THE Choir: Sing While You’re Working is the feelgood thing on BBC2 where good salt Gareth Malone inspires the everyman to be the best they can be, and all that, by singing acapella with distant colleagues eight hitches or so above their pay grade. In a rain of emotion, a choir is formed at a supermarket, a city bank, bank bosses sing next to security guards in the back row, a ferry company and… a local authority. It’s the sort of gig you might expect Camden, rarely publicity shy, to muscle in on, but as it happened, Labour-run Birmingham City Council got the call.
When the council edition went to air a few weeks back, the programme caused a mild bristle among Telegraph blogger types convinced that the BBC has a left-wing bias, as the workers being encouraged to sing told, in between the singing, of the cuts razoring local government budgets and how they had turned town halls into stress factories.
I sent an FoI request to Birmingham to see the council’s planning for the programme, and in response I was sent the original application letter to the production company. It shows a policy offer – the name redacted – at the council being pretty explicit about how cuts and change ordered by the ‘new government’ had affected staff.
It talks of how the ‘new Government and world-wide financial crisis has bought [sic] unprecedented levels of change, cuts, new ways of working, redundancies and uncertainty for our staff… All this change and uncertainty has left people and angry and frustrated’.
Birmingham went on to tell the makers of The Choir that there were ‘rising levels of stress’ at the council and ‘people disengaging from their work’. It’s a pitch that obviously worked. They got the gig.
As the BBC showed interest in picking Birmingham Council for one of their chosen choirs, a briefing paper for senior councillors, also released under FoI, see excerpt below, shows that it wasn’t just a sense of comradeship that Birmingham were looking to seize from the Gareth Malone experience. The big bosses were told that while, an existing choir would have to be temporarily suspended, the show would be “great press for the city as a whole”.
A PR masterstroke, some might say.