I'm having a Ball

~ Claire Black for The Scotsman - 02/08/2008 ~

ON the fourth floor of an inconspicuous BBC building in central London, on a dull, grey Sunday morning, I'm listening to Michael Ball's Sunday Brunch. The West End heartthrob has just played a Joni Mitchell song and is about to welcome Ronnie Corbett as a guest. It so happens that, as well as listening to Ball, along with millions of others across the country, I'm also watching him through a soundproof window. With headphones squashing that famous – and expertly highlighted – mop of curls, and given that he has a hangover, he's remarkably perky, singing along to all the songs in what, through the glass, look like word-perfect performances.

It's three months to the day since Ball took over the coveted Radio 2 slot, slipping effortlessly into Michael Parkinson's shoes after his retiral. Parky was known for jazz and his laconic, low-key delivery; Ball brings a different kind of warmth and a broader range of music to the show. It's not only the sing-alongs that make it plain he's having a fine old time; the trademark giggle is there too – halfway between Carry On stars Barbara Windsor and Sid James.

"It's my dream slot," he says. "They took a real risk giving it to me because pretty much everyone would've been after it." A few eyebrows were raised when Ball landed the Sunday morning show, partly because, although he had done some broadcasting, the 46-year-old is better known for belting out Lloyd Webber classics. And it's not only the radio show that has changed things for him – once known for playing the young, dashing lead, he is hitting a career peak for his performance as the agoraphobic, hefty housewife Edna Turnblad in the West End hit Hairspray. Things are peachy for Michael Ball and he's loving every minute of it.

Radio show over, large coffee in hand, I'm sitting opposite Ball in his studio, in the seat where half an hour ago Ronnie Corbett perched. Having just watched Ball interviewing the diminutive Scot, now it's my turn to ask the questions.

"I think I'm quite good at giving interviews because I'm not worried," he says. "I'll just waffle on and hopefully there's something in there that can be useful. It's handy because I've been on the receiving end so I know how it should be done."

Suddenly I feel as though it's me being interrogated. Ball tells me he doesn't think of the chats he has with guests as interviews. "I've no clue what I'm going to talk about and (guests] get a bit unnerved," he says, as I try to cover my list of prepared questions.

"Ronnie's an old pro, so he's used to questions that are written down …" (my fingers spread over the paper beneath them)"… and to interviewers who never listen."

I can't bring myself to look at my questions, but I know they start with those I don't really expect him to answer, the ones about his personal life.

Ball may have been in the public eye for more than two decades, he's a safe bet for success in the West End because of his commercial pulling power and he's one half of a media couple – his partner is ex-Ready Steady Go presenter Cathy McGowan – but he has managed to keep his personal life remarkably private. So I'm a little worried that I'll get short shrift as I ask him about the "dodgy stuff" he got into after he left school which he mentioned a little testily on Desert Island Discs, or the breakdown he suffered when he was first hitting real fame as the lead in Les Miserables. But happily for me he's in a sharing mood. Maybe it's because he's just so, well, happy.

"For the last two years it's been brilliant," he says with a beaming smile made to show off those dimples. "I've really never been happier in my life – my personal life and my professional life. I touch all the wood in the world because you know it won't last because it's life, but it's really nice and I'm old enough now to appreciate it. I don't take it for granted. It's a golden time."

So what's brought that about?

"I don't know," he says, raising his eyebrows. "The stars have all aligned. Seeds that you plant, if you can get them to harvest at the same time … and you have to be prepared to do the work. There was a period when I was doing eight shows a week at Hairspray and then I was in here first thing on the Sunday morning so I was getting no time off. It was fine because I knew it wouldn't be for ever; I knew that eventually I'd be getting Monday nights off. You run on adrenaline and you run on joy."

Ball is clear that a certain Mrs Turnblad transformed his career. If you were to ask what it takes to become a leading man in the West End you might be surprised to hear it involves high heels, a pair of 46EEE boobs and a wardrobe of frocks that would put the gaudiest drag queen to shame. But for Ball that's what has worked. "When I was cast people said I wouldn't pull it off and then when I did and I won the Olivier Award, I can't tell you the satisfaction," he says, still savouring the triumph. "Everyone says, 'Oh, awards don't matter.' Rubbish! That one meant everything for me. It meant, 'all right, you can be in our club.' It was so satisfying. I took it into work the night after the ceremony and it appeared in every scene. When I burst out of the hairspray can at the end I was dusting it!

"I'm now a leading character actor in the theatre as opposed to an ageing juve – which is what I was, an ageing juvenile."

Looking at him, it's not really surprising that those were the parts he was landing. At 46, apart from being chunkier, he doesn't look much different to how he did when he was in the charts belting out Love Changes Everything. There are no chiselled cheekbones or square jaw. His looks were never about that kind of handsomeness. They're about wholesome goodness and he has the twinkly blue eyes and ever-present white-toothed smile to prove it. He's like a puppy, cute rather than handsome – not a particularly easy look to age into. The only thing that's surprising about him physically is that he's so tall; in jeans and a pink shirt he's broad and imposing; no wonder he's such a sight to behold in heels.

So, he says, touching every bit of veneered wood he can find, things are grand just now, but they haven't always been like that. Two episodes stand out and are clearly connected, like his idea of seeds sown.

Growing up near Stratford-on-Avon, Ball's childhood was happy until he went to boarding school in Surrey. His older brother, Kevin, was already a boarder but Michael didn't fit in. He hated it but, at the age of ten he didn't know how to tell his parents that he wanted to leave, so he stayed.

"My parents have a very working-class background and it's that classic thing of thinking that a private education is the best thing that you can do for your kids," he says. "But it was just rubbish. It was terribly sporty and I'm so not. I loved shows, loved dressing up and I was quite precocious. There was a certain amount of outlet for that at my school but at the end of the day you want to be at home. It means that you become really unused to unburdening."

By 16 he was fed up with the place and, by all accounts, they were fed up with him. He won the prize for passing most O Levels in his year but they didn't tell him or invite him to the speech day. "I'm in the prospectus now," he says with a laugh. He knew he liked to perform but he had no clue about what he was going to do next. "I wasn't happy," he says. "I was unfocused and carrying all the rubbish around with me as you do at that age. I had no real idea what to do. I had self-image issues because I was a big fat boy, not dissimilar to now – but now I don't care," he says with a smile. "I just thought, well, no-one would want to see me on the stage."

It wasn't until someone at the Surrey Youth Theatre suggested he try out for drama school that he really thought he might be able to do it. And, of course, he passed the audition – to Guildford School of Drama – got a grant and, he says, for the first time his parents thought he might actually make something of himself.

After drama school he went straight into his first job, in Godspell in Aberystwyth. That gave him his Equity card. Then it was Pirates of Penzance and Les Mis. It was, he says, "really, really fast", his career moving like a well-oiled bit of scenery. Then there was the blip.

At first he got sick physically, then it took its toll psychologically and he started to have panic attacks. For nine months he experienced what he describes as "varying states of lunacy" which led him to pull out of Les Mis and eventually stop leaving his flat. "It was getting to the point where I was thinking, I can't do anything else but I can never, ever go back on the stage," he says. "At one point I thought I'd never go out of my front door again.

"It was a really horrible, weird, mucked-up time but it was possibly the best thing that could have happened, because it made me grow up and it made me realise the vulnerabilities that people have." Studiously applying the one lesson he did learn at boarding school, Ball didn't tell anyone what was going on. "I just shut the door." Eventually, prescribed a betablocker, which helped him get control of his panic attacks, he began his recovery.

Things in his life have been stable for a long time now, but he knows he's "susceptible" and he's had "deeply vulnerable moments" since his breakdown. "I know the danger signs. And I know to talk about it," he says. "Cathy knows the signs for me and she's very clever at pulling me up and also knows when I just need a bit of stroking."

Ball has lived with Cathy McGowan since 1992. They divide their time between south-west London and a weekend house on the coast. "Every important decision Cath and I have ever made has been made on the beach with the dogs," he says. "It's wonderful for us." He credits McGowan with being his biggest support but also a fierce critic. "There are times when a Niagara of unqualified praise is all that's required but you don't get that. Cath has a great eye and a great ear and a great gut instinct for this industry. We do fight about it, we have different ideas sometimes about things, but that's healthy. I absolutely credit her in public with most of my success. In private it's an entirely different thing," he says, with a cheeky laugh.

Private life is important to Ball. He needs down time. "We don't use it (celebrity]," he says. "I never have and I never will do a Hello! or an OK! interview. When I come home I want to shut the door and that's my life. I think if you open the door to that, it's difficult to close it afterwards."

Family is also a huge part of his life. He talks about "the kids" a lot. Grace, six, and Connor, nine, are the children of McGowan's daughter, Emma, and her husband, Dean. They call Ball and McGowan "Bally and Bumpy," he tells me, with evident pride. "Cath started off as Grumpy," he says. "She didn't want to be Grandma or anything but I was like, I don't think Grumpy works; and Connor couldn't say it – he said Bumpy instead and it stuck."

When Ball talks about Connor and Grace it's clear why he makes such a convincing, loving mother in Hairspray. And come Tuesday night, he'll be heels on, back in parental mode – in front of a sell-out audience.

"I always take the Mickey with the kids in the company" – he puts on his best drag queen drawl – "Shurrup, I'm 18 feet tall staring down Shaftesbury Avenue. I'm an icon, a legend. I don't think it's been announced yet, but I'm staying until next April. They've made me an offer I can't refuse. I've got an album to make that I'll release next March and I can do that as well because I'm superhuman." He chuckles.

"Energy breeds energy but there has to be down time or you go pop. It doesn't have to be bad down time but that happens, real life catches up with everyone. At the moment it's bypassing me."

Once again, he's smiling.

Michael Ball's Sunday Brunch is on Radio 2, Sundays, 11am-1pm. Ball is appearing as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London. For ticket prices and to book, tel: 0207 379 5399.

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