Military Wives Choir: The Improbable Story Behind The U.K.'s Top-Selling Christmas Single
Military Wives Choir: The Improbable Story Behind The U.K.'s Top-Selling Christmas Single

It's been a while since there was any sense of anticipation surrounding the U.K. Christmas number one, nabbed, as it has been by Simon Cowell's enterprises. But for only the second time in seven years, a non-Cowell act has topped the U.K singles charts at Christmas.

And while X Factor wins often benefit from a tale of woe, ersatz or otherwise, the latest number one is about as genuinely poignant as it gets.

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The Military Wives Choir was formed by TV choirmaster Gareth Malone for a BBC2 documentary earlier this year. The choir, made up of spouses of the U.K's military, captured the hearts of the nation with its performance of a specially commissioned piece, "Wherever You Are" at the Festival Of Remembrance at London's Albert Hall in November (and broadcast on BBC1).

As luck would have it, Decca's president Dickon Stainer was in the audience and persuaded them to record the single, "for posterity as much as anything else," then their story took off thanks in part to Radio 2 DJ Chris Evans and the single was released on Universal/Decca. Pre-release it became the most ordered track in Amazon's history and in its first week sold 556,000 copies, outselling the rest of the top 10 combined and the X Factor single by a six-to-one margin.

With 40 pence (about 63 cents) in every physical and 50p (78 cents) in every digital release going to the Royal British Legion and Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA) charities, it's got the feel-good factor pretty much sewn-up. Moreover, the words to the song were written by composer Paul Mealor who used the wives' real-life letters to and from their partners during their six-month tours of Afghanistan.

As well as being a blow for Cowell, the track is a major coup for its Mealor, whose career looks set to go stratospheric, or as stratospheric as a modern classical composer's career can go. Mealor's work, "Ubi Caritas," was performed at the Royal Wedding in April but this new exposure has seen his album, "A Tender Light" (Decca Classics) top the classical charts for the last five weeks. Says Stainer, "It's amazing to have a living classical composer as number one in the classical charts alone but this will see a move to upscale his album to supermarkets."

For Mealor's part, being performed at Westminster Abbey and being the "gimmick" single of the year, aren't mutually exclusive. "Music has to be useful and shouldn't exist in an ivory tower," he says, "Mozart's music was sung in the street. We have lost that. It's important that composers are engaged with pop culture. There is this snobbish view that because I have had a Christmas number one, I can't write a symphony."

And he'd better get used to his new status. "The other day I was in a taxi and the driver was humming along," he laughs, "which was strange." And there has been interest in further recordings of the single, though he won't be drawn out by whom, saying only, tantalizingly, "some pretty big names…"

Both Mealor and Stainer agree that the track's appeal lies in its simplicity and honesty. Says Mealor, "It was never intended as a Christmas tune. It was not a manufactured thing at all."

But we were ready for it, Says Stainer, "The nation was ready for a feel-good story."

Despite U.K. newspaper reports to the contrary, we won't be seeing a Military Wives album any time soon. Says Stainer, "We'll go away for Christmas and think about it. We might have a conversation in the New Year about it but they are working wives with responsibilities. We'll see…"