The bonds that bind Boe & Ball:
Alfie put a note through Michael 's door asking for advice 25 years ago, he never replied - now they've topped the charts and have their own TV show
~ Daily Mail ~ 20/10/2017 ~
Beating Little Mix and The Rolling Stones to last year’s Christmas No 1 with their bestselling, double-platinum album Together was a triumph many didn’t see coming.
Certainly not the middle-aged besuited behemoths who created it, Michael Ball and Alfie Boe – fondly known as Ball & Boe. There they were, growing older and chubbier, comfortable in their musical theatre and opera careers, when suddenly they became global chart sensations.
A hit TV show and sell-out tour followed the album’s release, and the success was so phenomenal that the vocal powerhouses are back for more.
Alfie Boe and Michael Ball reveal how their careers have unexpectedly soared as they prepare to star in an ITV special this month
This month they return to our screens with an ITV special, Ball And Boe Back Together, in which they’ll showcase some of their favourite hits from their latest album, with guest appearances from singer Imelda May and comic-turned-singer Jason Manford.
They’re still in shock at their success. ‘It was beyond anything we’ve known,’ says Michael.
‘It was massive. And it’s silly really. A double-platinum album when people aren’t supposed to be buying vinyl any more? We could have done another album straight away to cash in, but we’ve worked our socks off to make sure this one’s even better.’
On paper you wouldn’t put them together, but they’re now being called the Morecambe & Wise of the music business. Michael, 55, is a two-time Olivier Award winner, singer and star of the West End who claims he can’t do opera, while Alfie, 44, is the nation’s bestselling tenor.
Michael’s a roly-poly, rumbustious chap with a perma-smile, while Alfie’s trim, softly spoken and seemingly quite introverted. But, as we shall see, from inauspicious starts to personal tragedy and battles with the bottle, they share some uncanny bonds.
Michael, 55, (pictured with Cathy McGowan) revealed his life came together after being advised to apply for drama school, he previously struggled in school
Michael, whose partner is 60s TV presenter Cathy McGowan, has just shed 2st and gone all Hollywood healthy – just as Alfie did a few years back. So much so in fact that he’s sporting a suede Ralph Lauren jacket today that looks positively baggy on him. He’s so chuffed he shows me he can even do up the middle button.
‘No cigarettes, no booze, no sugar, lots of exercise. Amelia Freer, the nutritionist, has put me on a healthy eating plan,’ he says. Freer, a former PA to Prince Charles, has transformed the lives of stars including James Corden, Kirstie Allsopp and singer Sam Smith.
‘For my birthday in June, Cath gave me an appointment to see Amelia. I struggled with drinking and I put on a lot of weight. It’s easy to do a bottle of wine a night. Then when we did our summer tour I was saying, “I’m not happy”.
'When I caught sight of myself singing I was bright red. It was so unattractive. And there was Alfie looking like Ryan Gosling. So Cath said, “We’ve got to do something.”’
Within two weeks he lost just under a stone, the start of a radical transformation. ‘It’s been six months off now. I’m allowing myself a fabulous glass of wine on Christmas Day, and I’ll have a glass of champagne on New Year’s Eve. But that’ll be it. And Cath found me a personal trainer. Who knew about endorphins?’
Alfie knows them well as he visits the gym daily and gave up drink three years ago after wrestling with its effects.
‘I stopped drinking because it was taking over a bit and I just thought it wasn’t doing anybody any good; me, my family or my friends. It’s a tricky thing and I still battle with it to an extent.
I still struggle at times,’ he says quietly. ‘But my voice is great. My health is better. I’ve started working out a lot, finding a substitute for that escape. There’s exercising, boxing, gym work.
'I started writing my own stuff and learnt how to play the guitar – anything to take my mind away from what I wanted to do – which was to have a drink. And it worked.’
But then they both know what it takes to ensure musical success, having both had faltering starts in the business.
‘I was asked to leave my private school in Plymouth and I was failing my A-levels again until a lovely lady at my youth theatre said, “Why don’t you apply for drama school?”’ recalls Michael. ‘She got me an audition and I got in. Suddenly, life came together.’
Alfie’s big break came when he was a 19-year-old apprentice car mechanic in Blackpool near his home in Fleetwood – a customer who worked in the music industry heard him singing along to a tape of West Side Story and suggested he apply to the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, who were holding open auditions at the time. ‘I didn’t have a suit so I turned up in jeans, a T-shirt and my working boots,’ recalls Alfie.
‘I’d never auditioned before so I sang the only song I knew classically. It was You Are My Heart’s Delight from The Land Of Smiles by Franz Lehar. My dad used to listen to it all the time at home. I found the music in the local library and took it to the audition.’ He was offered a place and has never looked back.
Both Michael and Alfie’s careers have soared despite losing their early mentors. While Alfie’s mother Patricia is still alive, he lost his father, Alf, who worked for ICI, 20 years ago at the age of 63 to a brain tumour.
‘My dad tragically didn’t see any of the growth of my career, even though he gave me my music education with his eclectic collection. It was heart-breaking and the start of a new life for me. All these years later it still gets me. If I’m feeling tense on stage I say what I used to say to my dad when he was alive: “Dad, can you give me a hand?” He’d always be there for me then, and he’s still there for me now.’
Similarly, Michael’s beloved grandmother never got to see his breakthrough debut performance in The Pirates Of Penzance at Manchester Opera House.
‘She was a typical Welsh matriarch and inspired me with her love of Ivor Novello, although she couldn’t stand Harry Secombe and told me, “Don’t sing like that lad.” I’d seen an ad in The Stage newspaper for The Pirates Of Penzance with Bonnie Langford and Paul Nicholas and got the part.
'Well, Gran had read every review and was going up and down the street, knocking on the doors, showing people and saying, “That’s my boy.” Then she died unexpectedly a few days before she was due to come and see me.
'I came off the stage, and my mum suddenly appeared out of nowhere at my dressing room. The second I saw her I thought, “Oh my God. Gran’s dead.” It was devastating.’
Michael’s next major role came when producer Cameron Mackintosh offered him the part of Marius in Les Misérables when he was 23 (Alfie later played Valjean in the 25th anniversary production), but he caught glandular fever and needed six weeks off. ‘In hindsight I think I had ME,’ he says.
‘I came back but I was still feeling ill, and I went on a depressive spiral and started having panic attacks. I thought I was going to die. I lost my confidence. I stayed in my flat for nine months.
'I walked out of the show. I didn’t seek any help, which was stupid. It was a proper breakdown and I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t want to see anyone. I became agoraphobic. My parents were despairing really but I wouldn’t talk about it. I wouldn’t speak to anyone.’
How did he overcome it? ‘I worked my way out myself. I was offered one live TV performance late at night on a Miss England show. It couldn’t get more low-rent. “Nobody’s watching,” I thought, “but I’ve got to do it.” I thought I’d clam up, but I did the show and got through it. What had I got to lose?’
Then Cameron came to his rescue once again. He was re-casting for another run of the very successful The Phantom Of The Opera. ‘Cameron knew what I’d been going through and urged me to take on the role of Raoul. Also I started to use certain techniques to distract myself. Later on, the Boyzone singer Stephen Gately told me about the tapping technique, where you tap on the body’s energy pathways, which helps. I still get panic attacks but I do the tapping before I go on stage now.’
Like Alfie, Michael has a strong partner. He and Cathy, who hosted ITV’s 60s pop show Ready Steady Go!, met in 1989 when he was rehearsing for the lead role in Aspects Of Love and she turned up to interview him for TV. ‘She keeps me sane,’ he says. ‘When we met I was depressed and destructive, and Cath turned my life round.’
Eleven years later she saved him a second time when fire engulfed their home two days before Christmas.
‘I had a heavy cold so I knocked a couple of whiskies back and some Night Nurse before sleeping in the spare room. Cath, thank God, woke up choking. All the lights had gone and I wasn’t in bed next to her. She thought, “Where the hell is Michael?” She looked in the study and couldn’t find me. When she did find me she dragged me out of bed and out of the house, then went back for the dog!
‘The fire, which was caused by an electrical fault, destroyed everything – all my memorabilia, gold discs, videos, DVDs – but it doesn’t matter as we’re alive. Cath suffered far worse than me. I couldn’t remember; she would dream about it. She wouldn’t go back in that house ever again, so we sold it and now we’re paranoid about fires.’
Alfie is based in London while his American actress wife Sarah lives mostly in Salt Lake City, Utah, where their two children, Grace, nine, and Alfie, five, are at school, although they may move here soon. They married in 2004 after meeting in the building where both were doing rehearsals.
‘Without her I couldn’t do what I do either, I’d probably be in an Irish bar in Kilburn,’ says Alfie, who says the loneliness of being separated from his family led to him drowning his sorrows in alcohol. ‘It’s hard for Sarah as I’ll have seen the children for about 11 weeks in total this year, which isn’t great. It hits you and it can be lonely, but it’s the job. She’s an amazing mother and her job’s harder than mine.’
Michael and Alfie’s friendship was forged in 2007 when they appeared in the ENO’s disastrous staging of Kismet at the London Coliseum. Happily, they were the only two to be spared the horrendous reviews and it was the start of a hugely successful bond. Ironically, it could have started earlier.
‘When I was starting out I was renting a room near Michael’s home in Barnes and I thought I’d love some advice from him, so I dropped a note through his door,’ recalls Alfie. Michael denies getting it but jokes, ‘I feel so awful. But his stalking carried on and it paid off because here we are.’
So what’s their secret? Is it down to their chemistry? ‘It’s got to be,’ they chime in unison. And is it better working together or solo? ‘Together – it’s lovely sharing it because the only person who really gets it is him,’ says Michael. Alfie agrees. ‘What comes across is that we’re having fun, even if Michael really does think I’m miserable. I’m not. He makes me laugh. And together it somehow works.’