By Dr Rebecca Leach
I unashamedly and utterly love the Choir. Doesn't everyone? It is a brilliant piece of TV, forged by some clever director with an eye for an emotionally realist narrative, and a central charismatic figure who manages to pierce the bastions of masculinity and come out intact.
And I can't think of a better programme to show students in order to illustrate some of the complexities of sociological thinking. Let's take the basic principle: how to make a difference (see What is Sociology blog below). Millions have been poured into ASBOs and youth training. Yet the Beeb's idea - at least in narrative form - is simple: use the power of social effervescence to empower and raise aspiration. And what works here is not the healing power of middle class aspirations and the parachuting in of the classical canon; in fact, it is the host's ability to make himself the fool at the centre of doubting machismo. Yet he patently isn't a fool: at least in edited form, Gareth Malone's confidence and slightly camp self-possession spread around.
So making a difference here seems to work, a formula The Choir series is reusing again and again. It is hard not to be caught up in the effervescent moment of people finding a tiny bit of passion for something against the adversity of the daily grind. OK, some of this is milked beautifully for story: just as doubt and struggle set in while rehearsing Barber's Agnus Dei, the shot cuts to bleak, wasted council estate streets, blighted by ice. Ho hum. But on the other hand, these are real people with fire in their eyes.
Indeed the eyes of Matty shift quite dramatically over one programme: from the steely eyed inscrutable stare of a man about to shove his glass in your chin, to those fired up with a camaraderie he thought he could only find beating people round the head (as a boxer, lest you think I am being libellous). He found it instead in reluctantly persuading young men to strip away their entrenched masculinity to perform in public.
This was only one poignant moment. Leaving aside the wet-eyed triumphs of small children, it is a great social commentary. Now. I'm not so naive I think this will make a lasting difference to poverty and social exclusion. Yet there are precious few initiatives that bring together generations as this kind of thing. Jesus, the Church worked this out a heck of a long time ago: people rather like singing together, but they are, mostly, just too cool now. Yup, the single parents facing racism will still be shunned for not being part of the 'real' community in some steely eyes. But what else is there but talking to each other to overcome that? And the odd judicious prison sentence.
One of the most telling sociological moments for me was when a member of the Choir pointed ou how much South Oxhey felt like a community since the Choir began: people talked to each other more, she explained, and that had never happened before. I doubted this. I bet there is exactly the same amount of social interaction as there had ever been, though perhaps with a few more nodes in the network. But what was different was how she felt about herself, her environment, her community. This is what Giddens and others call 'ontological security': comfort in ones environment and 'skin'. And this has an impact, as is well known, on feelings of safety and belonging.
This is, above all, a programme about class. But it is cleverly done. It could have been about the healing but patronising power of middle class pursuits 'improving' the cultural lives of the poor. But it isn't. More cleverly, it is about the lasting influence of charisma and personality (and, natch, resources and being on telly) to make people feel different. And oddly, it remains rather classless: Gareth, with his chorister's training and Oxbridge diction and cool camp demeanour was probably recruited in the first Choir series as a fall guy. Yet he turned out to be captivating, funny, modest and deploying steely ambition. And Matty, his boxer alter-ego, turned out not to be a Rottweiler with a taste for protection rackets (well, at least not in public), but a rather good singer who loved his estate. It reminds us we are wedded to class archetypes, yet they evaporate in the form of real people.
And yet. The 'transformation' genre of TV is ultimately manipulative, pulling emotional strings in the same way I am sure Radio 4 pitches itself just below the knowledge of its audience to instil a sense of knowingness. Who was its audience? People like me, I imagine, a bit touched by irritating optimism and possibly patronage. We don't know who is representing South Oxhey here. The black single mum who had racist abuse thrown at her seems to have disappeared after her solo: did someone quietly remind her she shouldn't try and stand out? Or did she herself begin to feel her own aspirations didn't fit those of her neighbours. I am not deluding myself that a bit of singing makes everything rosy or that 'community' above all else is an obvious 'good'. But piercing the embarrassment and fear that prevents people from just talking to each other is an obvious good. I don't buy Putnam's Bowling Alone argument too much. But I do think compulsory individualism and hegemonic masculinity need challenging. Even if that does mean sometimes strapping on a foppish public school boy and letting him charm people into joy.