'It was shockingly, gloriously awful'

~ Evening Standard by Fiona Maddocks - 22/08/2007 ~

You don't expect a star to condemn his own show. But English National Opera's Kismet was something special. "It was shockingly, gloriously awful," giggles Michael Ball, the endearing favourite of musical theatre who took the lead role. Tears are streaming down his dimpled cheeks as he speaks. "It was like being in a cross between Springtime for Hitler and Carry on Camel."

We have met to talk about his solo Prom at the Albert Hall on Bank Holiday Monday, a new departure for this veteran of Les Mis, Phantom, Aspects of Love, and Woman in White, who is also a solo artist, radio presenter and TV host. But so far he hasn't been persuaded to utter a word on the subject.

"I'm sorry I just have to get this off my chest first," he gasps, patting his not inconsiderable, hairy and heaving upper torso, which is generously on display thanks to his only partially buttoned shirt. As he laughs, his array of necklaces, chains and a wooden cross jingle in merry harmony. It's impossible not to join in the fun.

The reviews were grisly. The kindest word I could find to describe it at the time was "pantomimic", with only Ball capable of rising above embarrassment and reminding us it was supposed to be fun. Yet so enormous is his personal following, the show was a sell-out and, paradoxically, will rank as one of ENO's biggest box-office successes.

Ball has the looks of a grown-up Bubbles, the blond, curly-topped boy in the old Pears Soap ad. Women want to mother him, or frankly do pretty much anything to him. Hearing I was interviewing him, respectable female friends thronged to offer assistance. His fan club now stands at 4,500, mostly women, just 85 men at the last count, though he has a substantial gay following.

We meet in a restaurant near his home in Barnes, where he lives with his partner of 17 years, ex-disc jockey and 1960s style icon Cathy McGowan. The place is empty, but one suspects he would behave just as flamboyantly - singing loudly, putting on funny voices, giggling raucously - even were it not. By nature Ball is open, generous. In fact, unbuttoned. He doesn't care who hears or sees him.

"It was truly unbelievable. Kismet had all the isms - racism, sexism, you name it. It's not funny. The book is old-fashioned and clunking but I think no one knew if one of the writers was still alive and we weren't allowed to change a word.

"The rehearsals were a shambles. People were standing around on stage saying, 'I don't know what I'm supposed to do.' Can you believe it? I've never had a dance lesson in my life but I suggested a few things, just because you have to come up with something with all those people looking at you. It was as if a member of the Stedham Village Players had won the Lottery and said [puts on camp northern accent]: 'I'm putting on Kismet and I'll do it my way.' It was like Aladdin at t he Bradford Alhambra circa 1978."

But in his warm-hearted way, Ball is making deadly serious points about the responsibility of a company which receives hefty Arts Council funding.

"I'm going to be in trouble but I don't care. It shouldn't put actors through such things! When it comes to doing musicals, ENO is amateur. Doing musicals is a different business, technically, musically, dramatically, and you can't do it the same way as opera. That's why musicals always have previews.

Kismet only had one. The whole show nearly began with Alfie Boe walking on carrying an AK47 rifle with a load of dead bodies on the floor! And this is Baghdad - imagine. I had to say 'No, believe me, you just can't do that. This is entertainment.'"

At what stage did he realise this was a disaster? "When they asked me a year ago. On paper it all looked great. Award-winning creative team, beautiful music, huge resources, great orchestra and chorus. I was very excited. But the choreographer walked out. And the director buggered off on a plane straight after the first night, just when he was needed to boost morale. You'd never have that in commercial theatre.

He or she'd be there every night, watching, taking notes.

"And one of the biggest disasters was the design. To stick it all in a bloody great Day-Glo pink blancmange with no room to move and having the male dancers dressed in the same colour as the set so you couldn't see them and the women, supposed to be luscious and sexy, wrapped up in M&S blue sheets ...

They said, 'Oh we've done research you know!' I ask you! Research? This is showbiz!"

But what about the killer reviews? "This is where you see the difference between a place like ENO and the commercial West End. We knew we'd sold out, and that it was a finite run. It didn' t matter what the reviews said. The money was in the bank. The show wasn't suddenly going to close. I wanted to come to the front of the stage and say 'We know. It's as bad as you think. We're not crazy'."

Attitudes to rehearsal, too, are different. "At ENO, because it ' s subsidised, there's a civil-servant mentality. Even if you're in the middle of a song, if the rehearsal reaches its scheduled end, you all down tools. I found that completely shocking. There was no collective sense of continuing to the end - just a matter of minutes - to make the whole enteprise better.

"One of two people might have done it but the others had already gone home. But in spite of all that, I loved every second. The people were great and I'd be happy to work at the Coliseum again."

The Prom was not his idea. He had never been to one. He was approached out of the blue by the Proms controller. "Nicholas Kenyon's office rang me up. Would I like a Prom? I said, what, as someone's guest? He said, no it's your own show. Then there was all the controversy from the purists, people saying: 'Lloyd Webber at the Prom? Over my dead body.' Don't you love it? These people ought to get over themselves."

He has not yet decided his programme, but threatens some Amy Winehouse or Radiohead, and promises his signature song, Love Changes Everything. Tickets have almost sold out. To keep the classical buffs happy, he will try out some real opera, with Bizet's The Pearl Fishers duet with his Kismet co-star, Alfie Boe. Apart from the role of Bunthorne in Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta Patience at New York City Opera, Ball has no experience, nor any ambition in this direction.

"The fact is I love musicals because it's one big song after another. You can wait for hours in opera and nothing happens. In New York I was taken to an opera. Bugger me what was it? Cappuccino? No, Carpaccio?" Perhaps Capriccio, Richard Strauss's sublime last opera, its plot so distilled that virtually nothing happens?

"Yeah, that's the one. I was sitting there thinking, 'Jeez! Let's have a tune' and silently yelling 'Go on, snog her, snog her'. It was driving me insane. Interminable. Oh Christ!"

Ball, 45, was born in the West Midlands and trained at Guildford School of Acting. For three years the family lived in South Africa. "There was no TV or radio, just a few old gramophone records of classic songs from the shows." Later he listened to pop music, Motown, Sinatra, "music with a story, music that talks to you".

The night before his Prom, he will take part in Bryn Terfel's Faenol Festival. The pair met when they shared the stage at the opening of the Millennium Centre in Cardiff. "Bryn brought his kids to see me in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He's a great guy. What a voice!" Ball himself cannot read music, but learns quickly by ear.

"I work with a repetiteur and have it put down on tape so I can sing along. You learn in rehearsal, too. But the difference between my voice and a big operatic one like Bryn's is that I start and finish with natural ability but he's put in years of hard graft on top of that. I haven't done that and wouldn't want to or be able to."

He issues an average of one disc a year and has just recorded his latest, an album of Burt Bacharach songs, due out in October. The same month he stars in the ultimate crossdressing role of Edna Turnblad in a stage version of Hairspray.

"It's a dream. I'd seen the show on Broadway for my Radio 2 programme [Ball Over Broadway]. And the film with John Travolta. I thought, this is what I'd adore to do. We can't all do juvenile leads for ever! This is the direction I'm going, as a grown-up character actor. To be entrusted with one of the most iconic roles in musical theatre is fantastic. I'll have wigs, makeup dresses. How pretty is that?"

The bonus is that he has to put on weight for the part. Since he gave up smoking in February, he has grown visibly more cuddly. "I've been eating for England. But now I can say I'm doing a Robert De Niro [who put on 60 pounds to appear in Raging Bull]. I'm doing it for my art!"

He bellows out a mock-heroic crooning high note. "But you see how brilliant my top-B flats are?" Heads turn. Waiters smile indulgently. Michael Ball is in his element.

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