Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Staff Choir

Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Staff Choir (formerly known as “HEY! Let’s Sing”) is a corporate choir made up of more than fifty members of staff who work at Hull Royal Infirmary and Castle Hill Hospital. It was founded by Lucy Vere, Bonnie Gray and Helen Garnett in November 2014 and is part of the All For One Choirs family of fun, non-audition choirs.

We’ve been keeping a secret…

As of today, Saturday 21st May 2016, we are finally able to reveal that in February this year, the choir had a very exciting coach trip down to the Birmingham Hippodrome to audition in front of the four celebrity judges at Britain’s Got Talent, but they’ve had to keep it under wraps until now as the audition shows were still being aired. Unfortunately they didn’t make it through to the semi-finals, and their audition was not shown on the programme, however they are just happy to have auditioned and to have had the wonderful experience of singing in front of 1,800 people, a whole host of television cameras, four slightly intimidating judges… and let’s not forget the brilliant Ant and Dec!

The choir got confirmation of their audition with less than a week’s notice, so choir organisers Lucy Vere and Bonnie Gough had a mad rush trying to book a coach for 45 people, fit in last minute rehearsals, decide on what the choir should wear, get everyone to sign the audition release forms, and choose what to sing. Lucy also had the added challenge of stepping into the role of director for the audition, as in a bizarre twist, the choir’s usual director Helen Garnett of All for One Choirs was already taking part in the programme with her daughters (“The Garnett Family”) so she wasn’t able to be involved twice. Helen was so disappointed that she couldn’t take HEY Choir to the audition, as she has nurtured them from the very beginning and been such an inspiration to them all, but she was fully supportive of the choir going it alone and cheered them on all the way. It was a great bonding experience knowing that both the choir and the Garnetts were involved in Britain’s Got Talent – especially as they all had to keep it to themselves. It was like being part of a secret society!

‘When I found out that Helen couldn’t direct, my initial reaction was that I was flattered we had been scouted to take part… but maybe next time!’ says Lucy. Then after a bit of thought I decided to feel the fear and do it anyway — this was going to be a once in a lifetime experience for me and the choir whatever the outcome, so let’s go for it! With some intensive coaching from Helen and the absolute backing and support from the choir, I practiced hard and although on the day I was nervous, I knew I had to be strong for the choir, trust that I knew the material and go out there and just enjoy the experience of having my first real conducting gig in front of 1,800 people and Simon Cowell!’

The audition experience itself was very surreal and exciting for the choir. They arrived at the theatre and were immediately thrust in front of huge TV cameras as the crew filmed their arrival and signing in process. Choir members excitedly posed for selfies in front of the huge backlit Britain’s Got Talent boards and were welcomed by the television crew. They saw all sorts of acts arriving, from magicians to dance troupes, and had fun trying to guess what certain people’s acts would be, and how far they would all make it in the competition.

So were the choir members nervous about what was to come? We caught up with a few of them so they could share their memories of the day.

‘There was a massive amount of adrenaline flowing through me and it was just all a little bit surreal, to be honest,’ said Andrew Murphy-Pittock, who joined the choir last year and is a manager at the Hull York Medical School. ‘The process had been a whirlwind so I didn’t really have time to think about nerves. The fact that I was with a group of people I love and admire meant that we just kind of bounced off each other. As we walked into the foyer and got ready for the first “shots”, reality did start to hit a little then.’

Caroline Abernethy, a critical care research nurse who has been a member of the choir since the beginning, said ‘I wasn’t really nervous when we arrived at the theatre as I was so excited and did not know what to expect’ while Mhairi Rees, a smoking cessation specialist who works in our hospitals, added that ‘one of the highlights of the day was arriving outside the theatre and thinking we are actually here and it is real!’

After signing in, the choir were ushered between various rooms and very quickly found themselves on stage in front of the Britain’s Got Talent producers, who are the real decision-makers. This was for a sound check and to finalise their song choice for the show in front of a live audience and the judges.

The choir were then whisked into different backstage rooms, filled with lights and big stars, and a small group of them took part in a series of interviews with the producers. “It was so surreal having microphones attached to us and being placed in front of huge, state-of-the-art television cameras,” said Bonnie Gough, one of the choir organisers who works in the hospital communications team as a web developer. “It was like nothing any of us had ever experienced before. We auditioned wearing what we would usually wear for work, as we were keen to show that we represent a cross-section of the NHS. I think this added to how strange it all felt, as it looked like we’d just been plucked out of the workplace! We even had people in scrubs!”

Soon after all the interviews had finished, the crew appeared once again to take the choir’s “friends and family” representatives – Bonnie’s fiancée and Lucy’s mum – to their seats in the theatre, which is when the choir realised that it would soon be time for their audition. While backstage they said hello to Stephen Mulhern of Britain’s Got More Talent, who was in the dressing room just along from the choir, and from the top of the stairs they could hear the crowds in the theatre going wild with excitement. As the choir made their way down to up by the stage doors, with adrenaline the only thing holding back the nerves, presenters Ant and Dec walked past and looked shocked to see so many NHS workers lined up! It really hit home for the choir that it was real at that point, seeing the cheeky Geordie duo in the flesh.

After some more filming, it was finally time for the choir to make their way to the red curtained area by the stage, which is where Bonnie and Lucy were interviewed by Ant and Dec, who were as natural, funny and kind as they come across on TV. The choir then made their way across the stage to face the judges and the live theatre audience. ‘I didn’t feel nervous at all as I felt the audience supported us from the moment we stepped onto the stage,’ said Caroline Abernethy, while clinical imaging support worker Chrissy Charlton added that ‘standing in front of the judges was absolutely surreal. They were so close! I tried to take in every single second and it’s hard to believe now that it happened.’

As soon as the theatre audience realised the choir was made up of NHS workers, they erupted into applause. ‘The looks on the judges’ faces were brilliant as it dawned on them,’ Bonnie added. ‘Our amazing colleagues were filing out onto the stage behind us, and even though I know exactly what they all look like, even I turned around to watch them walk out. I am proud not just of what we’ve achieved as a choir, but of our organisation and the NHS as a whole. I loved that we could represent HEY on stage and I felt so proud to show them off!’

The judges welcomed the choir to the stage and then started asking Lucy and Bonnie questions about the choir, its members, and what they would do with the money if they won. It was a whirlwind of questions, but the judges were all very kind and friendly. One particularly moving moment was when Alesha Dixon asked what the choir’s most memorable performance was, and Bonnie explained that we had sung at the wedding of one of our critically ill patients with just eight hours’ notice. The audience stood up and applauded at this. ‘There was a real feeling of love for the NHS choir in the theatre,’ recalls Caroline Abernethy. Although it felt a little intimidating for Bonnie and Lucy at the time, Mhairi Rees kindly adds, ‘they both did us proud by answering all the judges’ questions with such flair!’

Simon asked Lucy how the choir come about. ‘I remember telling him how much I loved singing in a choir and that I wanted to bring these benefits to our hospital staff to create a place that relieves stress and is also fun,’ recalls Lucy. ‘I then explained how Bonnie and I decided to just go for it and ask for forgiveness rather than permission — Simon loved this and said that’s his sort of thinking too!’

The chosen song for the choir’s audition was ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ by Keane, covered by Lily Allen. It is an emotional song and one the choir have performed at several events, including the aforementioned wedding. As soon as the choir started singing, the audience broke into rounds of applause, but it was short-lived. After just twenty seconds, Simon Cowell raised his hand and there was an audible gasp from both the choir and the audience as the music stopped. ‘One terrifying memory for me was when we started to sing and Simon put his hand up to stop it. At that point my knee caps were literally knocking together through complete fear!’ says Caroline Harrison, senior midwife. While Bonnie’s fiancée Helen Gray, who was watching the choir from the friends and family seats, says: ‘I jumped out of my seat. I was absolutely terrified that he was going to be mean to you all!’

But it turned out there was just a problem with the audio. This was adjusted by the sound technicians while the choir waited onstage. Simon was very kind, telling us that he was looking after us, and everyone appreciated the chance to take a deep breath and soak up the atmosphere of the theatre.

‘My overall memory of the day is standing on the stage while they rearranged the sound, looking across and sharing a smile with Simon, and feeling the immense warmth from the audience,’ says Chrissy Charlton.

Andrew Murphy-Pittock agrees. ‘I had the chance to look around and absorb the whole situation, standing in front of four very famous faces but also nearly 2,000 people in the audience. My heart was beating fast but I knew we were good and didn’t think Simon would dare say anything bad about us (or at least I hoped not)! Once we started singing again and could see the judges smiling, David Walliams on his feet, Amanda engrossed and Simon deep in thought, I just concentrated on giving my best. I wanted them to love us. I know the audience can be harsh sometimes and I have never performed in front of that many people. When they erupted into cheers and applause after the first line of the song, I nearly broke down in tears but it spurred me on as I knew that the song just got better and better as we went through!’

The reaction from the audience and the judges was incredible. David Walliams gave the choir at least three standing ovations during the performance and the audience were also on their feet by the end. When Lucy and Bonnie returned to the front of the stage for “the verdict”, the comments from the judges were all extremely complimentary, especially from David Walliams who was really excited about the performance. Amanda Holden commented that she absolutely loves the NHS and hoped the performance would be good, so was so relieved when it was! Alesha Dixon said the choir sang beautifully, while Simon Cowell said it was a very good audition with some bits better than others, but that with more practice the choir could be great. (Obviously Simon Cowell can’t be 100% positive – it would spoil his image!) Then came the verdict – which was YES, YES, YES and YES! That little choir from Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust were through to the next round!

As the choir members made their way off the stage, Ant and Dec hi-fived each of them as they passed. Someone asked for a hug instead, so the hi-fives turned into hugs. The choir’s exit from the stage took a while! Bonnie and Lucy were interviewed again by Ant and Dec, and one of the highlights for Bonnie was that she had taken her 1995 PJ and Duncan tour tshirt with her to the audition, which the boys had been messing around with at the side of the stage while the choir sang. Ant grabbed a pen and they both signed it without even being asked!

There was a bit more filming after that before the choir were reunited with their extremely supportive friends and family representatives, Helen and Jan, who gave them a glowing review of their performance. Before long the choir were ready to pile back into the coach for the journey back home to Hull and East Yorkshire, having had an exhausting but truly memorable day. ‘WE GOT FOUR YESES!’

‘It was a great experience,’ says Andrew. ‘The sound we produce as a bunch of disparate, non-professional singers does actually bring me to tears sometimes. To see the audience and judge reactions validated that for me: to know that the toughest man in the music business gave us a “yes” gave us all an incredible boost. We don’t do what we do for praise, TV appearances or even a quarter of a million pounds! We do it because we love singing and we love making people smile.’

‘I loved that we could all spend the day together as a choir. Singing on the coach on the way down was great! We don’t often have time to really chat to one another so that was lovely,’ adds Chrissy Charlton ‘and Ann (Dr Tweddel, Consultant Cardiologist at Castle Hill Hospital) even remembered to bring her kettle. It was nice having a cuppa while we waited backstage!’

Caroline Harrison shares her personal experience of the day: ‘I loved everything about it, from getting on the bus to arriving home. The singing on the bus, the whole experience backstage, meeting and hugging Ant and Dec and the camaraderie of the whole choir. It was just something I never dreamt I would have the privilege to do with a fantastic group of people.’

‘I loved standing on Anlaby Road in Hull first thing in the morning, waiting for our coach and watching people walk past,’ says Mhairi Rees. ‘I was thinking, they have no idea where we’re going today! It was the most amazing experience and I am so thankful to have been a part of the day, even though we didn’t get featured in any of the programmes.’

Lucy sums it up: ‘Being part of Britain’s Got Talent was not something I ever expected to happen, but it was a brilliant experience and I felt so trusted and supported by the choir that directing them on the day ended up feeling like a joy rather than a pressure. I will also never forget seeing Ant and Dec messing about in the wings copying my conducting moves. It made me smile, relax and remember to take it all in. I am so proud of HEY! Let’s Sing in so many ways and they sounded beautiful on the day; they truly deserved the standing ovation we received at the end of the performance.’

The final audition and reveal show on Saturday 21st May was final confirmation that the choir wasn’t going to be shown on TV or make it through to the semi-finals, but they got four yeses, which is amazing and so much more than most people get. They were part of the final 200, which was then whittled down to the 40 semi-finalists who will go on to the live shows this week. As Mhairi explains, ‘the icing on the cake is that our amazing choir director Helen Garnett and her beautiful talented girls, The Garnett Family, were featured and are all having the most amazing time, which they all truly deserve.’ The choir will of course be cheering the Garnetts on as they progress in the competition wishing them all the luck in the world. It would have been quite a challenge for the choir to take part in the live shows, considering all of its members have full-time professions in a 24/7 service, so being able to live vicariously through the Garnetts is definitely the next best thing!

It seemed appropriate to give HEY Choir’s beloved director Helen Garnett the final word as the choir share their memories of the day.

Helen says: ‘As director of HEY Let’s Sing All for One Choir, I have had the pleasure of being with this amazing group of people from the choir’s birth along with co-founders Bonnie and Lucy. We are all on an amazing journey, as a family, united in a common purpose of sharing our passion for singing together and with others. I have had the pleasure of seeing the choir bond through the many diverse gigs we have experienced as well as the wonderful rehearsals we have shared together. I have seen confidence grow in their united and individual abilities, with many members becoming confident group singers and even soloists. I absolutely love being the director of HEY Choir and I’m proud to have them as part of our larger family of choirs in All For One. As a semi finalist in Britain’s Got Talent, I’m taking a little bit of time off due to requirements in London, and I am hugely missing my HEY Choir family, but confident and happy that my assistant director Wil Jones is doing an amazing job in keeping the home fires burning and flying the flag for us all. I look forward to seeing HEY Choir soon, and I’m very proud of them also receiving four fat YESes from the BGT judges. A huge achievement for them all marking the incredible progress they have made as a choir. Huge congratulations HEY. Keep shining bright like the stars you are!’