The golden glee bringers
The Guernsey Glee Singers have been bringing choral joy to the island since 1927 and this year they celebrate their 80th anniversary. Shaun Shackleton 'feels the tingle'
The Guernsey Glee Singers have been bringing choral joy to the island since 1927 and this year they celebrate their 80th anniversary. Shaun Shackleton 'feels the tingle' WHAT would Christmas be without a choir? That skilful melding of soprano, alto, tenor and bass, of male and female voices in perfect harmony, instantly evokes log fires, candlelit lanterns and snowfall.
They are as much a part of the Yuletide atmosphere as the sound of sleigh bells and the smell of brandy butter.
But, as I discovered when I caught up with the Guernsey Glee Singers as they rehearsed one rainy night at St Peter Port School, choirs aren't just for Christmas.
As the car park outside filled and more raucous music spilled from the nearby arts centre - they were showing Dirty Dancing - the Glees, as they are affectionately known, turned up in a flurry of coats, scarves and brushed off raindrops.
Seats were arranged in the main hall, scales were practiced and then they were into it. And what an eclectic bunch they are.
'I came to Guernsey in 1958 from teaching in England,' said Jerseyman Gerry King, 72. 'I came to teach at the Boys' Grammar as head of maths.'
The school's head of music at the time was Gordon Hughes, who was also the conductor of the Guernsey Glee Singers.
Gerry joined the following year and has never looked back.
'I've been in the choir for 48 years,' he said proudly.
Having sung at St Luke's when he attended King Alfred College, Winchester, he found a natural home with the Glees.
He also performed a lot of musicals with Gadoc.
'I did Oklahoma, Calamity Jane, Annie Get Your Gun - all the westerns - Fiddler On The Roof, Oliver and Showboat,' he said.
'Janet Bran, the conductor, persuaded a lot of Glee men to sing in Fiddler On The Roof.'
With his impressive back record, it's hardly surprising that Gerry likes variety.
'I like most music - that is why I sing with the Glees. Gilbert and Sullivan, The Beatles, holy works at Easter - it's tremendous.'
Mention the Glees and most folk think of traditional songs sung by people of a certain age. But they are wrong.
Having joined eight years ago at the age of 21, Helen Carre is the youngest member.
'I like the variety of the music but it's not easy. Being in a big choir is nice.'Helen, who sings soprano, was taught by Florence Sebire and has entered many an Eisteddfod. But that doesn't mean there is no room for popular music in her life.
'When I was young it was Westlife and Charlotte Church but I've often got opera blaring out. I like new band Scouting For Girls and McFly are talented. I don't like cover versions. I love X Factor, though.'
Would she enter?
'No, I wouldn't. When they do the auditions, I only watch it to laugh at.'
Does she see herself singing with the Glees all her life?
'I hope so. It's the only chance I get to sing - although I have sung at three or four weddings. It's nerve-racking. But I really, really enjoy it.'
Val Kitts, who described herself as over 60, is enjoying her 20th year in the Glees. Her audition for the group was a strange one.
'It was a conference year at the Rotary Club and Pauline Morgan was the event conductor. She asked me if I sang in a club and I said no. She asked me to join the Glees, but I didn't want to audition. "It's OK," she said. "I've just heard you sing."'
Val used to be interested in mainly church music but admits the Glees have 'broadened me out'. And this means going abroad with the group.
'I went to Vienna in 2005 and to Prague this year. That was a good experience. In Prague, we had to walk up and sing in the gallery. There was definitely the tingle factor.'
I knew what she meant. As I was talking to the various Glees, the hall was emitting some pretty spectacular choral music.
I'm not what you would call a fan of this type of music but there were certain harmonies that hit the 'tingle factor' - especially on the back of the neck.
The Glees performed a concert at St James earlier this month.
'I like singing there, it makes you feel all Christmassy,' said Val.
Vienna, Prague, St James and St Peter Port School - the Glees sound great indoors but they aren't averse to 'taking it to the streets' and on Saturday they gathered in Town to sing everyone's Christmas favourites.
But it's perhaps because of this busy schedule - the travelling, the rehearsing, the playing live - that conductor Marilyn Pugh, 54, is hanging up her baton to concentrate on her role as head of music at the Grammar School.
'I will miss the Glees. This will be my 16th Christmas concert. I joined in September 1996 but I thought the 80th year would be a good time to bow out.'
She has, however, many memories to take with her.
'Vienna was stunning. I've never done anything like it,' she said.
'When we went to Prague it was equally as thrilling but it was in this beautiful huge hall and we had fantastic comments from the judges.'
Apart from the travel, Marilyn has also enjoyed the Glees' various collaborations and fundraising shows.
'I'm proud of working with The Savoyards, who do Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, and the huge amount we raised for charity.'
They raised £15,000 for the Dyslexia Day Centre. I think what people tend to forget is that there are so many professionals over here. The judge in Prague said that we were the best mixed choir.'
Her time with the Glees has been a memorable one.
'I have friends here. They're a solid, friendly bunch and I enjoy making music with them. It's a bit of a wrench because it was so emotional in Prague. I know I'll miss them.'
Taking over the baton will be Roger Brooks.
Jill Stephenson and her then-new husband John both joined straight after their honeymoon in 1958.
Jill loved the intimate atmosphere in those days.
'It was a smaller choir, more family orientated, with a family feeling. We went to each other's weddings.'
As she is the music registrar and keeper of the archives, I asked her about how the name Glee Singers came about.
'It's not in any of the old minute books. It was once called Mrs Noel's Choir. It's a bit old-fashioned.'
That is something that chairman Ray Watts, 62, agrees with.
'It started off as the Island Singers, then men joined in 1931. I don't know what image it gives. It might be a bit misleading.'
But a change of name would mean that they wouldn't be the Glees any more.
'Well, York University students have their own Glee Singers,' he said.
Ray, one of Guernsey's most well known farmers, joined in 1975 as a means of escaping the cowshed.
'I've not always been a singer. Basically, it was an antidote to farming seven days a week. It gets a bit insular. You come out and it gives you an uplift.
'It's a tremendous challenge of a different kind. It doesn't matter how knackered you are, it's still good to sing.'
And that is perhaps why the Guernsey Glee Singers - the Glees - are held with such great affection: they're ordinary people from ordinary walks of life who happen to share a love of music and are exceptionally gifted at showing it through song.
And they have been doing so for 80 years. Here's to their 100th.
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