‘Before, we were just military wives, stuck at home with the kids. People are actually hearing us now and we’ve got a voice’ (Choir member)
Last November, a 3-part TV documentary called about a choir formed from the wives and girlfriends of the armed forces was aired, presented by choirmaster and musician Gareth Malone. The series culminated with the choir’s televised performance at the Royal Albert Hall in the Remembrance Day celebration, and the choir became something of a phenomenon when their spin off single ‘Wherever you Are’ out sold the X factor’s offering to become Christmas Number One.
Malone, who is about as enthusiastic and inspiring as they come and has also presented other series’ of The Choir in different contexts, recruits a wide range of women who are left behind when their husbands are called up and we journey with the choir from its tentative formation to the moment when it comes to national prominence via its televised performance in front of the Royal family. The resulting Military Wives Choir was formed initially from women at Chivenor Royal Marines base in Devon, all of whom had husbands on active service in Afghanistan. Later, Gareth decides to expand the choir and adds in women from Royal Citadel, Plymouth, causing initial resentment at their abilities but eventually a sense of pulling together and communal solidarity prevails. We see the choir perform first in front of the rear guard (members of the military who are not on active service), in Barnstaple, and at Armed Forces Day in Plymouth and at Sandhurst for the passing out parade-an event which Gareth admits is ‘the scariest gig of my life!’
The series sensitively explores what life is for the women left behind while their husbands are away and the vulnerability and isolation they feel, especially those looking after young children. The idea of the choir was to add a bit of fun to their existence as they wait for their husbands to come home: to bring them together and provide them with a collective ‘voice’. The emotion of the women as they sing is palpable, especially when Gareth arranges for them to broadcast one of their sessions over the radio to the troops abroad.
One woman explains what it is like having a partner away:
‘When your husband’s away, it’s like your life almost is put on pause…You don’t want to do things because you feel guilty that you’re having fun with your children….You just count your days down and wait till you get to the end…’
One young woman in particular, Sam, is particularly affected by joining the choir. She had originally wanted to study music at university and had sung in a choir at school, but gave up her dream to marry her partner and now has small children. Gareth identifies her as having a big talent but zero confidence to use it; at first, she refuses to sing in public and even when he asks her to sing in front of him in her home she is reluctant. As the series progresses however, Gareth puts more and more responsibility on her and by the end, she is confident enough to sing the solo in the Albert Hall beautifully and movingly in front of millions. After singing a solo at Sandhurst, Sam enthuses, “I feel so good now, I want to go back and do it again! It was amazing, I feel so much more confident now, and now I can just take on anything!” Gareth comments, “She needs to sing, this woman. And it’s really good to have helped her.”
After the performance at the Royal Albert Hall Gareth, summarises his feelings about the choir: “These are women who, because of their natural tendency to get on with it stoically, just hide their light under a bushel and that’s a terrible shame – they have so much to be proud of, so much to celebrate and I don’t think there has ever been a forum to celebrate military wives before and we’ve just made one, and it felt really really fantastic and an honour to be part of that. And music did that, not me, not them, music did it for them.”
See the Military Wives singing in the Royal Albert hall on youtube here
The BBC series summary is below:
‘Choirmaster Gareth Malone believes singing can help people through the most difficult times of their lives. Armed with his keyboard, Gareth has been invited to RMB Chivenor military base in north Devon, where the troops are about to deploy for a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.
While the troops are away, Gareth hopes to start a choir with the wives and girlfriends left behind to help them through the worrying time.
Gareth soon discovers that living on an isolated estate on the edge of the military base has left the wives longing to have a voice to express the difficulty of their lives. But can he inspire his fledgling choir to have the confidence to sing in public?’