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Sing out!

One of the highest rated programmes on German television is called Wetten, dass ..? [“You wanna bet..?” – imported onto ITV as You Bet!] Its actual content is restricted to five assorted attempts to achieve something or other. A man from Stuttgart maintains he can cycle 50 metres under water. Two electricians from Augsburg claim they can identify twenty five brands of toaster from the noise of the bread popping up. A tree surgeon from Hamburg bets he can catch five flies in his mouth simultaneously. A senior citizen from Remstal says he can get people to enjoy singing old songs.

Why would anyone wish to do such things? In the first three cases, it’s generally so they can appear on Wetten, dass ..? I’ll return to the fourth later. It’s possible that these ingredients might provide 45 minutes of vague interest. However, chuck in a few singers, various professional celebs, the presenter’s neighbours and the odd visit from ex-President Carter, and that’s Saturday evening’s programming sorted out. And this is one of the more interesting formats. German telly habitually stretches such material to fill at least two hours. This helps explain why the supermarkets do such a good trade in beer. Four bottles improve the viewing, whilst eight render it irrelevant.

Occasionally, somebody interesting may appear in one of these would be extravaganzas. I’ve already mentioned ex-Pres Carter. Otherwise, it could have been Peter Ustinov. Lesser mortals are professional celebs, but he was the only professional Peter Ustinov, and fulfilled this entertaining function effectively in a variety of languages. Another possible sighting on German TV is someone you may well never have heard of. I’m referring to Gotthilf Fischer, whose name would translate as God-help Fisher. (Out of mischief, I tend to plant an uns – “us” – in the middle.) He’s the senior citizen from Remstal I mentioned. I’m not sure whether he’s ever appeared on Wetten, dass ..?, but it’s certainly possible.

Rather like Dolly Parton, Herr Fischer is beyond parody. Try to exaggerate any part of these two characters and you’ll find they’ve already beaten you to it, though whether with purely natural material is not something I’d claim to know. Unsurprisingly, Gotthilf (uns) doesn’t look much like Ms Parton. I think of him more as an amalgam of several Doctor Whos; Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker and Sylvester McCoy, with the hair supplied by Jon Pertwee on a windy day. He’s a choirmaster and conductor known as the leader of the singing legions. Gotthilf Fischer seems to be a thoroughly likeable man, and he has a mission.

He was born in 1928 and formed his first choir in 1942. His chosen medium is traditional German folk song, which was a rather popular genre with the authorities at that time. However, when advantageous, the Nazis sought to alter the words, so as to bring them more into accord with the absurdities of their ideology. If traditional songs couldn’t at least be made tame, they could be banned. This fate apparently befell “Die Gedanken Sind Frei” (“Thoughts Are Free”). I don’t know what this teenager then thought of Hitler & Co. His views on the traditional songs are clear. He loves them. “Songs are abused by every party. Every epoch, every state takes widely known melodies and fits new lyrics to them, in order to mislead people. I sing the old songs as they were written, including those which were abused by the Third Reich. These songs arose before those times. So they ought to be sung. I’m merciless on this, I sing those songs and don’t worry about the consequences!”

In the years since, he’s been loving those songs and pursuing his mission. All over Germany there are now Fischer Choirs. These are made up of ordinary people. Every year, our local one has a pre-Christmas appointment on the lawn in front of the newsagent shop. The performance is accompanied by mulled wine and grilled sausages. This is Bavaria. They also sing in hospitals, old people’s homes and probably anywhere else they’re wanted. And they are wanted. Fischer and friends have sold over 16 million records. However, whilst album sales are doubtless welcome, I strongly suspect they’re incidental.

Hr Fischer has nothing against the new. In 2001, this then 73-year-old was part of the techno scene’s Love Parade, which annually transforms the centre of Berlin into a slowly meandering, pulsating rave, with hundreds of thousands of people on the streets. As very pleasant looking, less than dressed young ladies let it all hang out, there was smiling Gotthilf, waving and being waved at, at ease on the back of a lorry.

Most choirmasters would be proud enough of all this, but Fischer’s a man with a mission. He will happily set himself up in parks, market squares and shopping centres. And people smile and join in; dozens, hundreds and sometimes even thousands of them, singing along with tunes we know as “Roll Out The Barrel”, or “I Love To Go A-Wandering”. Possibly the largest ad hoc choir he’s conducted was the crowd at the Final of the World Cup in 1974. Other outdoor gigs have included the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, the Giants’ Stadium in New York and the Pyramids in Egypt. He doesn’t want to teach the world to sing. He wants to hear it. “When someone comes into the world, they don’t even know that they’re a person, but they can already sing.”

(The quotations have been freely translated from Subway Magazin -Gotthilf Fischer:

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