The Choir captures the recent zeitgeist of singing competitions and feel-good reality television so perfectly that it’s unclear why BBC America waited four years to air the BAFTA-winning show. In the 13-part series, Gareth Malone, a British choirmaster who worked for the London Symphony Orchestra, takes on the challenge of creating professional-level choirs in unlikely places: an all-boys school focused on sports; a blue-collar town; and in the first section of the series, a choir culled from the students from a school in an underprivileged suburb of London that has no official music program. It’s a premise guaranteed to induce goosebumps, and it does just that, but what makes The Choir special is that it’s a reality show about performance that is, refreshingly, not about the attainment of celebrity.
That’s not to say that the schoolchildren (they range in age from about 12 to 17) who initially audition for a place on the Northolt School choir are not induced by the presence of a BBC film crew. They show up in droves in their disheveled school uniforms, but most can’t sing, let alone sing classical music. It’s a testament to the producers that they focus only on the successful candidates, and don’t spool together footage of tone-deaf kids singing off-key versions of their favorite pop songs (it immediately separates The Choir from American Idol, with its odious auditions section in which untalented singers are humiliated for our amusement).
What also sets The Choir apart from other reality shows of its ilk is that Malone’s goal is not to find a new superstar, or even to showcase the individual talents of Northolt’s youth, but to create a competitive classical choir from students who have had no training, and in many cases, no exposure to classical singing at all. The boyish-looking Malone is all about the music and spreading the belief that classical music in particular enriches lives. And while there are brief solos in some of the pieces his choir perform, the transcendent moments are when the untrained singers are able to sing together in key.
That moment takes a while for the Northolt students. For the most part, they are unprepared for the rigors of being part of Malone’s choir, and he struggles with convincing them that they are up to the task. Being so used to the overconfidence and cocky swagger of American singing hopefuls, it’s odd to see just how shy and tentative the students from Northolt are. The show focuses on a few of them, bringing cameras into their lives outside of school: one of the best singers, 15-year-old Chloe, is an endearing mix of punky attitude and British reserve; Enoch, the youngest boy, is an immigrant from Kenya waiting to see if his father will be allowed to move to the U.K.
These segments are blessedly free of any overwrought sentiment, though The Choir falters a little toward the end of its Northolt section, during the choral competition that takes place in China. While Gareth’s tears, and those of his students, are definitely earned, the producers resort to a montage of previous moments from the show while the music swells—a cheesy moment in an otherwise excellent series that reaffirms that not all creative pursuits come with the promise of fame and money.