Show choirs – how the Brits have missed out

On Monday night I missed out on two TV gems – the penultimate episode of Glee and Gleeful: The Real Show Choirs of America – I’d have been severely miffed, were it not for the fact that I was in musical theatre heaven. (Enjoying Sister Act with my sister, how appropriate.)

Catching up on Gleeful the following day, I was alternately fascinated and horrified by the insight it gave into a world that Brits knew little about until the arrival of Glee on our shores. Basically, show choirs seem to exist to give US teenagers the opportunity to fulfil musical theatre fantasies that we have to recreate in our own homes. For example, I witnessed a girl singing Defying Gravity with full, twirling skirt à la Wicked’s Act 1 finale – we have to make do with jumping on/off furniture to emulate the same moment… [When I say ‘we’, I know at least two other people who do this, so it’s not simply my own fantasy!]

The show began by illustrating the supreme naffness of British choirs. I’ll refute the ‘naff’ label – we have an admirable choral tradition in the classical vein, we’re just not much given to showing off in an all-singing all-dancing style. After all, where would He Who Shall Not Be Named be without our passion for traditional choirs?

The suggested inferiority of British school choirs versus the Glee Club tradition got me thinking that perhaps I’d been brought up in the wrong country. It dawned on me that had we had show choirs in good old Gloucestershire, I’d have been Co Show Choir Captain because, being (joint) queen of my year’s music nerds, I was Choir Captain – so surely it goes to follow I could have made the same rank in Glee world? (Given my dancing and acting skills are virtually nil I realise this is a massive assumption to make, but in my head it made sense!)

The role of Choir Captain was an odd one. My co-captain, Clair, was an excellent musician and thoroughly deserved the role. I can’t quite recall if there was some kind of contest for the job or whether no one else actually wanted it, perhaps I got on board simply by being a good friend of hers – it certainly wasn’t owing to any kind of musical genius on my part!

I have few memories of this job, but do remember fighting for badges, mainly so there could be an addition to our prefect (or in C’s case, Deputy Head Girl) badges on our jumpers. Pride came before a fall though, as we were eventually issued with hideous things that we only wore when formality demanded it. Most of the time we acted as music department dogsbodies – taking choir registers, hunting down no-shows, tidying the music cupboards, and presenting end of concert gifts. There were just two moments of glory:

1. Pippin Choir [our school was named ‘Ribston Hall’, apparently there’s an apple named the ‘Ribston Pippin’ which is how this choir got its name…make your own judgement on the kind of school I went to.]
This was a ramshackle collection of 1st years singing a Christmas song chosen & arranged by us (I chose, C arranged). We were completely in charge – rehearsals, performance – everything, a total risk! Thus far, it has been my only experience of conducting, which I vowed never to repeat, not being entirely comfortable with the whole audience only seeing your backside thing…

2. The Boar’s Head Carol [A version similar to, but not as dramatic as ours can be watched here.]
At the beginning of the Christmas concert’s second half, it was traditional for the Upper 6th (i.e. final year) girls to enter singing a somewhat dramatic version of this medieval carol, while carrying a papier maché boar’s head aloft. The Choir Captains were responsible for its organisation and it was the single-most controversial moment of our 6th form career (even after the hotly fought Head Girl contest – that’s a whole other story!) owing to high competition for solos. Reflecting upon this, it seems this tradition was the closest we got to show choir drama…

Americans get divas, costumes, choreographers and trophies – we got cloaks, home-made lanterns and a papier maché pig. It’s really not the same thing at all and I feel a little bit cheated.

Incidentally, you might have been hoping that this post would come with photos. It doesn’t and I make no apologies for that fact. Photos of me, as a teenager, on the internet? Never. Going. To. Happen. 

Farewell Friends

Hah…do not be fooled, this is not a farewell to my blog post! (The social media guidelines haven’t got me just yet…)

Yesterday, news broke that come the autumn, Channel 4 would no longer be showing Friends repeats on terrestrial or digital TV. For the first time since 1995, there would be no regular screening of the series. Currently, you can watch at least 2 episodes every evening on E4 and assorted other repeats on Channel 4. When they get to the end of series 10, it heads straight back to the pilot episode – kind of like an eternal Groundhog Day.

Unsurprisingly, I am quite the Friends fan. Yes, I cried when the final episode finished (even now, it brings a lump to my throat – I know, I’m pathetic). The other day I noticed my collection of Friends companions (books that chronicle every episode) and wondered if it was time to put them in the charity shop pile. Surely with Wikipedia you don’t need books full of useless factoids any more?

I’ve liked the comfort of knowing that for an hour every evening I can watch something familiar. So familiar that I find myself pre-empting lines more than once an episode and singing along with Phoebe’s songs. Today I’ve even made a mental note to watch tomorrow’s, because I think it’s going to be my all time favourite episode: The One With the Prom Video (aka the one where Ross & Rachel finally get together properly, because “he’s her lobster”…).

It’s been on TV for more than half my life, but I suppose it’s time for Channel 4 to move on. Maybe it’s time for us to finally achieve closure (always to be pronounced “clooosure”, as in The One Where Ross Finds Out) on a golden age of television. I just hope that whatever they choose to replace it with is something good – like endless Glee or The Big Bang Theory – or, it might be time to finally get that complete DVD boxset…

…Or perhaps I need to get out more and watch less TV?

When two queens became friends

Once upon a time, in an island kingdom far, far away, there was a Queen who ruled over many islands (169 to be precise). Thanks to this Queen’s grandfather, the island kingdom had formed a bond with another island kingdom on the opposite side of the world, who did not colonise it, but agreed to protect it in the same way it protected its other dominions.

In 1953, a young Queen took to the throne of the United Kingdom. Many foriegn dignatories were invited to pay their respects to the new monarch, but only one of these was a reigning monarch in their own country. On a rainy June day, Queen Salote of Tonga created a stir when she travelled to the coronation without so much as an umbrella – the British public fell in love with her.

A new friendship formed between the two Queens, so much so that when the young Queen decided to tour the world visiting her empire’s colonies, she included a visit to the island kingdom of Tonga so that she could meet Queen Salote again – even though it wasn’t a colony and was miles away from any other destination.

It’s a quaint story, but I love it. For many in Britain it’s the only reason that they’ve heard of Tonga (unless they’re rugby fans), and Tongans are immensely proud of it for several reasons. Firstly, because they are fiercely protective of their independence and the fact that they were never colonised. Secondly, Queen Salote is their most loved monarch ever (the girls school named in her honour still wears black armbands over 3 decades after her death). Thirdly, they love the British monarchy too.

Last night I had the rare opportunity to see the land of my birth on TV. Channel 4 began a series on the Queen’s tour of the empire in 1953 with a programme that included her visit to Tonga. There was a modern day visit too, including some classic Tongan moments – like hearing a church choir sing ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing’ in Tongan and meeting Salote’s grandson, the current King, who sounds like a British Royal and drives a London taxi! Not to mention the obligatory eating of many pigs.
I’m a history geek and love archive film footage, but to see Tongan scenes from over 50 years ago was actually quite moving – there’s not a lot of it. Watching the presenter leave Fua’amoto airport made me realise that it’s nearly a decade since I visited, and perhaps it’s time to start thinking about another trip. In a week when Tonga’s made one of its rare appearances in the news thanks to a ferry disaster, it was great to see some positive exposure for my beautiful birthplace.