With 550-odd years between them and an age range from 68 to 89, a group of Chelsea Pensioners are taking on the likes of Take That and Pixie Lott in the charts.
When they released their debut album ‘Men in Scarlet’ in November 2010 it smashed into the Top 20 of the pop charts with just a dozen places separating them from the multi-millionaire pop stars, and topped the easy listening chart, going gold.
The band comprises Michael Allen, 68, Tom Fox, 80, John Shuter, 89, Malcolm Smart, 70, Denis Shiels, 83, Paddy Fox, 77, and David Poultney, 81.
They were brought together through their love of singing at their home, the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, where most pensioners sleep in a tiny berth, and to where all royalties from the album will go.
By 2017, the hospital must raise £30m for refurbishments. The group won’t get a penny:
The only benefit we’ve had is the front line glory,” said Michael, “and the people we’ve met.
The album, recorded at studios around the UK, including Pinewood, is stuffed with classics like ‘Danny Boy’, ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ and ‘White Christmas’.
One highlight is Denis’s stirring solo on ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’, which drew thousands of hits on YouTube.
As walking, talking tourist attractions, the Chelsea Pensioners are accustomed to strangers pointing at their distinctive, iconic outfits. But it seems that their newfound fame has rocketed off the scale.
Like any A-lister, the Chelsea Pensioners have even had media training to deal with tricky questions on issues like Afghanistan or the Royal Hospital’s three lady Pensioners, Winifred, Dorothy and Marjorie:
Obviously we’re all men-of-the-world but we learnt how to cope with it,” said Mal. “If we say ‘no comment’ it means we’re thick or hiding something so we have to be careful to answer in the right constructive way.
Their TV appearances include ‘BBC Breakfast’, ‘Songs of Praise’, ‘QVC’, ‘This Morning’, ‘Titchmarsh’, the Royal Variety Show and ‘Weekend Wogan’. And Michael popped up as a guest on Chris Evans’ Radio 2 show.
They have notched up so many appearances, they blur into each other:
It is a lot of fuss,” said Michael. “At the Royal Variety Show, we spent nine hours at the London Palladium waiting to go on. Apart from a rehearsal in the middle, the rest of the time we were sat on our arses just for a three-minute slot.
It was worth it though,” said David.
When the curtain raised, they stepped out on the Palladium stage and were instantly buoyed by the warmth from the crowd:
We almost feel that when we’re wearing the scarlet we’re halfway home,” said John, a gentle debonair chap.”The audience made it very easy for us. There was an extraordinary atmosphere.
When Paddy looked up at the Royal Box, he was chuffed to spot Prince Charles singing along.
Their appearance was a triumph and the Pensioners were blown away when the audience gave them a standing ovation. Cheryl Cole, Take That, Russell Watson and Kylie all starred on the bill.
By all accounts, the stars were lovely. Andrew Lloyd Webber told Mal:
I’ll tell you how good you are and you are good. You would beat half of them on ‘X Factor’ so keep it up.
Now he didn’t have to say that,” said a touched Mal.
When a Welsh cast member of Les Miserables met David, within minutes they were singing together in their native language:
We said hello to Cheryl [Cole] but we didn’t have our footballer shirts on,” chuckles Tom.
As they left the stage, they teased Robbie Williams:
All right Robbie, we’ve just warmed them up for you,” and the frontman laughed.
Their album features Dame Vera Lynn and Katherine Jenkins. When Mal and Michael were interviewed on Sky television alongside Jenkins, who was promoting her single, the Chelsea Pensioners gamely plugged their album and stole the spot, egged on by the Welsh songstress:
Katherine Jenkins was the real reason I became a Chelsea Pensioner,” discloses John.
Six years ago he was on a four-day visit to the Royal Hospital and when he dropped in on the hospital social club he spotted a beautiful blonde singer accompanied by a pianist:
Nobody took much notice and I felt a bit cross but realised she was rehearsing before the real show. I thought, ‘if this is what a normal evening is like, then I’ll buy it!’” said John happily.
There is also a more poignant reason for their camaraderie. The majority of Chelsea Pensioners are widowers, many having nursed a dying wife over years:
We look after each other in a remarkably rough and ready way,” said John. “But it is a very effective way.
You can’t become depressed or ill without somebody knowing,” added Mal. “It is very comforting, and bearing in mind most of us have been regular soldiers, it’s about coming back to your own.
But don’t folk outdo each other with war stories?
Oh yeah, but you can’t tell lies in here about your military record,” said Mal.
Or as Michael puts it:
If you say you were the last man on the beach at Dunkirk and there are four blokes who were there, they will say, ‘you weren’t there!’ so you don’t tell fibs.
It is more than 42 years since Paddy, then a young non-commissioned officer, visited the Royal Hospital and met a Pensioner aged 97 who joined the 15th Hussars in 1892:
He drank with men who fought in the Charge of the Light Brigade, and I drank with him,” he marvels.
Undeniably, the Chelsea Pensioners have clocked up a couple of hundred years’ service collectively but none can hold a candle to Paddy who clocked up 38 years:
They call me ‘Khaki Brain’, I talk nothing else but Army,” he beamed.
Perhaps inevitably, while most of their fellow Pensioners are hugely supportive, there are a few sour grapes. Mal said:
One guy, who has probably had the most uneventful life in the world, told me, ‘you buggers can’t sing’, just after we got our gold record.
Well, I know 100,000 people who don’t agree,” shot back Mal, and his critic piped down.
Although a second album is on the cards, the consensus is that the boys are in need of a rest:
We’ve had an extremely strenuous eight months,” said Michael. “But when we’re together, we’re relaxed, laughing, joking, taking the mick, we are young men.
I’d love to perform at Prince William’s wedding,” said Mal, confiding that his record company have put a word in.
Do they ever yearn for peace?
If you want a bit of peace, you can go and shut your door,” said Michael, a divorcee.
When he left the Army at 40, the soldier’s son admits that Civvy Street was a ‘strange place and I didn’t speak the language’.
Aged 65, he moved into the Royal Hospital and is now a recording artist and pleased as punch that their hit album will help make life better for everyone at the hospital:
We’ve got great pride singing together but also in that we’re doing something for this fine and noble establishment,” said Mal, as chat turns back to the Variety Show.
When we got back, the lights were out and there was nobody to tell,” said Tom. “Our feet came straight back on the ground again.
In Mal’s wing, his fellow Pensioners waited up to hear his tales:
All our hard work has been a trial,” said Mal. “But when we came off stage I said, ‘Gentlemen, we are seven old soldiers but we have emotionally pulled 2,500 people by the nose. It was wonderful’.
They don’t mind a jot of the press coverage that has nicknamed them Britain’s oldest boy band:
If it sells records, they can call us what they like,” said Tom.
New Year is a time that is apt to bring out the sloth in most of us. As inspiration, with their indomitable zest and joie de vivre, you’d be hard pushed to find better role models than the Chelsea Pensioners.