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By Willie Robertson
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2012 Willie Robertson
All rights reserved.
I Dreamed A Dream
Had Michael Ashley Ball been born 22 miles to the east, he would have arrived most fittingly into this world at Stratford-upon- Avon, perhaps the most famous of theatre towns. Instead, the second son of teacher Ruth and car industry executive Tony entered stage left, rather unspectacularly in England's West Midlands at Bromsgrove in Worcestershire.
Michael's mother Ruth Parry Davies was born at Mountain Ash, a small town in Rhondda Cynon Taf. His father, Anthony George Ball, was a product in November 1934 of the market town of Bridgwater in Somerset, where he was brought up by parents, Harry and Mary Irene, and where he attended the local grammar school.
Tony, at the age of 17, despite having aspirations to be an actor, was persuaded by Harry, who was in the motor industry, to take an apprenticeship in engineering – and in 1951 he was indentured with the Austin Motor Company's plant at Longbridge in Warwickshire.
The couple married in 1957, living within driving distance of Tony's work. When their first son Kevin arrived two years later, Tony was already a business success being the man responsible for the launch in that year of the iconic small car, the Mini, which was voted the second most influential car of the 20th-century with more than 1.5 million rolling off the production line.
By the time Michael came along on 27 June 1962, Tony had become Austin's UK car sales manager. That meteoric rise from apprentice on the shop floor to company executive within eight years would be mirrored, and even bettered, by Michael's rapid transition from drama school student to London West End star.
As far as his heritage goes, Michael had a dilemma. Was he Welsh or English? 'I'm Wenglish,' he insisted during a Question and Answer session with his own fan club. 'My mum is Welsh. I don't know what the laws are but in the Jewish religion you take on whatever nationality or religion that the mother is. I've always had a huge affinity for Wales. Technically I'm not, I'm English, and I am very proud to be British.
'I don't think I am going to differentiate between the two unless it comes to rugby and war. If we go to war or we fight an international on the rugby pitches, I'm a Welshman. But I support the English football team. I'm a very healthy mixture of the two. There's something a bit more exciting about being a Celt. It's lovely having a history like that, and there's something very moving about being part of a tribe. I'm British but I have Welsh ancestry and I'm very proud of it, so I'm a Wenglishman.'
Michael was delighted in 2010 when BBC One Wales helped him trace his roots. When it was revealed the Ball family – the English line – had a history of first cousins marrying, he joked: 'We're all inbred. Thank God the Welsh came along.'
Yet it transpired that even his father's side had a Welsh connection. In 1850, Michael's great-great-great grandfather William Ball and wife Jane moved to Cardiff from Glastonbury having lost two sons, Henry and George. But this venture did not have a 'happy ever after' ending because Jane died in childbirth shortly afterwards and William returned to England alone.
Michael's maternal great-grandfather, Arthur Parry, was abandoned by his parents shortly after his birth in the 1870s, leaving him at the age of 13 to travel from his home in Maesteg to the then prosperous mining town of Mountain Ash in the Welsh Valleys.
It was there that Arthur married and had a daughter, Agnes Parry, Michael's grandmother and a lady for whom he still holds a particular affection. He spent many a happy time during his school holidays playing in and around the Cadwallader Street home in Mountain Ash where his mother Ruth was raised – her father was a coal miner – and where his uncle Tom and aunt Denise still live.
'My gran was a typical matriarchal leader of the family and the community,' he said on the show. 'People looked up to her and would always go to her for advice and help. Everyone called her Lil. An extraordinary woman, fiercely proud and protective and she loved us grand-kids to distraction. She made us feel that we could do anything, she was as proud as anything when I went into the music business.'
One of Michael's most prized possessions to this day is Agnes' gold wedding ring, which he wore on his little finger until eventually putting it on a chain round his neck. 'Gran promised it to me when I was about seven, and my mother gave it to me at her funeral,' he said. 'Gran meant the world to me. I spent a lot of time with her. When I was at boarding school, where the food was terrible, she would send me boxes of Welsh cakes.'
Michael was heartbroken when Agnes died in 1984 just five days before she was due to watch him perform in The Pirates Of Penzance at the Manchester Opera House. 'It was just devastating,' he told the film crew. 'She hadn't been ill or anything – but the reviews had come out for Pirates and she had been to almost everyone's house in the town showing them. She just dropped down dead, far too young, of a heart attack.'
Tracing his family background, with the help of that television programme, helped him 'realise why I still wear the ring and why she is still such an integral part of my life. The ring is an unbreakable bond, it's a symbol of that and that's what I have with her and that's what I have with Wales, an unbreakable bond.'
He was distraught when he thought one day that he had lost the ring while on a beach during a holiday in Portugal. 'It was covered in suntan oil, I decided to take it off and put it down on the towel next to me,' he said. 'Later, I stood up to go, picked up the towel and then remembered the ring. I really freaked out. My friends and I did this search around and, after four hours, we finally found it. I feel as if it's my lucky charm, and I still feel my grandmother is watching over me.'
His memories of Agnes are many, not least of visiting Castell Coch, a 19th-century Gothic revival castle that was built on what remained of a 13th-century fortification. The imposing building is situated on a hillside high above the tiny village of Tongwynlais, which has a population of only 2,000, to the north of Cardiff in the River Taff Valley. Michael said: 'My gran would say, "That's where Father Christmas lives." There's an industrial site opposite with pungent smells and they said the wicked wizard lives there. I believed it.'
He also recalls how Agnes told him that 'the greatest singer in her opinion was Mahalia Jackson', the African-American gospel singer whose extraordinary career lasted from the 1930s through to her death at the age of 60 in 1972. He told BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs: 'I remember being finally convinced that she was the greatest female vocalist who had ever lived when I was watching a film called Imitation Of Life (1959) with Lana Turner, a melodramatic movie. The final scene is extraordinary where they are having a huge funeral and there is Mahalia Jackson singing this song "Trouble Of The World". To watch the woman singing and the belief and sincerity is hard to beat.'
Michael's personal history is 'an indelible part' of his life and he is delighted he knows 'where things started'. Those things, most importantly, included his great appreciation for music and singing. To this day, as a proud member of the Mountain Ash Male Voice Choir, Michael finds himself welcomed back to rehearsals for a rendition of 'Calon Lân', the rousing Welsh hymn.
He boasts how he used to sing with the choir alongside his uncle Tom, whom he describes as 'a beautiful lyric tenor', and with his mum – 'a good pianist but not really a great singer whatever she may believe' – on keyboard.
Michael said: 'Music generally is a big part of my family life, just as it is a part of Welsh tradition. I love the idea that if you get three Welshmen together, you've got a male voice choir. I understand the power of music. I understand the therapeutic nature of music, the sense of community that music engenders, so I totally understand why it still goes on; choirs come together as a focal point for a community.'
Though Michael was born at Bromsgrove in the West Midlands – and the family lived 12 miles to the south in the tiny parish of Tibberton, which in 2011 had a population of less than 500 – his first real memories are of Dartmoor in Devon, to where the family moved when he was three years old.
He describes his time, until he was eight years old, in the tiny village of Crapstone as 'idyllic'. The rather unfortunately named but wonderfully rural Crapstone, a mile from Yelverton and nine miles from Plymouth, is probably only really known for hosting a Ministry of Defence site until the 1980s, a hangover from the Second World War when the area was strategic because of its close proximity to RAF Harrowbeer. The word 'crap' is a West Country version of 'crop' so the area, which was first populated in 1546, means literally 'crop of stones', a reflection of the clusters of huge boulders that appear in abundance across this particular landscape.
The young Michael, all chubby faced and curly locks, thrived in Devon, with such places to enjoy as Yelverton Rock. He said: 'It was a great playground for a kid. I really love the West Country, it's gorgeous with a great way of life and with friendly people.'
The scenic beauty of the region and its changing hues through the various season captured the imagination of Michael. He described one of his best childhood memories as 'waking up to a white Christmas in 1969'. He explained to Best magazine: 'All the ponies had got into our garden and we had to chase them out before we could open presents. Mum was worried about the plants being trampled, but that didn't matter nearly as much as the fact that the garden was absolutely covered in snow.'
Such memories have made Christmas such a special time for Michael. In an interview with Hello! magazine, Michael revealed: 'We always had amazing Christmases. Mum did everything – the cooking, tidying up, washing up. And she wouldn't have it any other way. We had a family tradition where we could open one present after church on Christmas Eve, and then no one could open the rest until we were all around the tree in the morning.'
The majority of young children seem to love dressing up and singing. and Michael was no exception. Whether, at three years old, he was inspired by his mother's piano playing or even having the remotest idea that his father had harboured a desire in his early years to be an actor, Michael seemed to just love singing and being the centre of attention.
His mother Ruth said: 'From a tiny tot, he was always putting on a character and entertaining us. I mean he has never had any inhibition. He has never been shy – a touch of precociousness when he was tiny but I always knew he was going to go on stage.'
Michael told Woman's Weekly magazine in 2004: 'At three-and-a-half, I was in a local panto where I upstaged everybody horribly. In the middle of a rendition of "My Favourite Things", from The Sound Of Music, I walked to the front of the stage and started to play a pretend saxophone.'
He has also recounted this story involving the song 'Do-Re-Mi' and 'miming with a trumpet', but that matters not, the youngster simply relished performing, with his parents encouraging all three of their children – sister Katherine was born in 1970 – to take up amateur dramatics.
Michael claims his first ever performance was 'playing an urchin in an amateur panto version of Aladdin, aged three. I thought, "I love this."'
He also 'absolutely loved' his first school, Plymouth College Prep, where he attended from the age of five in 1967. The school – at St Dunstan's Abbey, The Millfields, in Plymouth – has always prided itself on its 'small class sizes and the excellent teaching from enthusiastic staff', an aspect that was certainly appreciated by young Master Ball. Another famous Michael, a certain chap named Michael Foot, who went on to become leader of the Labour Party from 1980 to 1983, had also attended the same prep school.
Cherished childhood memories seem all the more powerful when you can recall the minor details, and Michael can certainly do that. He told the Daily Mail in 2011: 'The teachers were Miss Neeno, who was scary, and Miss Lillicrap, who was kind. Miss Neeno and I had a falling out over music. She was trying to explain why you had to have five lines to write the notes on. I wasn't having that. "Why can't you just put the dots anywhere?" I asked. I was inquisitive but, yes, I was cheeky, too.'
But he wasn't cheeky and brave all the time. In 1970, this mite of an eight-year-old was frightened nearly to death of the popular BBC series Doctor Who, especially when Patrick Troughton, who had played the Time Lord from 1966, morphed into Jon Pertwee. 'You know that thing that kids used to watch it from behind the sofa,' said Michael. 'I was so scared of the music I had to watch it from outside, through the window, at the back of the sofa. I was honestly petrified.'
Yet music, even when it scared him, had a huge influence on the young Michael. He remembered: 'There were three musicals that were my staples as a kid – Mary Poppins, The Sound Of Music and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.'
And it was his love of the latter that led him more than three decades later to snap up the lead role as Caractacus Potts in the stage play in London's West End, with him explaining: 'The chance to lead the cast in my favourite childhood fantasy film was too good to turn down.'
The young Michael was subconsciously coupling his love of music, nurtured from that Welsh background, and a love of theatre, which was enriched by trips with his father to Stratford-upon- Avon, to lay the foundations from which he could build his successful musical career. There were influences all around him and the young lad was carefully noting each down mentally and storing them away to build the bedrock of his ambitions.
He revealed to the London Evening Standard: 'When I think what the Sherman Brothers did – Mary Poppins, The Aristocats, The Jungle Book – I can honestly say those songwriters wrote my childhood.'
And equally the theatre and the movies he watched played their parts. When asked for his favourite lines from a song, he once quoted: 'There's got to be a morning after, if we can hold on through the night'. And he explained: 'It comes from "The Morning After". It was the theme to The Poseidon Adventure, sung by Maureen McGovern. I first heard it when I was nine years old and I thought it was the greatest song ever.'
The influences just kept coming for Michael, whose only regret from his early years seems to be 'not learning to play the piano as a child – I can't read music'. But then he was probably too busy at a young age collecting and reading his beloved comics, another interest he would take through to adulthood. He said when in his 40s: 'I loved them as a kid, and it has stayed with me. Comics and graphic novels, mainly the DC and Marvel ones. Batman, The Justice League of America. That makes me a bit of a nerd, doesn't it?'
In 1970, Tony's work saw the family move from their quiet Dartmoor haven to a busier life at Farnham in Surrey. Michael, a lad from the country, was then sent to the private Barfield School, on the Guildford Road in Runfold. He said: 'I didn't like this one because I didn't know any of the other boys and it was very sporty, which I'm not.'
He was just about getting used to his new Surrey surroundings when, after just seven or eight months, the Balls were up and on their travels once again. Tony's rise up the executive ladder within the car industry had elevated him to the position of UK car sales manager with Austin Motor Company, from 1962–66, and sales and marketing executive with the British Motor Corporation from 1966–67 before he was appointed to head up the British arm of the South African-owned Barlow Rand Group. Such was his success that he was appointed managing director of the huge dealership Barlow Rand Ford. The only problem was that the role was based in South Africa.
So Michael, eight years old going on nine, woke up in the mornings not staring at the rural beauty of Devon or the leafy streets of Surrey but instead at SA.
Yet the fact that the location was now Cape Town mattered not to the development of Michael's interests. He told Women's Weekly in 2004: 'South Africa was stunning but the country was in the grip of apartheid. There was no television, it was banned. Cinema films were censored, so we spent three years listening to the World Service and singing around the piano. We had to provide our own entertainment. Mum played and we all sang along. It was a rented house and I discovered a record collection of songs from the shows – cast recordings of 1950s musicals, Sinatra's Capitol Years, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald – and we would sing along to them every evening. That's where I got the bug. I immediately identified with the notion of telling a story and building a character through song.'
Excerpted from Michael Ball by Willie Robertson. Copyright © 2012 Willie Robertson. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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