Those boozy military wives made mincemeat out of me! Britain's best loved choirmaster reveals how a wild night in the Sergeants' Mess left him feeling more than a little off-key
02:50 GMT, 17 September 2012
In an inspirational new book, Britain’s most charismatic choir master Gareth Malone — who returns to TV this week — tells the inside story of how he’s changed countless lives for the better with the power of song. On Saturday, in our first exclusive extract, he revealed his past as a child singer in Evita and would-be teenage rock star. Today, he looks back on his greatest TV triumph . .
TV choirmaster, Gareth Malone feared he wouldn't be able to form a choir with the wives and girlfriends of hardened military men
Even before I arrived on the military base in North Devon last year, I was uneasy. How would hardened military men — who could kill you with a toothpick — react to a tweedy choirmaster with a penchant for the music of Schubert
More to the point, would I be able to form a choir with their wives and girlfriends
True, I’d done several TV series of The Choir by then — chiefly with schoolchildren and young people — but this felt far more grown-up.
For a start, I was arriving just before 600 of these women’s husbands and boyfriends were deployed to Afghanistan for a six-month tour.
All would be facing the possibility of an ambush or of triggering a deadly improvised explosive device, known as an IED. So I knew that during my nine months on the Chivenor base, one of the women’s husbands or boyfriends might well be seriously injured or killed.
How could I keep a choir going in circumstances where people were bereft Frankly, I was frightened — because, for the first time, I’d be having to deal with grown-up emotions. Naively, though, I thought I knew what the military wives would be like.
A few years earlier, I’d seen an item on the news about a U.S. college shooting. Afterwards, the students had held a midnight vigil, during which they sang the college song.
What I found interesting was that some of their friends had just been horribly and irrationally murdered, and yet what the students wanted to do was sing. They sang for the same reason we sing at funerals: because it’s expressive and makes us feel better by helping to let out tension and grief.
The same, I assumed, would apply to the wives whose husbands were risking their lives in war zones — or, God forbid — losing them. So when 40 women gathered for our first rehearsal, I expected to find the air thick with emotion.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The women were reticent and stoical — in fact, quite zipped up about their predicament. All their true emotions were hidden away. Ten years of bad news stories from Afghanistan had hardened them; they were used to suffering in silence while the outside world all but ignored them.
These were ordinary women who’d found reserves of strength simply because they had to. As the old song goes, their traditional role was to keep the home fires burning — and it was children, jobs and chores that kept the wives from falling apart.
They didn’t like to cry in front of each other, and didn’t speak openly about having husbands out in Afghanistan because it was too painful.
This may have been typically British, but I wasn’t sure it was psychologically healthy. Surely they could let themselves go a little when they sang
I wanted to show them that it’s acceptable among friends to let your emotions out; that it’s not helpful to hide everything away. But, for a long time, I was faced with a brick wall.
Gareth Malone at the Royal Marine Base, Chivenor with the Military Wives. choir performing in front of the marines
The breakthrough finally came when I announced that a recording of one of their songs would be played on BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service), which airs in Afghanistan. It was as if I’d just blasted a hole in a dam.
Suddenly, tears were flowing freely at the thought of their husbands hearing them sing over the airwaves. And once they started weeping, they couldn’t seem to stop. As the months went by, the crying jags began to change — from painful, personal sobbing to a sort of less awful welling-up.
There were still regular outbreaks of tears, but the women no longer tended to run out of the room in embarrassment; they just carried on singing. Sometimes, I’d catch their eye as they were singing and crying at the same time, and then they’d start to laugh at themselves.
It was a peculiar mix of emotions, but there was no doubt that the choir was easing their pain.
Knowing I’d need to spend the best part of a year working with these women, I’d moved to a lovely North Devon village at the start of 2011. My wife Becky — on maternity leave from her job as a teacher — and our four-month-old daughter Esther arrived a few days later.
It was raining and our cottage was freezing. I walked over to the village shop, only to find a sign on the door that said: ‘Shut until March.’ Reality dawned: it was going to be a long year.
In fact, neither of us realised quite how tough it would be, especially for Becky, a first-time mother, who was not only uprooted from her home and friends but abandoned every day while I encouraged other women to sing.
At least this gave us an inkling of what it’s like for military wives, who are routinely transferred to a new base each time their husbands receive a new posting. Several times, members of the choir told me they thought of Becky as an ‘honorary military wife’.
On top of that, living in Devon meant I could see the women’s lives unfolding: babies born, haircuts changed at least three times, some girls losing ten pounds. Real life happening in real time.
But there was another reason for leaving our flat in Kilburn, North London. My life was getting easier — maybe too easy and too cosy — as my face began to be recognised.
Recently, I’d phoned up Glyndebourne opera house about something, and the immediate response was: ‘Oh, hi, Gareth, how are you’ — rather than a puzzled silence and a ‘Sorry, who is this again’ And since I’d started appearing on TV, there were more taxis available all of a sudden, and people offering to get me a coffee.
Something about this made me slightly uneasy. I didn’t want to get lazy; I wanted to be challenged, pushed out of my comfort zone.
And I certainly was. Simply entering the military base was intimidating: the guard with the gun at the gate, the CCTV, the barbed wire, the military vehicles thundering by.
Back then, I knew next to nothing about the military, though there were a few connections in my family.
My father was in the Territorial Army for a while, and my grandfather volunteered to join the RAF during World War II, flying in Lancaster bombers as a wireless operator and second gunner. He takes great pride in being British — a pride he’s instilled in me.
Military Wives Emily Parker (right) and Nicky Scott (left) give Gareth Malone a kiss in Oxford street, London
Like many schoolboys, I’d enjoyed being a Scout — all that lining up, marching and saluting. Who knows, in another life, I think I’d have rather relished the challenge of being an officer. It’s just the actual danger I’m not too keen on.
Before the men left for Afghanistan, I met some of them at a fete on the base. At that point, their training was complete and they were absolutely ready to go.
The tension was unbearable. Many of the women told me that their last days together were like being in purgatory. More than one said: ‘I wish they’d hurry up and go.’
I simply didn’t know what to say. So I shook a lot of hands and just wished the men luck.
Early choir rehearsals with the women were chaotic, as they turned up with assorted babies and children in tow. Most didn’t know each other.
But by the third or fourth rehearsal, I noticed that many were hanging around to chat. Then Jenny, one of the singers, started making extra cakes at a little military cafe on choir days and they’d all head there to drink instant coffee and eat brownies. They were starting to bond.
Musically, they were immediately strong — probably because there were no men to put them off. So during one of the early rehearsals, I announced we were going to perform ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ by Guns N’ Roses to the ‘rear party’ — the marines and soldiers who’d remained on base.
You could have cut the air. These women definitely didn’t enjoy being surprised; they liked their lives to be nice and ordered.
The rear party — a fearsome-looking group who were on standby for Afghanistan — were waiting for us in a vast hangar full of tanks. To my relief, the acoustics made it rather like singing in a cathedral.
At the end of the song, there was fierce applause. For the first time, the choir didn’t feel like a joke, but serious and worthwhile.
Meanwhile, I was doing my best to bond with everyone myself. So when some of the guys invited me to work out with the marines, I said yes — though I was seriously worried I’d collapse and look a complete idiot.
It was a very hard session — a long yomp, followed by an enormous amount of trudging through mud. But I’m a determined sort of person: I pushed myself ridiculously hard, like a middle-aged man playing squash with a 20-year-old. Embarrassing, really.
The hardened regulars cooled off afterwards by jumping into a freezing-cold swimming pool, but unless you’re blisteringly fit, jumping into ice-cold water on a chilly February morning can stop your heart. I snuck off for a hot shower.
Still, I felt gloriously alive. It reminded me of scouting, except with guns. More important, the wives loved hearing about my ordeal — and it broke the ice.
‘How was it’ they’d ask.
They laughed, all these women with husbands built like machines. ‘Oh, you’re so unfit, Gareth. You’re so weedy!’
My next challenge was far tougher: going head to head with the women during an evening’s serious drinking in the Sergeants’ Mess.
Surrounded by a phalanx of military wives, I was forced to knock back some ghastly iridescent concoction. These women ‘went large’ with a vengeance; I think I had about eight shots, plus a pint of beer because I was feeling all right. Silly man.
The wives told me that I might have run with the big boys, but now I was playing with the big girls. Honestly, these women are dangerous, they really are.
When I left, I could hear them still carousing from 200 metres away.
As for their choirmaster, he woke up the next morning and realised that the whole thing had been a dreadful, dreadful mistake. I even looked back to my workout with the marines with something approaching fondness.
At least my antics helped me build a good rapport with the wives. And they, in turn, began to relax and enjoy the choir.
When I strolled through the family quarters — which looked like any council estate, except very, very tidy — I’d always hear someone practising a harmony line indoors, or a random bit from one of our songs.
The stronger singers were starting to emerge, like Samantha Stevenson, an untutored soprano whose breathing was a little shallow. At first, she was very uptight — from a mixture of perfectionism and general anxiety about her husband.
As she gradually unwound, I realised that she’s incredibly emotionally articulate. When Sam’s angry or upset, everyone feels it; when she’s happy, everyone feels that, too.
Gareth Malone and some members of the Military Wives Choir present a cheque to the Royal British Legion and SSAFA Forces Help of the money raised from their Christmas number 1.
That’s what she brings to singing: an openness to which I really respond. I don’t want to hear someone who’s technically refined and dull; I want to hear someone who’s got heart in their singing.
Nicky Scott also had a very good voice. She’d arrived only recently at the base and hadn’t even met the Commanding Officer’s wife, Kerry Tingey. But the choir helped cut across the ranks, and soon they became great pals.
After a few weeks, I shifted the bar up a notch. For the first time, dressed in jeans and white shirts, the women sang for the general public in a lovely Victorian marketplace in Barnstaple, a few miles from the base.
Nicky took the main solo on Bob Dylan’s Make You Feel My Love, singing it for George, her husband. As I looked around, I could see several people in tears, including some grown men who were clearly ex-military.
Unfortunately, during the opening bars, a baby started screaming and had to be taken outside. That was my daughter Esther, who’d come along with Becky.
I think that will be Esther’s only TV moment for the time being. But her presence, I realised, was crucial to the whole enterprise.
Being a father had made me more of a grown-up; it gave me greater authority. In fact, I never could have managed this choir before Esther’s arrival.
My conversations with the wives were often about babies. We’d talk about where to get a good pushchair; the exhaustion of sleepless nights; midwives; hospitals; even the pros and cons of breastfeeding.
I don’t think they’d have spoken about such things if I’d been childless. It was all a revelation to me. Certainly, I’d never had those kind of conversations with women before — and I found myself empathising with them.
One of the choir members, Suzy Brady, had both a son and a husband who were serving marines. She was particularly anxious about her 21-year-old, who was in 42 Commando, which had recently lost a man in Afghanistan.
As a result, Suzy was on a different emotional plane from the word go. For her, singing in the choir was a particularly welcome distraction.
But the same applied in different degrees to all the women. Throughout my time at the base, there was an aura of anxiousness as snippets of news filtered back from Afghanistan.
One day, I decided to broaden the scope of the choir by also recruiting volunteers from a military base in Plymouth.
But a couple of days after I’d booked a date when both choirs could sing together, the Plymouth wives received news of a spate of casualties. For a moment, I choked.
Was it right to descend on a town where women had recently lost their husbands I sought advice from Suzy Brady, who told me firmly: ‘They need this.’
So with a degree of nervousness, we clambered into a minivan and drove to Plymouth — with lots of loo breaks on the two-hour trip because several of the wives were pregnant.
In the end, all went very well, so I continued rehearsing both choirs separately and, whenever possible, brought them together.