Gareth Malone is running through some of the most iconic names in popular music. Bob Dylan? He winces.
‘Oh God. He’s a great songwriter but… well. He’s not primarily what you would call a vocalist. My mum does a great impression of him though.’
Christmas favourite Shane MacGowan?
‘He’s OK on pitch but not really a singer.’
‘There is a voice there but it became very mannerism-heavy.’
Paul McCartney? A shrug. ‘Much better than John Lennon but you wouldn’t want either of them to sing Schubert.’
Madonna? Rihanna? Lady Gaga? A long pause.
‘They can hold a tune but put them on stage in the Royal Opera House and you wouldn’t be able to hear them.’
‘She lets out too much air, too much force. It gives it emotion but she’s damaging her voice.’
Cheryl Cole? He bursts out laughing. ‘What can I say?’
You may not agree, but you cannot doubt that this is a man who can coax a rough diamond of a voice into a shining jewel.
After all, he’s made his name not by teaching pampered pop stars but creating choirs from disparate groups of everyday folk, including schoolchildren, Royal Mail staff and firefighters. And it’s emotional stuff.
A typically tear-jerking moment in the current series of The Choir: Sing While You Work – the final of which airs next Sunday – came at the Cheshire Fire And Rescue Service. Malone spotted that the fire-fighters perceived themselves as vocal top dogs over the support staff.
On being bullied at school: 'As a kid it makes you weary. What helped me was music,' said Gareth
Turning the tables on the situation, he pushed forward call operator Helen as the solo singer, flanked by two strapping firefighters.
Their version of Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising (written to honour the firefighters involved in 9/11) produced an awestruck silence followed by rapturous applause.
It wasn’t just the most moving scene of the episode, it was the most moving scene in the series.
Malone is a man of definite opinions. He likes The X Factor but thinks of it not as a music show but ‘an extension of Stars In Their Eyes’.
He is sticking with his beard, despite constantly being told to shave it off.
‘People can’t see why I’d want brown hair and a ginger beard, but I used to have ginger hair. And I like my beard.’
For Christmas he will be eating goose for dinner, not turkey.
‘It’s just too bland and boring. I did once think of following a Nigella recipe but it involved sticking one in a bucket for two days and I just couldn’t be bothered.’
This year, for his first Christmas in the London home he shares with his wife, Becky, and two young children, Gilbert and Esther, he will cook.
‘I will be doing lots of temperature checks with my meat thermometer,’ he says.
Carols From King’s is a must and Radio 3 will be playing all day. His fantasy present is a piano. In his dreams it’s an upright Steinway piano but his reality ‘is more Yamaha’.
His perfect moment will be ‘at home, sitting around doing haphazard, real-life family stuff.’
In the past six years Malone has had more ‘best moments’ than most. He’s been hugged by Elton John and befriended by Miranda Hart (‘She’s great and yes, she can sing, but she’s very shy’).
He’s had an OBE from the Queen and his show, The Choir, has won two Baftas. When he bumped into Kimberley Walsh from Girls Aloud he told her how much he enjoyed watching a documentary about her transition from pop singer to West End performer.
It is an easy mistake to think he is nothing more than a middle-class geek who got lucky with a TV show. But Gareth has had steel battered into him after years of abuse (pictured: conducting the Military Wives)
‘It did actually matter to her what I thought of her voice,’ he says.
‘I think it was only then that I realised how much I’ve had an effect. It takes time to realise that you have become successful. You never believe you are.
'Even now it seems peculiar that people view me as either famous or successful.’
Malone was running the London Symphony Orchestra’s youth and community choir when a production company decided to make a program me about school choirs.A Google search threw up his name. A pilot was shot and by 2007 the slight, skinny, bespectacled choirmaster from Bournemouth with his tweed jackets, bow ties and baby face became an instant hit and, even more surprisingly – to him at least – a sex symbol.
He pulls an iPad out of his bag to show the front cover of a big-selling women’s glossy magazine. The headline reads: ‘Admit it… We’re All A Bit In Love With Gareth.’
So does he think he’s sexy?
‘It’s pretty bizarre that people think so,’ he says. ‘It’s all very weird.’
It is an easy mistake to think he is nothing more than a middle-class geek who got lucky with a TV show. But Malone has had steel battered into him after years of abuse.
Gareth at the megaphone during the first series of Choir
At his grammar school in Bournemouth he was bullied relentlessly by his peers.
His TV show is all about how choirs bring people together, but Malone’s own experience tells the other side of that story. In the first few weeks of his first term he stood up in class to sing a solo, kick-starting a campaign of abuse that went on for years.
‘I was everything that was wrong for a boys’ school. I was small, I was ginger and I wore glasses.
'I sang in the choir, I was a bit sensitive, I didn’t fight and I loved drama.
'I was known as Gay Boy. I was 11 when it started and I remember actually thinking: “Is this what being gay is?” – which is ridiculous considering the fact I’d been interested in girls since the age of about five.
‘The bullying was particularly well executed. In a grammar school you have groups of very clever boys who understand exactly how to bully you constantly and under the radar so the teachers don’t even notice.
'Apart from general name-calling, there was this sound, this hum a certain group of boys used to do all the time in class. It was just a sound but it was aimed at me. They knew it, I knew it, but no teacher would get what was going on.
‘I was an only child; my parents were worried about me. There was one morning I thought about not going to school, but I knew if I went that way it would upset my parents more.
‘The thing that happens when you get bullied at school is that any friends you had then become rats deserting a ship.
'I went from having constant play dates to no one coming round. You end up sitting next to the other unpopular boy.
'As a kid it makes you weary. What helped me was music, being in the choir. It meant missing the first 20 minutes of form time, which was basically completely without any structure and was a war zone for me.’
'People can't see why I'd want brown hair and a ginger beard... I like my beard,' said Gareth
He pauses. ‘But it makes you think about yourself. Every so often I would have to sing in assembly. It was always a choice.
'By doing it I would please the choirmaster, but I’d also lay myself open to a public shaming, a public humiliation of singing in front of the boys.
'I always chose to please the choirmaster because that was ultimately more important to me.’
You can see the effects of bullying on him now. Ironically again, they are positive effects.
His sureness, his self-possession, comes from that consciousness of making his choices.
He nods his head: ‘As you get older you become not afraid to be who you are.’
He smiles: ‘I’d spend lunchtimes in the music room. I picked up all the instruments and learned how to play them, and by the time I was 15 I was good enough to play in bands.’
His new talent led to a growing interest from the girls’ school.
‘Girls like guys who can play guitar,’ he says. ‘Suddenly I’d gone from being the unpopular one to the one who knew all the girls and a lot of the boys who had really bullied me didn’t even know how to talk to girls.
'That’s when school really changed for me. I was at the centre of things because of my music.’
How did he look?
‘Red curly hair, little John Lennon glasses, pretty skinny,’ he says.
He pulls at his dead straight, floppy brown fringe. ‘I don’t know where the red curls went. They just did. I miss them.’
His only period of proper depression came at university (East Anglia, where he studied drama, followed by a postgraduate course at the Royal Academy of Music), when he suffered from glandular fever.
‘That was truly awful. I was away from home, I didn’t really know anyone, so no one could help me.
'Every ounce of energy was sucked out of me and I felt awful for a very long time. I was depressed.
Gareth with Gary Barlow and Andrew Lloyd Webber at the launch of Sing
'You go through that and you understand yourself better.
'I know I’m the sort of person who can go to the edge and look over, but I will always pull myself back. And that’s the important thing.’
Malone is entertaining company. He is a mix of high-and low-brow. He can quote from Shakespeare and Star Wars; he references Andrew Lloyd Webber and Louis Walsh.
At his funeral the two songs he wants played are Thou Knowest Lord The Secret Of Our Hearts by Purcell and Wham!’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.
He talks about meeting Paul McCartney at a Jubilee party when he was with Miranda Hart.
‘She was introducing me to all her comedian friends like Rob Brydon and Lenny Henry. I just turned and looked and there was Paul McCartney.
'There was that embarrassing moment of eye contact. I didn’t exactly know what to say. Then he said: “Hello Gareth. I’ve been watching you?”’ He laughs.
The closest people in his life are his family: Becky, the kids and his parents. The first year he became famous, 2007, was also the year his beloved grandmother, Patricia, started showing signs of dementia. She died during filming of his second series.
‘That was a seismic time for me,’ he says. ‘My family is incredibly close. I am the only child of an only child; my grandparents lived next door to me.
They’d come to our house every day on their way back from work.
My grandmother had a wonderful singing voice but she smoked and she got COPD [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease] and she had to stop singing.
'But she was fascinated by music and she knew I was too.
'When I went away to university she’d write me letters and send cuttings about new musicians, telling me they sounded interesting, and she’d enclose a tenner to buy the album. I absolutely adored her.’
Gareth at Buckingham Palace, with wife Becky and his OBE
He pauses: ‘When the series started my grandmother didn’t quite understand what was happening because of the dementia. That was really hard.
'It was actually a massive decision for me to move away from them all to London because I knew I’d be missing some of the last times I’d have with her.
'I was devastated when she died. It was so hard for that to be happening and to be working on my programme.’
He stops and says, ‘She’d love what I do. I look very much like my grandmother. I have her expressions and her sense of humour. I owe a lot to her.’
When he was thrust in front of a group of tough comprehensive kids for his first-ever show, he knew it was a challenge he could win.
He was well aware the producers were unsure how this posh music teacher would fare in the lion’s den of teenage rebels.
‘As I walked into the school, the first thing I heard was someone laugh and say: “He looks like Harry Potter.” But you go through things in life and you learn exactly how to face them.
'A lot of them were actually bigger than me, but I knew they were just children and probably very scared.’
The choir member who has touched him the most remains the unforgettable, heavily tattooed military wife, Sam Stevenson, who he picked to be his soloist.
‘She’ll always stay with me,’ he says. ‘But getting people to sing is the most incredible experience. Everything about what I do is unexpected.’
The final of his latest series airs next Sunday, with three choirs competing for the title of ‘best workplace choir’.
‘It will be incredibly emotional,’ he says. ‘You see how far these singers have come, it’s their story as well as the story of their voices.’
After Christmas he starts the New Year with his first ever tour with his choir Gareth Malone’s Voices.
The Malone phenomenon continues to get bigger and bigger. Surely, next year the Steinway will become a reality.