Of all the wonderful experiences I have had over the last 37 years while working for BHT Sussex, one of the most joyous has been the Choir With No Name.
If you haven’t yet come across the Choir With No Name, it runs choirs for homeless and marginalised people in London and around the country. It was set up by a visionary, Marie Benton, who I am proud to call a friend. For more than 10 years she was the Choir’s chief executive. Even though she has moved on to new ventures, the Choir goes from strength to strength under the new leadership of Kate Wareham.
There are Choirs in Liverpool, Birmingham and Cardiff, as well as in the capital. But until 2018 there wasn’t a Brighton Choir With No Name. It was over a coffee that Marie and I agreed to set up the Brighton Choir as a partnership between the national charity and BHT Sussex.
Each December, the Choir puts on the most spectacular Big Christmas Singalong at the Brighton Dome. As the name suggests, it is a singalong, be it classics like White Christmas, Santa Clause is Coming to Town, and Jingle Bells to more modern ones like All I Want for Christmas, I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday, and Fairytale of New York.
The evening traditionally ends with a mass-participation, anarchic rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas, together with actions. I will leave it to your imaginations what actions go with ‘Six geese a-laying’. “Can’t sing? Come along anyway”, is the invitation from the Choir.
The Big Christmas Singalong, this year to be held next Tuesday (6th December) at 7.30pm, marks the start of the Christmas period. Fancy dress isn’t mandatory, but it does help. I must thank the Brighton Dome who puts on and promotes this event which would not be possible, on this scale at least, without their extremely generous support.
During the Covid lockdowns, the Brighton Choir met online and in covid-safe ways when possible, singing out-of-doors or socially-distanced in the Open Market. It was a period when so many people struggled with isolation and loneliness, but the Choir provided an important lifeline to our members.
I have known several members of the Choir for many years, seeing them at their lowest ebb and now as confident individuals, thanks largely to the Choir. Being part of this amazing Choir family has transformed their lives. I am humbled by the confidence they have acquired. To stand up and sing on the stage of The Dome takes real courage. The changes they have made in their lives has taken much more.
The highlight for me of the 2021 Big Christmas Singalong came after it was all over. Two young women told me that they had had a very tough start in life, that they had been sleeping rough until BHT Sussex had helped them to get housing. That’s what it is all about. They said that they wanted to join the Choir.
All people go through tough times. Some find themselves homeless and marginalised. The Choir provides them with a place to sing their hearts out, among friends. Through the Choir, people can showcase their talents, build personal resilience and positive, joyful singing communities.
Many Choir members describe the Choir as their family where they look after each other. Belting out classic tunes and dancing together, sharing delicious food and jokes, and finding somewhere to leave their troubles at the door is what the Choir is all about. Choir members are encouraged to achieve serious change in their lives, but without taking themselves too seriously!
There is one downside of the Big Christmas Singalong – you have to listen to me speak for a couple of minutes asking for donations to keep this amazing Choir going. I try to say something outrageous and funny which usually gets people laughing and, as a result, more generous. A few years ago I told the children at the performance: “If your parents don’t donate £20 it means that they don’t really love you!” This was met with howls of derision from the audience, but that night we collected a record amount from our very generous audience.
This will be the last Big Christmas Singalong before I retire in January but, from next year, I will be there as a member of the audience. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
People who have come to the Big Christmas Singalong tend to come again. To misquote Mariah Carey, “All I want for Christmas is the Big Christmas Singalong with the Choir with No Name!” At the same time as having a cracking evening, you will be supporting our work with homeless people.
There are still some tickets available on The Dome’s website (brightondome.org) and cost £14 and £8 concessions.