Michael's having a Ball with history

~ Wales Online - 04/12/2010 ~

Known for his resonant singing voice and larger than life personality, it’s no surprise that Michael Ball uncovered a colourful family line when he came to Wales to trace his roots. Kirstie McCrum finds out more about him Coming Home.

When it comes to storytellers, they don’t come much louder or prouder than Michael Ball.

The actor, singer and presenter has been on the stage since 1984 and, at 48, is the regular host of a popular Sunday morning programme on BBC Radio Two.

But for BBC One Wales’ Coming Home, he became an avid listener, as he met with experts who helped him understand his family’s ties to Wales.

Michael’s excitement at finding out about his family is palpable.

But as well as simple curiosity, his closeness to them means he’s got a real emotional investment in tracing his Welsh roots.

“I was very close to my grandmother, Agnes Parry.

“She was a typical matriarchal leader of the family and the community.

“People looked up to her and would always go to her for advice and help,” he says.

In fact, Michael still wears Agnes’ wedding ring on a chain round his neck.

“When she passed away, my gran had always said she would give it to me,” he says.

“It was very sad, she died five days before coming to see me in my first big starring role.”

Michael’s voyage of discovery takes him to see genealogist Michael Churchill Jones and already there’s a sniff of scandal in the air.

The story begins with the Ball family, the English line, which shows a history of first cousins marrying.

Michael, who has starred in many West End musicals such as Hairspray and Les Miserables, is characteristically amused by the revelation.

“We’re all inbred. Thank God the Welsh came along!” he laughs.

But Michael finds light in the form of Henry Pritchard, his great-great-great grandfather, a chapel minister born in 1818.

“It looked like Henry Pritchard kind of stood out, he was the only one who wasn’t either an agricultural worker or a coal miner.

“He had taken himself out of that cycle of doing the same as father and son. So good on him,” Michael says.

It’s only on closer inspection that Michael uncovers the truth about Henry Pritchard.

He moved to Maesteg and became the minister at Siloh Welsh Independent Chapel in 1849, but in 1854 he left the area without his wife and family and was never seen again.

“These are the intrigues, aren’t they, about a history. You can’t ever make assumptions about a family tree.

“You get little nuggets of information and all you want to do is know what happened and often the information doesn’t exist so your imagination takes over,” he says.

Of the English side of his family, a couple came to Wales 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 the move was not to be a fresh start, as Jane soon died in childbirth and William returned to England alone.

On the Welsh side, the trail continues with Michael’s great-grandfather, Arthur Parry – Agnes’ father.

The research appears to show that shortly after Albert’s birth in the 1870s, his parents abandoned him and his siblings, leaving him to travel to the prosperous mining town of Mountain Ash in the Welsh Valleys.

“My great-grandfather moved to the area at the age of 13,” Michael says.

“We don’t know what happened to his parents, but his sister died, so he was on his own and he turned up in Mountain Ash.”

Michael is proud to say that he still has family links in Mountain Ash, where his Uncle Tom and Aunt Denise still live.

“It’s where my family comes from, Mountain Ash is an indelible part of my life, of my history, of my family’s history.

“I am still very close with my family there.

“I think it kind of gave you a bit of grounding, to know that that’s where things started,” he says.

As a proud member of the Mountain Ash Male Voice Choir, Michael finds himself welcomed back to rehearsals for a rousing rendition of Calon Lân.

“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,” he says.

At the end of his journey, Michael is delighted to have fitted back in with the Welsh locals, who his Welsh grand lived alongside. “It’s made me 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 this place. It’s an unbreakable bond.”

Coming Home – Michael Ball is on BBC One Wales on Wednesday at 7.30pm



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