We'd been on the verge of disaster. How could we be No.1 A surprise call from Chris Evans and a little royal inspiration led the Military Wives to victory over The X Factor



09:23 GMT, 18 September 2012

Britain’s best-loved choirmaster is back with a fresh TV series this week — and in a new book he describes how he’s changed countless lives with the power of song. In yesterday’s extract he told how his first encounters with the Military Wives left him reeling. Today, he reveals the mayhem that ensued after they recorded a tribute to their men in Afghanistan.

When I first heard the song that was to change the lives of the Military Wives — and my own — in ways none of us could have imagined, I must admit I had serious doubts.

The lyrics were based on real phrases the wives and girlfriends had used in their letters and poems to soldiers serving in Afghanistan — and they were sentimental. Fair enough.

But my first thought on hearing the music was to wonder whether the composer, Paul Mealor, had gone too far. After listening to his simple demo on my computer, I felt torn.

Fighting their corner: Chris Evan and Gareth Malone with members of the victorious Military Wives choir

Fighting their corner: Chris Evan and Gareth Malone with members of the victorious Military Wives choir

In terms of pure sentiment, this was beyond the bounds of my own taste. Would it be too slushy for the tough military wives in my choir

Would it hit the wrong note at the Festival of Remembrance in the Albert Hall, where the women would be performing the song in front of the Queen

Wisely, I decided not to call Paul with my reaction just yet. Instead, I played it a second time and then a third, as I tried to sing along.

Slowly, it dawned on me that the tune sounded like a melody you think you’ve heard before, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. ‘Maybe this really will work,’ I told myself.

But I still wasn’t 100 per cent sure . . .

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Good show: Composer Paul Mealor offered to write the tune for free

But Paul had been immediately struck by the women’s plight and wanted to get to work straight away.

Not long after this conversation, we met up — so he could be filmed for the series. Away from the cameras, Paul turned to me and said very quietly: ‘You want a tune, don’t you’

‘Yes, please — don’t write something that’s inaccessible,’ I pleaded. ‘I’d like the audience to hear it once and immediately understand what the women are going through.’

The lyrics arrived first, so I read the words at the next Chivenor choir rehearsal. Almost immediately there were tears.

As far as the women were concerned, Paul had perfectly captured their strength and vulnerability.

The title had come from the phrase ‘Wherever you are, you will always be in my heart’ — a quote from Mahatma Gandhi engraved on a bracelet worn by choir member Stacey Clouting, which had been bought for her by her husband Daniel.

But the wives had also given Paul copies of their own letters, which had not only made him weep, but inspired the rest of the lyrics.

Then the music arrived and I sang the song right through to each choir. Sadly, on the day I did this in Plymouth, there’d been a funeral for a man killed in Afghanistan.

Several in the choir knew him and his wife, and a couple of them had been to the funeral. Knowing this made the words very hard for me to sing — and they even got to our tough-as-old-boots singer Alice Clarke.

Though she was Sandhurst-trained and came from military stock, she cried like a baby.

Chivenor, too, many women in the choir wept. In fact, at one rehearsal,
when I was really getting into the meaning of the text, I was forced to
call a halt.

had started crying, after which the tears spread ‘like a chain
reaction’, as singer Nicky Scott said. A pack of tissues was passed from
one person to the other.

didn’t bode well for the choir’s big night. My biggest concern was that
they would be overwhelmed and unable to deliver the song successfully.

the day of the performance, 100 military wives arrived in London by
coach at 2am, had just over four hours’ sleep, then turned up for
rehearsals in the Albert Hall.

It was the first time they’d ever sung with an orchestra.

We were allowed two, maybe three, run-throughs of the song before the stage manager said: ‘That’s it — we’re out of time.’

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Concerns: On hearing the original demo of the song Gareth worried it might be too slushy for the tough military wives

Those were the most nervous ten seconds of my life. We were on the verge of being a total disaster.

Then, somehow, everyone drew something extra out of the tank. And, when the last note had died away, the audience simply erupted.

That night, as I said my goodbyes to the choir, I helped mop up more tears. They were all heading straight back to Devon. As far as they were concerned, the project had come to an end.

But I wasn’t so sure. For the past few weeks I’d been secretly cold-calling record companies to try to drum up interest in a single.

Tom Lewis from Decca Records wasn’t convinced: the market, he warned me, was saturated with charity singles at this time of year.

‘At Christmas, everyone wants to take on The X Factor winners, hoping for that Mr Blobby moment when, for whatever reason, a single catches fire,’ he said.

Even the cast of The Only Way Is Essex was releasing a single.

Still, at least Tom spoke to his boss, Dickon Stainer. And Dickon, for his part, came along to the afternoon dress rehearsal at the Albert Hall — which, fortunately, happened to be our best performance.

Straight afterwards he came to find me, and said: ‘We have to record this, even if we put it out as a download.’

Despite my excitement, I didn’t tell the wives because there were so many things to do before getting the official go-ahead. All week, I was trying to get this person to phone that lawyer to get permission from so and so, as well as talking to agents, publishers and the BBC.

I felt a bit like Bob Geldof, and probably swore just as much.

it still felt very small-scale, so I was telling people: ‘It will only
be for the women and their families, though maybe a few of the viewers
will buy one.’

everything was in place — at which point we told the wives via
Facebook. The song had to be recorded that Saturday, so after a six-hour
coach trip they arrived — exhilarated and exhausted — at a recording
studio in Hampstead, North London.

the idea was still to do a small digital download release with no
fanfare, it occurred to me that someone should be filming them.

the budget for the TV series had all been accounted for, so I grabbed
my little digital SLR, which I use for taking pictures on holiday, and
jumped in a cab.

the last minute, the TV company did manage to send a small crew, so in
the end I had their footage, the images on my SLR and some frames from
an iPhone.

A friend combined these with photos of the women’s husbands on active service, and created a video.

final piece of the jigsaw was Sam Stevenson’s solo, which we’d
recorded last of all — a bad decision because she was exhausted and her
confidence was faltering.

she recalled later: ‘I stood in this tiny recording booth with a
microphone, but I still needed Gareth beside me. So we both had to
squeeze into this booth the size of a toilet. He believed in me and I
needed his support.’

Word of mouth: Presenter Chris Evans announced 'This should be the Christmas Number One,' and played the song on the radio

Word of mouth: Presenter Chris Evans announced 'This should be the Christmas Number One,' and played the song on the radio

As there was still a chance, however remote, that the song might become a single, I also asked the wives which charity should benefit from any money it made.

They were unanimous: it had to be SSAFA — the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association – with some of the proceeds going to the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal.

The next morning I flew to New York, where a previous series – Gareth Malone Goes to Glyndebourne – was up for an International Emmy Award. I collapsed into my seat and slept the whole way.

I was getting my hair cut in New York while the final episode of The Choir: Military Wives – including the Albert Hall performance – was going out on BBC1.

Later I received a handful of texts: one from my mum saying ‘fantastic’, and a couple of others from friends. That all sounded good. Click, I switched off my phone and went to the Emmys. The evening went extremely well (we won the award!) and I went to bed thinking: ‘It doesn’t get much better than this, does it.’

The following morning I surfaced, jet-lagged and slightly the worse for wear, and turned my mobile phone back on.

There were 40 missed calls, as well as texts from practically everyone I knew saying that Chris Evans was desperate to get hold of me.

Of course, I’d missed the boat because his Radio 2 show had finished hours before — while I was sound asleep.

It turned out that Chris had announced ‘This should be the Christmas Number One,’ and played the song on the radio.

Then he’d managed to get through to our soloist, Sam — who was utterly bewildered to find herself talking to Chris Evans live on air just as she was about to do the school run.

When I checked my phone later that day, I discovered that one of the big bookies was already offering odds of 50/1 on Wherever You Are being the Christmas hit single.

A few days later, Tom Lewis from Decca called to say they were releasing it as a single, and we’d have the full weight of the company behind us.

For the first time I allowed myself to think that the song might have a chance.

From that point on, it was mayhem. The single was launched live on Chris Evans’ breakfast show, and for all of us there were countless interviews and TV appearances that seemed to blur together.

It was extraordinary: everywhere I went, people were talking about the single.

I even met the Duchess of Cambridge when we were invited to a military awards’ ceremony.

She was very enthusiastic about the single — and I told her that the wives really considered her to be one of them.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she said. ‘They are much more hardcore.’

I thought she was probably right, but the wives had a point. Prince William was on active service, risking his life every time he went up in a helicopter — so she could understand the pressures and the fears.

On Christmas Day, just over a month after the Albert Hall performance, the Military Wives secured the Christmas No1 spot.

On Christmas Day, just over a month after the Albert Hall performance, the Military Wives secured the Christmas No.1 spot

came the news that we’d broken all pre-sale records on the Amazon
website. Our single was clearly going to be big — but would it be big
enough to assail the mighty X Factor

was. For some reason, the single by Little Mix, The X Factor winners,
had not quite captured the Middle England market — the people who buy
singles for their grannies, mums and dads.

Wherever You Are had somehow managed to tap into the mood of the moment.

On Christmas Day, just over a month after the Albert Hall performance, the Military Wives secured the Christmas No 1 spot.

The single had sold well over half a million copies in the final week, more than all the rest of the top 12 combined.

And it was all thanks to 100 women whose daily lives were far, far removed from showbiz luvviness.

When choir member Nicky Scott heard the news, she thought: ‘Should I be wearing leopard-print leggings, drinking champagne and throwing my TV out of the window like a proper pop star’

Instead, she peeled the potatoes for Christmas dinner.

As for me, I had work to do. More and more military wives around the country were contacting me via Facebook and Twitter to say: ‘I’d like to join one of these choirs — where can I go’

The first person I contacted was Nicky Clarke, a wife at the Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire, who had written to me a couple of years before to ask me to form a choir there.

It hadn’t been possible at the time, but it was her letter that had inspired the whole project.

Now, I discovered, Nicky had started a choir herself, which was creating a stir of its own. Not only that, but she was passionate about rolling out military choirs across the country. The time, she said, was ripe — and I agreed.

Moreover, as we continued to talk over the next few days, it was clear to me that Nicky had the level-headedness and sense to lead such an operation.

So, in January, we held a meeting with the original military wives, the charities who’d benefited from the single and representatives from TV and record companies.

Nervously, Nicky took the floor, passing around a spreadsheet with a brilliant proposal to create a Military Wives Choir Foundation that would encourage and enable more choirs to emerge.

Everyone immediately agreed to support the idea. And Decca offered to make a Military Wives album — which later went to No 1 and helped raise money for the foundation.

At that stage Nicky was modest in her ambition, envisaging just ten new choirs in the first year. But within weeks, choirs were springing up not just in Britain, but on bases in Germany.

Incredibly, there are now 47 of them, with more military wives and girlfriends joining every week.

It feels like a victory for the power of singing, its emotional impact — and the truly amazing things it can achieve.

Perhaps one day it could change your life, too . . .

Extracted from Choir by Gareth Malone, published by Collins at 20. Gareth Malone 2012. To order a copy for 15 (incl p&p) call 0843 382 0000.