I've always been quite quick with a ready answer, which got me into no end of trouble - I can't count the number of times I was caned

~ Daily Mail / Mail Online - by Richard Barber ~ 25/02/11 ~

Michael Ball, 48, is a West End star who's appeared in musicals such as Les Misèrables, Aspects Of Love and Hairspray. He's also a best-selling recording artist and now a successful TV chat show host. He lives in south-west London with his partner, Sixties style icon Cathy McGowan.

This is me looking a bit stroppy at the age of about 14 at Plymouth College in Devon. I'd come back here to boarding school to join my brother while my parents were working in South Africa, but Devon was where I'd initially grown up. We lived on the edge of Dartmoor until I was about eight, and at the age of five I was sent to Plymouth College Preparatory School, which I absolutely loved.

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.

Then we moved to Farnham in Surrey and I was sent to Barfield, another private school. But 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. It's one of the reasons I invented the Music Appreciation Society, which just happened to coincide with cross-country on Wednesday afternoons.

I was only there for seven or eight months because my dad got a job in Cape Town running Holmes Motors, the biggest Ford dealership in South Africa. I was sent to Bishops, the preparatory school for a college that was the equivalent of Eton.

Because I joined late and didn't speak Afrikaans, some of the teachers picked on me. But while I wasn't particularly happy at school, I loved the outdoor life and the weather.

My elder brother, Kevin, was a boarder at Plymouth College back in the UK. When I was 11, my parents gave me the choice of joining my brother back in Devon, or waiting until my father had finished in South Africa and returning to England with them to go to day school. Well, what did I know? I was a child.

Kevin is four years older than me and I worshipped him, so I opted for the former. I was terribly homesick but determined not to let anyone know, least of all my brother, who almost entirely ignored me anyway. But I did start to make some good friends of my own.

By the time I was 13 or 14 and I hit puberty, I'd become a bit disenchanted.

I've always been quite quick with a ready answer, which got me into no end of trouble. I can't count the number of times I was caned. I'd been at the school two weeks when it happened the first time. It was a physics class and we were sitting in rows. A boy behind me called me a rude name, so I turned round and chinned him.

He hit his head on the bench. There was a slight scratch which he then squeezed for all he was worth to get as much blood running down his face as possible. I was flogged – three strokes on my bottom which stung like hell – but I was damned if I was going to cry.

As I moved into my teens, I did less and less work. I was lost in my own little world. I failed all my mock O-levels, and they told me not to come back after I'd sat the real ones. But then I promptly passed all nine and they had to give me the form prize.

I hated the rules. Why couldn't I wear my shoes in the house? Why did I have to go to bed when I wasn't sleepy? It's why I rebelled.

I started smoking at 12 and I was frequently caught and caned for that as well. When I was a bit older, I'd sneak out to X films or to pubs that would turn a blind eye.

Yet I loved the theatre. I'd had a great time in school productions.

There'd been an English teacher called Mr Greaves in the fourth year. The Upper Sixth were doing a version of King Lear that year.

As luck would have it, Dad had just taken me to the fabulous Trevor Nunn production at Stratford starring Donald Sinden, Judi Dench and Michael Williams. Back at school, Mr Greaves cast me as the Fool, even though I was two years younger. A fantastic experience.

By the time I went to Sixth Form College in Farnham – my parents had moved back home by then – my natural rebelliousness had become well established. Initially, I studied English, sociology and economics.

I did well in English, I'd never heard of sociology, and at the end of my first year the teacher handed back my economics multiple-choice paper, saying, ‘This is an extraordinary result, Michael.

In studies, it has been shown that chimpanzees faced with multiple-choice would get 12 per cent of the answers right. You scored nine.' So I abandoned economics.

I couldn't think what else to do at the end of my two years there, so I went to college in Guildford to start reading law. I was aimless, lost.

What saved me was the Surrey County Youth Theatre. A great lady called Kay Dudeney – a tough bird – ran it and she obviously saw something in me. One day, she asked if I'd ever thought of going to drama school. It seems ridiculous but it had never occurred to me.

I was already late for auditions to drama college but Kay knew everyone at Guildford School of Acting. They agreed to see me and they offered me a place. Even so, I wasn't the most diligent of students but, looking back, I realise it changed my life. At last, I was a square peg in a square hole.

Michael Ball's new album, Heroes, is released by Universal Music on Monday 14 March.


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