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Plunkett on TV: Anyone Can Sing, a singing challenge like no other

Sky Arts’ new opera series Anyone Can Sing sets itself a challenge as stiff as any of the three riddles of Turandot - taking six self-confessed terrible singers and making them good enough to perform at the London Coliseum, the home of the English National Opera (ENO).

Sky describes it as a ‘reverse X Factor’, where it really isn’t about the winning (there is no winner) but the journey, a genuinely inspirational, moving - and occasionally very funny - watch. And not unlike the aspiring singers, no previous knowledge of opera is required to enjoy it.


‘It’s about singing but it’s also about a lot more than that,’ says commissioning editor for Sky, Benedetta Pinelli.

‘The six singers have all been on very distinctive journeys that have a lot to do with singing but actually have a lot to do with posture, mental health, self assurance, and doing something that perhaps you never thought you could do.

‘We weren’t interested in who’s the best - this isn’t about that - this is about using the beautiful medium of opera so that everyone feels happier, joyful and more confident in themselves.’

A close collaboration between Sky and ENO, the series was born out of Sky Arts director Phil Edgar-Jones’ interest in the opera company’s Breathe programme, which uses singing as a way to help people who had coronavirus and are still suffering from breathlessness and anxiety.

Around 700 people applied to be on the show following a nationwide hunt for people ‘who can’t sing for toffee’. Production company Factory Films drew up a long list which was further whittled down by ENO until the final six who make up the bulk of the four-part series.

They include a marketing agency owner who developed adult-onset Tourette’s, a Transport for London consultation manager and the Dean of King’s College, London who became one of the UK’s first women priests nearly 30 years ago.

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The series took six months to make, with filming beginning in August last year and ending with the big finale last November with the six fledging singers making their stage debut in front of a packed auditorium on the set of ENO’s production of HMS Pinafore.

‘What’s really sweet is that they have all become really firm friends, it’s very special,’ says Lisa Fairbank, series director and managing director of Factory Films.

‘No-one was going to get kicked out or eliminated [but] there were moments when I thought, my god they might drop out because it’s incredibly hard.

‘They all had full-time jobs and were doing two singing lessons every week. They were expected to practise in between and then we were going in filming with them. It’s incredibly time consuming what they had to do, and then of course there was Covid.’

As well as that final performance at the Coliseum, viewers will also see them sing to a crowd of 60,000 people at an NFL match at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium in north London, helped with some expert advice from Welsh superstar mezzo-soprano, Katherine Jenkins.

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Acclaimed tenor Nicky Spence, one of the programme’s three vocal coaches, admitted at the programme launch this week to the occasional doubt during the students’ three months of training.

‘I think it’s fair to say that we probably had a collective moment of thinking, do we have the skills appropriate to help these glorious folk?’ he says.

‘We all felt this duty of care to these wonderful brave artists … and it was such a glorious journey to see them all unfurl like butterflies and a real privilege to see them give it such an incredible go.

‘I think for anybody who watches this programme, they will see that even if it’s not singing, prioritising even one hour a week to take a breath and bring something new to your life, thinking about what you can achieve if you only give yourself that breathing time, is fantastic.’

Sky and ENO already have close links of course, both on-screen and off. Sky Arts director Edgar-Jones is on the ENO board, and the opera company’s chief executive Stuart Murphy is a former senior executive at Sky.

Murphy describes the show as ‘a whole load of happiness when the world could really do with it’.

‘Our artistic director Annilese Miskimmon said anyone can sing, we can teach anyone, it’s just technique and so much of it is psychological. So [Phil Edgar-Jones] said I can’t sing, could you teach me and she was like absolutely and he went great, we’ll do a series.’

‘The genius of Sky Arts with Portrait Artist of the Year, Landscape Artist of the Year and a show like this is broadening out previously supposedly inaccessible art forms,’ adds Murphy. ‘It’s really compelling.’

Anyone Can Sing is on at 8pm on Wednesdays on Sky Arts and on NOW.

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