An Interview with Michael Ball
~ saga.co.uk - 02/12/09 ~
The release of Michael Ball's new DVD, Past & Present Live, marks 25 years in the business for this popular singer. Neil Davey met up with him to discuss life, work and bacon sandwiches
Michael Ball is in an animated mood. His earlier car journey has been disrupted by roadworks and he's not happy. "At the moment London feels like 'ooh, there's a bit of road we haven't dug up yet...'
"And did you know the buses were on strike yesterday? You didn't? Exactly! They haven't told anyone but all these kids are waiting for the buses and there aren't any."
He stops and laughs, those famous eyes twinkling. “I’m becoming a Grumpy Old Man, aren't I?"
Not necessarily, Michael. Besides, that programme has always been badly named. We always saw it as 'Men of a Certain Age with a Perfectly Valid Opinion'...
"Absolutely," he giggles. With the mood lightened further with the arrival of a bacon sandwich, Michael proves himself to be a very funny and self-deprecating interviewee whether discussing his career - "right place, right time, right era" – his love of a naughty breakfast – "Food good, diet bad" – or even the joys of the X Factor – "It's much more interesting to keep John & Edward in...plus it winds Cowell up."
As it happens, talk of that show isn't so far removed from Michael's own career jumpstart with Pirates of Penzance.
"That was done like an X Factor open audition," explains Michael. "I responded to an advert in the paper – with about 600 other people! – and I ended up as the juvenile lead. That was the start because Cameron Mackintosh came to see it. He'd cast Les Mis except for Marius, and asked me to audition, so that all happened in the same couple of months.
"I've always been lucky," he adds, not strictly accurately. Talent has, quite clearly, played a greater part: you don't get to perform for the ENO, your own Prom, or to launch Sondheim musicals by luck. However, even someone of Michael's stature has to fight on occasion. Take his recent Olivier-award winning, cross-dressing role as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray.
"Usually if anything is coming up that's remotely suitable for you, people will check availability and see if you're interested," explains Michael. "That didn't happen with Hairspray. Nobody asked me! I knew it was coming and I loved it, but it hadn't occurred to the producers that it was: a) something I wanted to do; and b) something I could do. I had to say 'you know what? You NEED to audition me!'"
The rest, as they say, is stage musical history. As much fun as it looked though, one must assume it was an awful lot of work. Michael beams. "Nah. It was brilliant fun.
"The very fact that I stayed with the show speaks volumes. I never stay longer than a year but I was with Hairspray for over two, and there was never a day when I thought 'oh no, I’ve got to do it again tomorrow.' Now I'm producing the tour as well as doing a lot of the shows and I can't wait to get back to Edna. I'll be doing Edna for the rest of my life in one way or the other, I'm sure.
"You get tired, obviously, but I'd finish the show with all these kids around me, and all this energy, the audience cheering and it really doesn't get any better than that. That's why for the DVD I took the kids with me and used the band I've used before, trying to make that company feeling. It's not about me showing off at the front, it's bringing other people along as well. And the last tour was the happiest tour, the best show I've ever put on."
Part of the reason for this is, as Michael happily acknowledges, his relationship with the fans.
"It's lovely," he says, "for people to know you well, but to still allow you that space to have your own life. I couldn't live under the spotlight.
"I think it's important to know when you're closing your front door, you're closing the front door. I've never invited press into my house. If you do the Hello thing – 'please come and take exclusive pictures of my wedding or barmitzvah or...bathtime' – I don't think you then have a right to privacy. I learned that early on. I think it's because I have a partner (Cathy McGowan) who has been in the business , has been as famous as Heinz Baked Beans, and is not remotely interested in it but just wants a family life. The two of us never try to cross that line and it makes for a far healthier life.
"I'm finding that, for once, all the stars are aligned." He smiles. "I know it won't last but I'm appreciating it while it does. I'm happy at home, I feel well, I'm doing a job I love, there's a little bit of money in the bank." He laughs. "And I've got a bacon sandwich in my hand. Does it get better than that?"
Michael Ball Past & Present Live at the Royal Albert Hall is available now on DVD.