Mr. Entertainment - Michael Ball
~ Chris Twomey,The Green - 28/09/2010 ~
I must admit to being a big fan of Michael Ball, and I’ve been chasing an interview with him for some time now. My first request was when I was writing an article on the Hampton Court Festival in June and he was one of the star turns. My persistent phone calls unfortunately didn’t materialise the desired interview, so I put Michael on a back burner, biding my time.
Fairly recently, I found out that the Barnes-based singer does a lot of work to support the Shooting Star Hospice for children. I spoke to Emily Mayer, the charity’s PR and communications officer, requesting some time with Michael and she cheerily said, ‘yes, no problem’. Result!
So my first question to Michael is about his support for the Shooting Star Hospice, based in Hampton. “My musical director saw a flyer for Shooting Star in a pub in Ealing. It was a local charity and we phoned up the hospice and said we’d like to see the work you do. It was good timing because the charity were in a crisis and needed a big event to help with their funding. Cathy [my partner] and I went down to the hospice. It was inspirational.”
Michael is currently touring in Hairspray the musical, in which he delivers a remarkable performance as Edna Turnblad. He’s had many accolades and awards, but he is especially proud of winning the 2008 Laurence Olivier Award for best actor in a musical. Later, Michael was to quip, tongue in cheek, that it really should have been for best actress.
I’ve seen the show five times as it is one of the most remarkable, enjoyable and emotional shows. I’m amazed by the level of energy that Michael brings to his performance. I ask him if he’s completely exhausted. He laughs and says, “I’m OK – you learn to pace yourself.
There is incredible energy coming from the cast and the audience and you get carried away with the adrenaline. And it’s also Dr Theatre, where you feel better once you are on stage. It’s only when you finish that you realise how tired you are.”
For a musical with lots of razzle dazzle, it has depth, touching on subjects such as prejudice, obesity, bullying and family issues. It’s a multi-layered story, and not only about racism and segregation, as there’s also a very touching mother-daughter story. I mention this to Michael and he agrees.
“Tracy [the daughter] is supported by wonderful parents. They seem the most dysfunctional family, but actually they’re very functional.”
Cross-dressing as a woman doesn’t seem to have been difficult for Michael. I wondered what preparation the performer did to get in character. “It’s partly based on my Welsh grandmother. It has her physicality and I’m the image of her!
It’s an authentic portrayal of a large woman. She feels like someone you know or have met. I took care to look and study larger women, especially when they weren’t aware of being watched and when they were glammed up. There’s a picture of my grandmother at a wedding and she is conscious that she was large and one of her characteristics is her delicate movements.”
When not on the road, home is Barnes. “I love being by the river. You cross Hammersmith Bridge and your shoulders go down. I’m a home boy. Barnes has a real sense of community. People leave you alone, they’re not nosy. I have two dogs, Tibetan terriers called Freddy and Olly. I walk along Leg O’ Mutton reservoir and Barnes Common.”
One of Michael’s passions is collecting comic books. “It’s a sad thing for a grown man to do, but I love them. Particularly Marvel comics – Iron Man – and I’m also a big Green Lantern fan. There’s a comic book shop called They Walk Among Us [in Richmond]. I brought Cathy in with me once and she looked at me like I was from another planet!”
Not content with donning enormous false breasts and full make-up, Michael’s latest venture is The Michael Ball Show, which has a daily slot for IV1. “It’s a totally different thing from performing. I will be interviewing and getting into conversation with people. I do my research and get to know who they are. It’s not just celebs, but real people as well, who are doing interesting things.” The show, which is a mix of celebrity chat, songs, interviews and cooking, is proving a hit, with viewing figures expected to reach 1.5 million.
Next year also looks incredibly busy, as the 48-year old performer is scheduled to open a new production of Sweeney Todd at the Chichester Festival Theatre in the spring, alongside Imelda Staunton, which comes to the West End next summer.
Having a reputation as a hellraiser in his early years, I read that Michael was once thrown out of the Savoy while carousing with Amy Winehouse and Jamie Cullum. Apparently the lively trio belted out eight numbers before guests complained about the noise. I wonder if the guests were aware they had the honour of being serenaded by three of the most popular entertainers in recent years. The Savoy refused to comment about the incident, so I quizzed Michael about it, even though I’ve been asked to steer clear of personal questions. “I’m not as bad as I was,” he says. “I still like to party – even though we were kicked out of there.” Nice to know there’s life in the old boy yet.
Michael Ball and Friends
The star is putting on a charity concert in support of the Shooting Star Children’s Hospice. He will be singing with a number of performers like Tony Hadley and the cast of Hairspray on 10 Oct at the Prince of Wales Theatre.