There have been some surprises in the history of the Fron Male Voice Choir. There was the time when one member had a fatal heart attack after hearing that they had won a gold medal at a contest in Athens. And when, in Canada, the bus had to turn round and return to the hotel as one of the singers had forgotten his false teeth. Once, they even had to dress their driver in a blazer and stand him in the back row when they realised that they were one man short at a competition.
But such events were nothing compared to the shock last week of finding themselves the fifth-highest new entry in the UK album charts, at No 13, just behind U2, Take That and Westlife. And their success hasn't stopped there. The amateur Welsh choir, some of whose members can't even read music, were at No 1 in the midweek classical charts, and No 9 in the midweek pop charts. And, of its 65 members, who include farmers, a hearse driver and two retired policemen, some haven't even heard of the bands that they are storming past.
Perched on the side of the Berwyn Mountains, the village of Froncysyllte - pronounced "Vron-cuss-ulth tay" - has about 800 residents, and is a cluster of tidily kept cottages and gardens, with one shop and a pub. It was here that Thomas Telford built his aqueduct to carry the Llangollen canal across the Dee valley. To the south of the village, whose name means "meeting place on the side of the hill", runs Offa's Dyke. When the choir was formed, most of its members were employed at the nearby chemical works. They now come from many different walks of life.
The choir has already earned a gold disc after Voices of the Valley, released on 20 November, sold over 100,000 copies in three days. And if that wasn't glory enough, the tale of the choir's rise from its humble origins in a North Wales village is set to be made into a Hollywood film.
Formed in 1947, the choir was discovered by Daniel Glatman, manager of the boy band Blue. "There I was, at a wedding, when the choir started to sing against the backdrop of this stunning scenery," he remembers. "The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and when that happens, you can't ignore it."
Dave Jones, 57, the choir's chairman, still hasn't quite recovered from what happened next. "Daniel Glatman approached us, asked whether anyone had tried to get us a recording contract and said he'd be in touch. We took it with a pinch of salt," he admits. "He then came to hear us rehearse, and started bringing people from Universal in London. One day, he phoned me at home and said, 'I've got a contract in my hand for three albums with the biggest record company in the world'. It was just wonderful."
Voices of the Valley is a collection of old and modern songs, featuring hymns such as "Abide with Me", folk songs and pop classics including "Unchained Melody". Three of the numbers, including "You Raise Me Up", are in Welsh. The choir, around half of whom are Welsh-speakers, refused a glitzy media launch in London, and decided instead to celebrate with a free concert for friends at the Bryn Howel Hotel in the Vale of Llangollen. It was there, six years ago, that they sang with Luciano Pavarotti, who has a special association with Froncysyllte.
In 1966, when performing at the Llangollen International Eisteddfod with his father's choir, the then unknown Italian tenor had lodged with a family in the village. In 1995, when he returned to perform at the annual music festival, he insisted on visiting the village again. "Pavarotti was staying at the hotel and we sang with him as part of the bash. We put on this big welcome for him," says Jones. "He's a real nice chap. He just loves the area because he's got such fond memories. He said he felt he was back among friends. It was unbelievable to sing with him."
Not long after that first phone call, Glatman was on the line again to deliver another bombshell. Zygi Kamasa, a producer on Bend it Like Beckham and co-producer of Good Night, and Good Luck, had heard the story of the choir and optioned the film rights. "The story of this choir, picked from obscurity to be signed by the biggest record label in the world, is a classic feel-good story that has huge potential, particularly when you consider that the average age of the singers is 60," explained Kamasa.
The Fron Male Voice Choir, which now attracts members from a wide area (one ex-Royal Marines bandsman travels from Exmouth), has since made numerous TV appearances, and will feature on the Parkinson Christmas special. With several concerts already planned, they have even had to turn down a request to sing with José Carreras at the Royal Albert Hall this month. Jones, a prison officer, has since earned the title of "celebrity screw" at work. "Everyone is proud of us. We're flabbergasted. We've passed Robbie Williams and Justin Timberlake. Not my kind of music, really, but still," he says.
Emrys Roberts, a founder member and, at 84, also the oldest member, was almost moved to tears when he first listened to the CD. "I was quite overcome," says the retired local-government worker. "When we started off as a small choir 59 years ago, we had no idea that anything like this would happen. We thought chapels, churches and local eisteddfodau would be our limit. I feel very proud. We're having a little difficulty taking it all in. As an amateur choir, not many of us are well up in reading music. We manage because we've had four good leaders."
Matthew Hayward, who, at 18, is the youngest on the recording, joined 18 months ago, much to the horror of his friends, who thought he should be playing football or going to the pub. "My great-granddad was a founder member and I was asked when I was about 12 to join a rival choir. I told my mum and she said, 'No way, you're going to the Fron,'" says the waiter, who is now recognised on the streets. "I joined when I started college as I had a lot of spare time on my hands. I love the camaraderie. The success has taken a while to sink in. It's brilliant. I would love to be in the film. We just want to be No 1 now. If we get there I'll fall over!"
So far, no one has ever been turned down by the choir, no matter what they sound like. Ann Atkinson, a professional singer and the choir's conductor, is particularly proud of them. "It can be an awful lot of fun, as well as hard work. It's like an extended family. I do get a bit cross when they make the same mistakes over and over again. But it's amazing what they've done. I keep saying, 'Pinch me'!"
Profit from the CD will go into the choir's funds, normally raised with subs, quiz nights, sponsored walks and garden parties. Members hope to purchase a rehearsal room - they currently make do with a school hall. They certainly deserve one.
'Voices of the Valley' is out on UCJ; the Fron Male Voice Choir is appearing at carol concerts nationwide until 20 December ( www.fronchoir.com)Reuse content