Military Wives' Choir tunes into our highest ideals
Published in: Daily Mail
Rarely has a song that’s hit the top of the charts provoked more tears and admiration than today’s runaway winner, Wherever You Are.
This charity single is sung by the Military Wives Choir, the wives and girlfriends of British servicemen fighting in Afghanistan who were brought together by choirmaster Gareth Malone for the BBC2 series The Choir.
Having sold 556,000 copies in just over a week, the song has become a phenomenon — the fastest-selling single since 2008, outselling the rest of the Top 20 combined. And it’s outsold by six to one the song originally tipped to top the charts by The X Factor winners Little Mix.
Really, how could it not have done so? Wherever You Are is composed from letters between these wives and their men — Britain’s heroes — as they served on the battlefield. By comparison, Little Mix’s Cannonball — of all titles! -- seems quite exquisitely tasteless and inappropriate.
This triumph of The Choir over The X Factor represents the victory of courage over celebrity and endurance over inanity.
The X-Factor song stands for wannabes — however winsome — dazzled by the prospect of fame and money. The Choir’s song stands for courage, patriotism and true, enduring love.
As a TV programme, The Choir shone out from the dross of reality TV and all the tawdry and vulgar shows that pass for entertainment on the box. Yet this three-part series was broadcast only as a niche programme on BBC2.
And even now the BBC doesn’t seem to appreciate quite what a gem it has created, by tucking away a condensed 90-minute version late last Thursday evening. Surely it should have been elevated instead to the Christmas or Boxing Day schedules.
For what this series showed us was something really remarkable and uplifting — the power to enable people to transform their own lives.
We saw these military wives at first too shy even to perform in front of each other.
Purely through his blazing faith in the transformative power of song, the absurdly youthful Malone coaxed them first to sing in front of him, then each other, then soldiers on the base, then in a local market, then at Sandhurst and finally at the Remembrance concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
Whereupon there was not a dry eye among the viewing audience. It was not just that we saw these timid women grow in confidence and blossom in hitherto unsuspected talents — and then have the guts to display those talents in public which previously none of them would have dreamed possible.
What made it all so deeply poignant was the situation they were thus transcending through song. For this was an aspect of military life that no one ever sees — the terrible anxiety and dread under which military wives and partners routinely live, terrified of the knock on the door bearing the news that their menfolk have been killed or injured in battle.
Worse still, these women were revealed to be so very alone. Even on the base where they lived they knew very few others in the same situation.
With their status and social circle defined by their husband’s rank, they lived in virtual isolation alongside women afflicted by the very same loneliness, dread and other pressures.
They were also invisible to the outside world. When Malone asked around the nearby town, he discovered that few knew the military base was even there — and no one had had any contact with any of the wives.
What his choir did was not just to give these women a voice (literally) through an identity and role of their own. It also brought them together for the first time as a vital support group, united not just by singing, but doing something that helped combat the loneliness and the dread.
This was not the first occasion when Gareth Malone had worked his alchemist’s magic through the power of song. He had made two previous series of The Choir, involving schoolchildren, which won Bafta awards.
Yet — while truly inspiring — these shows did not catch the imagination of the public in the same way as did the military wives. For the impact of this series came from the virtues it celebrated, which are now so often denigrated or sneered at, but to which so many feel the deepest and most visceral of attachments.
Virtues such as self-sacrifice, duty and stoicism — the quiet, unassuming heroism of ordinary women coping with separation and the fear of being bereaved on the battlefield. For it is not just soldiers making a sacrifice for their country but their wives and families, too.
And we were touched also because, in an age which has made a fetish of emotional incontinence and tells us that the worst thing we can do is repress our emotions, what these women showed us was the dignity and nobility of emotional restraint.
They minimise their fears and their privations in order to keep the spirits of their fighting menfolk up. In other words, this restraint is itself an act of selfless love.
Singing in the choir helps them channel and release some of that emotion. So it moves us very greatly, because only then do we see the value of such restraint — and what it has cost them.
What stirs us also is the power of people to be transformed. The ability to overcome problems or disadvantage and for potential to flower is something we too often forget.
How many of us were once also told, for example, that we were tone-deaf and couldn’t sing for toffee, just like some of these military wives — and have always assumed that was so?
Yet Gareth Malone refused to accept such judgments on themselves by these women. Everyone can sing, he said. And so they did.
In so many ways, society today programmes us to despair, to assume not that we ‘can do’, but that we can’t.
Poor people at the bottom of the social heap tend to be the most fatalistic, believing they have been dealt a bad hand by fate and unable to see how they can possibly lift themselves out of disadvantage.
Vast welfare bureaucracies and armies of well-meaning voluntary organisations all think they are helping such people. In fact, so often they do no more than pick up the pieces and try to mitigate the worst effects of criminal behaviour, drug abuse, poverty and the like.
Yet with a different attitude, such people can very often be helped to transform themselves. It all depends on somehow making them believe they can do it, that they actually have the wherewithal deep inside them.
Gareth Malone possesses precisely that transformative quality. And yes, it is exceptional.
But there are actually many who also possess it — inspirational teachers, for example, or those who have transformed slum neighbourhoods gripped by depression and inertia into orderly and thriving communities. And there are undoubtedly still more who have such a gift, but don’t know that they do.
The reason for the success of The Choir and its unexpected chart-topper is surely that they have inspired unaccustomed feelings of hope and optimism and pride in values that are rooted in British identity — feelings being beaten out of us by all those sour nay-sayers and professional malcontents who have such British values in their cross-hairs.
Britain sometimes seems to be sliding beneath the weight of its own depression and sense of inexorable decline.
Here’s a New Year hope — that Gareth Malone’s choir is a turning point which will inspire the whole nation to sing instead.