He's a hit TV host, an iconic stage star and
has the most devoted fans in showbiz
Michael Ball is on a roll
~ Richard Barber for The Daily Mail - 27/08/2010 ~
Last time I caught a performance of the musical Hairspray, Les Dennis introduced me to a fan of his co-star, Michael Ball, who'd seen the show more than 300 times. ‘Ah, that'll be Joan,' Michael reckons now.
In the past couple of weeks, Michael's new afternoon TV chat show has been attracting a similar following. Legions of women of, dare we say, a certain age, are tuning in, despite it beginning in August, and with an unpromising start time of 3pm.
This is the slot not long vacated by Alan Titchmarsh. Competent presenter that he is, Titchmarsh, once billed as ‘the thinking women's crumpet' worked hard to build an audience above the million mark.
But the chirpy Mr Ball, 48, bounced in, attracting 1.3 million viewers from Day One. There are no official figures yet for this his second week, but all the signs are that he's building to a following of 1.5 million.
The mix of the show is much the same as Titchmarsh's — the usual unthreatening magazine format, with celebrity guests and a bit of cookery — so how do we explain why Michael's bucking the trend?
The answer must be the extra thousands of personal fans he brings to the show because it's his name in the title.
Says one colleague: ‘His fans love everything about Michael. On one occasion, he happened to mention he liked New Zealand wine. Now he's been given literally hundreds of bottles.'
We meet in the star dressing room of Manchester's Opera House, where Hairspray is coming to the end of a three-week run.
Michael will re-join the cast in Dublin in November, and for four weeks in Edinburgh over Christmas, when he'll be joined by Cathy McGowan, iconic presenter of Sixties' TV show Ready Steady Go!, and 16 years his senior. The two share a house in South-West London and a cottage in West Wittering, Sussex.
‘We've been together for almost 20 years,' he says. Although he tasted success almost fresh out of drama school, he was, like many young men in their 20s, subject to bouts of depression.
‘I'm convinced that a boy doesn't become a man, doesn't truly find himself, until he's heading for his 30s,' he says.
He poured all of his considerable energies and talent into his burgeoning career, always at pains to project himself as Mr Entertainment, the life and soul of the party.
The bouts of depression he suffered he kept to himself, although a crisis of confidence forced him to quit Les Miserables in 1986 before his contract was up.
‘I can't properly explain it, but I don't mind admitting that I suffered a breakdown,' he says.
Nine months later, impresario Cameron Mackintosh phoned out of the blue to offer Michael the role of Raoul in a recast Phantom Of The Opera. He was on his way back.
It was when he subsequently landed the lead role in Aspects of Love that Cathy McGowan turned up one day to interview him for Newsroom South-East. Having chatted, they swapped numbers and began phoning each other regularly.
‘Cathy made me feel fantastic. She made me feel I deserved what was happening to me. She built up my confidence.' He can't imagine anyone, he says, reaching out to him like Cathy did.
In time, friendship blossomed into something deeper. ‘She made me feel attractive for who I was, not for my public persona.'
Although he's had a string of West End hits, it's his role of Edna Turnblad in Hairspray that won Michael an Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical.
‘I love that woman,' he says.
‘I've played her over 600 times now, and I'm still discovering nuances in her character.'
It's an astonishing performance from Michael, neither panto nor drag, but a totally convincing inhabitation of a warm-hearted American matron.
Indeed, so convincing is his portrayal — and he swears this is true — a small knot of angry members of the public descended on the box office in both London and Cardiff, demanding a refund.
‘They said they'd paid good money to see Michael Ball, but I hadn't been in it.'
An idea suddenly strikes him. ‘Would you like to see my breasts?' He's fishing around in a cupboard before I can protest, and returns with two prosthetic EE boobs made of latex. They weigh a ton.
‘My first husband, Mel Smith, wanted them as a memento — but I wouldn't part with them.'
The frocks and all the paraphernalia are back in the box now, as they're not needed on the afternoon chat show. He's particularly pleased that he's being taught to cook a new dish every day by a rotating list of four TV chefs, including Clarissa Dickson Wright. Michael's very keen on cooking, and wants to emerge at the end of the series with his repertoire considerably enhanced.
‘After my Radio 2 Sunday Brunch show, there's nothing I like better than getting back to Barnes and cooking a classic Sunday roast for Cathy and various family and friends.' So he's a better cook than her? 'Immeasurably,' he chuckles.
It is his Radio 2 show, with its audience of almost three million listeners, that he thinks has stood him in good stead for this latest TV challenge. Michael has scored some notable hits.
‘I was humbled that Melvyn Bragg talked for the first time in public about the suicide of his first wife when he came on the show. I was quite nervous, but he was very relaxed and revealing.'
But there have been tricky encounters, too. ‘There was an eggy moment with Bette Midler, who arrived at the studio jet-lagged and cold. She had some sort of a wrap folded round her hunched body, and it was clear she wasn't going to join in.
‘But then I think she gradually realised what the show was all about. Off came the wrap, and she turned into the wittiest company you could imagine.'
Judi Dench is another of his favourites. ‘I love Jude,' says Michael. ‘She was one of the guests on Parky's last programme, and it was suggested she sing Send In The Clowns.
‘I told her that was too safe, too predictable. So I offered to write new lyrics to Thanks For The Memory, mentioning everything and everyone from Emu to Barnsley to Meg Ryan. It went down a storm. So I called in the favour and she was a guest on my very first show.'
With a new album to record — ‘I think it will be called Heroes, and based on people I admire, like Sinatra, Tom Jones, Matt Monro' — and a 25-date tour to support its release, Michael Ball is at the top of his game.
‘If I'd written it myself, I couldn't have put together a better script,' he says. ‘And I'm confident enough now not only to stop and smell the roses, but really to appreciate them.
‘I'm happy at home, happy at work. I never stop pinching myself.'