The Choir is surprisngly charming, if unoriginal, primetime programming says Ego Odman
Channel 4’s Rock School was programming genius. It capitalised on the success of feel-good flick School of Rock by getting Kiss man Gene Simmons to coach a bunch of Lowestoft school kids for a support slot with Judas Priest. Awesome. In contrast, the concept for BBC2’s Choir (Monday, BBC1, 9pm) sounds like a patronising act of plagiarism that’s come months too late.
The three programmes follow choirmaster Gareth Malone, who wants to turn a group of underprivileged school children into a choir good enough for the Choir Olympics in China. So far, so Sister Act. The problem is, 30-year-old Malone looks about 12 and sounds like he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. It’s hard to believe he’ll pull it off.
Malone drives to Northolt for the first time. As the completely normal-looking sixties comprehensive drops into view, he mutters, ‘oh, it’s one of those…’ Malone was educated at Bournemouth Grammer and is astounded to hear the children have no formal musical background. ‘They won’t even understand what mezzo forte means!’ he exclaims.
But what the kids lack in knowledge they make up in enthusiasm, and hundreds queue for X-Factor style auditions. The initial impulse is to laugh at their performances, but empathy wins out as Lisa Joseph, 12, sings a Christina Aguilera song because she empathises with the lyrics, and Enock Chege, 12, kindly offers his ‘best voice and best concentration’. The singing is impressive too.
Malone can only select 25 students, and hits problems when the head teacher bans Chelsea Campbell from singing, because she’s moving schools due to bad behaviour. It feels like the wrong decision, but Malone capitulates. Similarly, the head teacher warns that Chloe Sullivan’s attendance is poor, but Malone takes a chance on this one.
With the choir assembled, Malone books a recording studio so the band can make their competition entry. But the session is just a month away. Malone’s teaching skills are surprisingly good, but confidence is low, Sullivan’s attendance is patchy and Raul Lacman, 13, is out of tune. The camera follows some of the children to their homes, where parents reveal their family problems, but the BBC tone feels invasive and slightly exploitative.
Malone drops his classical ideal in favour of secondary school favourite Can You Feel The Love Tonight from The Lion King, and hopes a field trip to the Barbican centre will help inspire confidence. Sure enough, Malone comes over all Sister Mary Clarence, helping Sullivan to overcome her shyness by performing a solo and bonding the group together.
When the big day arrives the group get a clean take - but Raul is still out of tune. Malone asks him not to sing on the recording, and while the sadness in his eyes is patently obvious, he takes it well. The group are relieved, but there’s two months until they’ll know if they’re going to China. The question is, does anybody care? Surprisingly, yes. By this point, the programme has created a genuine sense of suspense and inspired genuine affection for the kids. It’s just a shame they let Chelsea Campbell fall by the wayside. That’d never have happened in Sister Act.