On paper, there’s no way it should work. A choral competition would be a no-brainer for BBC2, or Radio 3. Stick it on BBC1 on a Sunday evening as a summer replacement for Songs of Praise, and nobody would bat an eyelid. But primetime on Saturday night? How on Earth could that possibly work?
On the basis of last night’s press launch for Last Choir Standing, which starts on BBC1 on Saturday July 5 (TBC), I think there’s every chance that it will.
Produced by the same-house BBC Vision Studios production team behind I’d Do Anything and its ilk, Last Choir Standing is bursting at the seams with enthusiasm and passion. The first week’s show will see the initial audition stage, as 60 of the choirs who submitted videotaped applications are brought down to London’s Cadogan Hall to audition in front of judges Russell Watson, Sharon D Clarke and Suzi Digby.
The preview clips we saw had a smattering of negative comments from the judges, and the occasional deluded teenager crying into camera about how this is their only chance (apart from, one presumes, all the other TV show auditions they go along to). In the main, though, the emphasis seems to be on finding quality and, perhaps more importantly for the Saturday night audience, finding the fun in group singing. I can’t imagine there are too many other TV talent shows where the judges bound on stage to sing along with the auditionees.
Along with the lightheartedness are some quite emotional stories behind some of the choral groups, too. One group of women started singing together only after they met on picket lines protesting at the closure of the Timex factory in Dundee; a group of fishermen are using their choir to cling on to a community which is disappearing as their industry fails; a choir of disabled people from Northern Ireland talk of how they enjoy focussing on a shared ability. In amongst the more serious human interest stories, there are a group of women who sing behind what appears to be a large furry pink handbag, children’s choirs and a gay chorus who perform a capella versions of songs Madonna and the Pussycat Dolls.
Following the auditions round, 27 groups are called back, and from those just fifteen choirs will go through to the heats. Each of the three heat rounds will see five choirs singing a group number, and then two songs each. It’s a sign, perhaps, of how intrinsic telephone voting has become to this format that it comes as a surprise that the public will have no say in these heat rounds — the judges, and the judges alone, will pick two choirs from each heat to go through to the final stage.
Of course, the public can’t stay out of things forever, and the final section of the series comprises the now-familiar elimination format, with the lowest polling choir being eliminated each week until three are left in the grand final.
To complement the series, some live events are being planned — the press pack mentions Hull on August 9 and Derby on August 16, but it’s not clear if others will join the roster in due course. These ticketed events will include masterclasses from professional musical directors plus plenty of live performances.
Quite how the Saturday night audience will take to Last Choir Standing will remain to be seen. Outside its musical theatre casting shows and Strictly Come Dancing, the BBC has struggled to find a live entertainment format that works on Saturday nights, with neither Dance X nor The One and Only setting the schedules alight. Whether Last Choir Standing can buck the trend, only time will tell — but its originality and passion already give it a head start.