English Boy Choir Movies

Figure 1.--The 199? production of The Choir show cased the formal vestments of an English cathedral choir. The main character played by Anthony Way is an accomplished chorister with several musical releases.

Some of the world's most famous boys' choirs are located in England and sponsored by the great country's great cathedrals. There have been, however, few films made on or about those choirs, except for some excellent documentaries. One of thwe best is the 199? BBC production, The Choir. While many of the choir movies known to HBC are often not memorable films, the The Choir was a notable exception and provided interesting insights into the working of a modern choir.


There have been several excellent movies about English boy choirs in addition to smpe informative documentaries.

(The) Choir (England 1998?)

One of the better productions about choirs was a recent BBC series called The Choir featured a noted young singer. This excellent production concerns the financial problem of maintaing a great cathedral. The dean of the cathedral decides the only way to save the cathedral is to close the choir. The choir master attemts to save the choir by opposing the dean before the choir's govenors. In the mean time he has one of the chorisers make a record which proves to be a popular success. There are several sub-plots to the film which diverge from the central story of the choir. The film provides information on formal choir costumes, English school uniforms, and English clothing styles in the 1990s. The Choir was shown in the United States as a multi-night mini-series, of course on PBS. The film introduced the world to the vocal talent of one young Anthony Way. Anthony is superb in voice and acting.

Figure 2.--The film begins with the idelic life of a spoiled English choir boy. Their evocative music echos for all the rest of the film.

Empire of the Sun (United States, 19??)

This is an American film set in Shanghai. However the main character is an English choir boy. The film begins with the choirm a dramatic device to stress the boy's inosence in contrast to what lies before him. The nusic is also an important aspect of this film. This is Steven Spielberg's film about 11-year-old Jim Graham, who sings at a British school in Shanghai and is somewhat bored with "The Good Life"-- until he is separated from his parents when the Japanese invade on December 8, 1941. Christian Bale does not do his own singing. (The real soloist is James Rainbird, and "Suo Gan" is performed by The Ambrosian Junior Choir, directed by John McCarthy.) But Bale displays profound ranges of emotion, and through his eyes we see both the fascination and the horror of war. If you have not seen Empire of the Sun, you must. Watch the picture from the Saturday Evening Post as it travels with Jim through his ordeals! Have you ever had a time in your life when you finally "lost it", as Jim did when the P-51 fighters attacked the Japanese camp? For me this was the climax of the film, the lightening appearnce of the sleak American fighter meant that the calvery was comingh. If you have seen the movie, did you know right away what the "bright light" was which seemed to go up from the woman's body? What DID it mean when Jim was trying to bring his young Japanese friend back to life--and suddenly he seemed to be doing CPR on himself? -- Be sure to let the video run until it fades to black-- so you can hear the wonderful theme chorus ("Exsultate Justi") by John Williams! The interesting costuming is at the beginning of the film. The blazers the boys wear with red piping look authentic enough, but I doubt if they would preform in them on Sunday--especially with grey shirts.

(A) Swarm in May (England, 19??)

A Swarm in May was filmed at Rochester Cathedral and released in 1983. It was based on a child's book published in 1955 by William Mayne, one of the first he wrote. The boy's school story at the time was declining in popularity, despite this remarkable work. A 1982 edition was Illustrated by CW Hodges. The title comes from a rhyme about bee keeping: "A swarm in May is worth a load of hay; A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; A swarm in July ain't worth a fly!" Unfortunately at this time I have no information on the actual film.

Unknown Film

An HBC contributor an recalls seeing the following on British television some time ago (probably in the late 70s/early 80s). It was a movie about a boys choir, in which the young singers were aged about 12 or possibly 13. They were standing in a row in front of their Choirmaster. What was particularly striking was that every second boy in the row was wearing black shorts and white kneesocks. Every other boy was wearing black long trousers, so the row of boys was made to resemble the keys of a piano. More precisely, the row of boys legs looked like piano keys--the legs of the boys in long pants were the black keys, while the bare legs of the boys in shorts were the white keys. The effect was really quite interesting, and it was obviously deliberately done. The boys shorts were in the very short style. The contributor wonders just how the boys were selected to wear long or short pants. They were all around the same age, so there was no question of only juniors being put into shorts. HBC notes that this may not have been an English film even though it was on English television. English boys did normally wear white kneesocks. It may have been French or German film. Sounds kike the choir had quite an interesting visual effect. I've never seen a choir do this before, although many choirs devote quite a bit of attention to the visual appearance of the boys like combing hair and neatly pressed costumes. Some have quite striking costumes, such as the Polish and Bulgarian choirs discussed in the expanded HBC site. What a shame no one remembers the movie or program or any specific details about the choir. I am a little skeptical about it being English. I know of no English choir where boys wore white kneesocks, or schools for that matter. The only time I have seen Engluish boys wearing white kneesocks is some of the Cubs who used to participate in Scout band competitions. Another British contributor to HBC also remembers seeing the television show, although she does not think it was a film. "From what I remember it certainly wasn't from a film. It was from a news magazine program that usually ended with a child soloist or children's group, band or choir performing. It is true that it is very rare for boys to wear white socks in Britain. Boys usually wear grey socks. White socks are usually for girls. Perhaps the white socks were just for performing. The program was definitely British. If is possible the choir could have been from elsewhere."

Figure 3.--This video clip of the choir and orchestra performing Handel's "Unto Us A Child Is Born" from MESSIAH-- introduced with a scripture reading by Jeremy Irons.

Television Appearances

English boy choirs have made many memorable television appearances. They are especially popular for Christmas programs.

Carols From Prague

Can you imagine the thrill of singing with Placido Domingo and Ileana Cotrubas-- and for the President of your host country--at Christmas--in a republic which has just chased out the Communists? That is what the boys and men of the Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford Choir experienced as they sang at St. Jacob's Church in Prague, then Czechoslovakia, on December 23, 1990. The Oxford group is featured in one selection by itself, under the direction of Stephen Darlington, and in others with just the orchestra. There is also singing outside the church by a mixed choir of young voices from the local area.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: December 15, 1999
Last updated: September 8, 2000