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June 9, 2006

Singing for themselves

The Telegraph (UK):

A new television programme The Singing Estate traces the progress of an unusual choir from a tough housing estate near Oxford. Susannah Frieze reports

In a space designed for hundreds of musicians and an audience of 6,000, there is just one performer - Eric Hill, aged 71. His wife is the only listener, seated in solitary splendour in the royal box of the Albert Hall. The choice of song, You'll Never Walk Alone, is particularly poignant because Mrs Hill's agoraphobia is so severe that she is essentially housebound and has only been persuaded to come here because otherwise she would miss seeing her husband realise his lifelong ambition.

Later, he will sing with a choir of 40 at that night's sold-out Classic FM concert, but this solo performance is purely for her. As he starts to sing, only the red winking of a camera light betrays that there is anyone else watching. At the end of the song, Eric cries, his wife cries, even the TV crew mop a tear or two - but they are, by now, used to the emotional journeys of The Singing Estate.

When a professional conductor and choral scholar took on the challenge of auditioning the residents of Blackbird Leys estate in Oxford, forming a choir of 40 from the 200 people who turned up and taking them to the Albert Hall to sing, nobody could have predicted how rich a vein of human life they had tapped. Unlike most reality TV shows, The Singing Estate was a feelgood proposition - not just an attempt by Channel Five to grab some ratings, but part of their FiveArts Cities initiative with the Arts Council which, this year, focuses on Oxford - a community arts project that could have been a little worthy.

Instead, the channel has scored a hat-trick by backing a project that culminates in a triumphant performance, launching the media career of a conductor poised to be the Simon Cowell of the classical world, and unleashing a gripping tour de force on our TV screens.

Take the story of Simba, the youngest in the choir at 17, who auditions with some heartfelt R & B, then undergoes a transformation as the series progresses to sing the classical repertoire with as much seriousness as a young Carreras. But this isn't Simba's first transformation: 18 months ago, he auditioned for The X Factor, only to be told he was too fat to make it as a singer. Simba has since lost 5st and become one of the stars of The Singing Estate, belting out O Fortuna from Carmina Burana to his posse of admirers.

At the heart of the show is conductor Ivor Setterfield. Having taken scholarships at the Royal Academy of Music, trained with Valery Gergiev, founded the New London Soloists' Orchestra, and with a decade of running both a professional choir and the amateur Barts' Choir under his belt, Setterfield has formidable musical form. But he also has the charisma to transform an arts project into pure TV soap opera, played out on the pitch of Oxford City football ground, in the amphitheatres of Verona and, finally, in London.

Blackbird Leys is one of England's more deprived council estates, suffering from high unemployment and a disaffected youth population pegged to the collapse of the nearby Cowley car works. Inside the threadbare community centre, there are old and young faces, white, black, thin, fat, shabby and blinged up to the nines. Eric beams from beneath a straggly moustache: a far cry from his days in a 1950s rock band called Good Company. Lucy, a pretty single mum, towers over him from behind. Colin, a cross between Des Lynam and David Beckham, smoulders behind designer specs and teeters on high-heeled lizard-skin cowboy boots. Joy, an intimidating mix of Mystic Meg and Zandra Rhodes, stares unblinkingly at the man at the front, the object of her affections. She's not the only one.

They are all held in Setterfield's palm, following his directions so minutely that when he holds up a hand for a crescendo, the sound swells immediately. It is still a little rough - as their leader says, "A little less builder's bum, please" - but the effort is there in spades. Setterfield himself is in his element, flirting with every one of them, with a talent for translating musical direction into analogies that even the most untrained singer can understand.

"When I first met Ivor," Lucy, a single mum and a tenor says later, "I thought he was going to be this condescending, smooth git from London. I didn't get classical music at all, and I auditioned because I thought it would be something different in my life. But when he says things like, 'Don't look so hopefully at your genitals!' to the basses when they're trying for a low note, you realise that he's just a normal bloke, and that beautiful music is beautiful music, whether it's hip-hop or classical."

Of course, it hasn't all been fun and arias. The choir's trip to Verona, designed as a morale-building interlude to show how classical music was part of the fabric of Italian life, was a rollercoaster. Most hadn't been to Italy before, some had never left the UK, and in the inevitable euphoria, late-night drinking sessions and hungover singing that followed, tempers frayed. Viewers will see one young soprano laying into Setterfield for what she sees as his cruelty to them after they sang badly on a busking trip round Verona. Since then, the bust-ups have been few and far between but Blossom, a buzz-cut alto with shooting stars emblazoned on both cheeks, has made waves with her abrasive style. "I've given my all to this," she tells me on the last day of filming, "but I'm not going to stick around. I'm going solo. I'll show 'em."

Ruth, an outspoken soprano who runs karaoke nights in Oxford, is unimpressed with Blossom's posturing. "She needs to get real - and I know all about real. I got into drugs at 15 and if it hadn't been for my mum sending me off to live with my uncle in a mining village in Yorkshire, I'd be dead now. Other than that year, I've been in Blackbird Leys all my life." Ruth is another of the programme's success stories: Setterfield's pianist Chris Lee has been giving her jazz-singing lessons and she has since performed at the Living Room, a jazz restaurant in Islington.

I catch up with Ruth, Setterfield and the rest of the choir in the pub after the last day's filming. Spirits are good; after the inevitable post-Albert Hall flatness, they've wrapped up the series by singing Nessun Dorma at a community centre tree-planting and nearly all are confident that the choir will carry on after the cameras have left.

The almost slavish adoration of their conductor that I saw at rehearsal has tempered into affection. "We'd have followed Ivor off a cliff by the end," says Lucy. "He didn't half get cross with us sometimes, but he's worked this magic with us and we'll never forget him." As I leave the pub, Ruth's husband Jeff is playing his mobile-phone recording of their Albert Hall gig to anyone and everyone - I notice that most of them have a tear in their eye when they've finished listening.

Here's the show's web site which includes a cool trailer for the show.

Posted by acapnews at June 9, 2006 9:45 PM