's Royal Opera House

Craig was also feeling the heat. ‘I felt like I was going to be physically sick,’ he recalls. ‘I was the last up, and waiting to step out on to the podium and conduct this incredible orchestra in front of an audience was one of the most nerve-racking things I’ve ever had to do. I was sweating so much I looked as if I’d been on a scuba diving course.’

Marcus, 46, adds, ‘It started off OK, then I realised the musicians were all over the place as they tried to follow me. I stopped and said, “I’m sorry, I think I’ve just crashed a Ferrari.” I realised that these incredible musicians follow your every move, and if you get it wrong it ends in disaster.’

Everyone agrees it’s been fun, though. Craig says: ‘It’s one of the toughest but most rewarding challenges I’ve ever tried.’ Marcus adds, ‘I loved opera music from the start, so this is a dream for me. If Jim could have fixed it for me to have one treat, this would have been it!’

So who’s going to win ‘There’s no clear winner here,’ says Trevor, ‘everyone has their own style.’ Only one thing is certain – whoever it is, they’ll have earned it with baton, sweat and tears…

Maestro At The Opera starts on 4 May at 9pm on BBC2.