Never say never again

When Michael Ball interviewed his heroine, it turned into his most excruciating-ever showbiz experience. Here, he tells Richard Barber how that disaster turned into a truly dazzling production
Michael Ball knew about the stage production of Victoria Wood’s That Day We Sang, which premiered at the 2011 Manchester International Festival with a second production at the Royal Exchange Theatre. ‘I am such a fan of Victoria,’ he says, ‘almost on an anorak level. I would have done anything to have been in a piece of work written by her.’

But the two of them had one piece of shared history and the portents weren’t good. Some five or six years ago, Victoria was a guest on Michael’s popular Sunday Radio 2 show. ‘And she gave me the worst interview I’ve ever done. It was monosyllabic, I was jet-lagged and it was live.

‘I started by being totally overawed that I had her in the studio. It was the first time we’d met and what I hadn’t realised is that she’s rather shy. She’s also the kind of person who only talks when she has something to say. By contrast, I’m the type of person who can talk for Africa.

MichaelBall-Nov21-02-382Michael with Victoria Wood‘It got to the point where I asked her a question with no idea what I was going to say when she’d finished her answer. My mind was blank. I prayed she’d talk for some time but she didn’t. She stopped dead and we sat looking at each other. A second of silence is a long time on radio and this was much longer than a second. I started to panic.

‘Eventually, the producer put on a record but, by then, I wanted to be somewhere, anywhere, else. I was mortified because it was entirely my fault. I should have been able to keep the conversation going. Anyway, after that, I knew I’d never see her again.’

Never say never. In the spring of 2012, Victoria Wood went to the theatre to see a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Michael was in the title role; Imelda Staunton played his villainous partner in crime, Mrs Lovett. Victoria was in no doubt: she’d found her Tubby and Enid.

Imelda Staunton was offered and accepted the part of Enid when Victoria made the decision to reimagine That Day We Sang for a 90-minute television film. Michael was invited to come in to read the part of Tubby, something he was very happy to do. ‘Quite apart from anything else,’ he says, ‘I wanted to see if I could do it justice.’

That Day We Sang is set in two timelines. In the summer of 1969, insurance clerk Tubby and secretary Enid are back on stage at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Granada Television is recording a documentary celebrating the 40 years since they first stood there as children, singing their hearts out with fellow school pupils and accompanied by the Halle Orchestra. Humorous, warm and uplifting, this is the story of two people trying to reconnect with who they were then and who they could be now – classic Victoria Wood country.

The end result will be broadcast at Christmas and it’s no exaggeration to say that this will be the jewel in the BB C’s festive crown. Proud as he is of the finished work, did Michael have no misgivings about playing a man called Tubby?

‘Not at all,’ he says, cheerfully. ‘That’s who he was but then so was I when I played him. I put on weight for the role. I look the image of my dad in 1969, only fat.’

In an industry plagued by fragile egos, Michael Ball, 52, is a breath of fresh air. He has known almost unbroken success ever since playing Marius in the original London production of Les Misérables in 1985. That was followed by starring roles in Aspects Of Love, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Edna Turnblad in Hairspray and the eponymous role in Sweeney Todd. He won coveted Olivier Awards for the latter two roles.

And yet, surprisingly but rather winningly, he has sometimes been afflicted by bouts of low self-esteem, something that has more or less been put in the shade by the love of a good woman, namely Cathy McGowan.
He first met the one-time presenter of 1960s TV pop show Ready Steady Go! when he’d landed the leading role in Aspects Of Love and she turned up one day to interview him for Newsroom South East. Having done his lovely boy-next-door chat (his words), they swapped numbers and began phoning each other regularly.

‘Cath made me feel fantastic,’ he says. ‘She made me feel I deserved what was happening to me. She completely built up my confidence.’

In time, the friendship blossomed into something deeper. ‘She made me feel attractive for who I was, not for my public persona.’ He can’t imagine anyone, he says, reaching out to him the way Cathy did. And they’ve been together ever since. ‘But it was a gradual thing. It didn’t happen overnight.’

Now, he’s busy like never before. His latest album, If Everyone Was Listening, has just been released and comprises 15 tracks hand-picked by Michael himself. There’s everything from a reworking of the Everly Brothers’ Let It Be Me with additional harmonies provided by The Overtones to a haunting version of Anne Murray’s You Needed Me and the title track, made famous by Supertramp and one of Michael’s chosen eight discs when he was cast away on that desert island.

Some of the songs have been favourites from his Radio 2 show, now broadcast weekly on Sunday evenings. ‘I may one day return to Sunday mornings,’ he says, ‘if Terry Wogan were ever to step down.’ Whatever the slot, Michael is passionate about the programme. ‘I absolutely love the niche we’ve created, which has a really loyal following.’

Early next year, he’s off to appear in concerts in Australia and then he’ll be touring the UK in April and May, singing a mix of the numbers he’s made famous as well as some of the tracks off his new album. He’s also putting the finishing touches to acquiring the rights to mount a new production of an old musical – he doesn’t want to say which one at this stage – that he hopes to bring to Chichester next summer and then, if all goes well, to the West End.

MichaelBall-Nov21-04-590Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett and Michael in the title role of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd

But he insists he knows how to switch off. ‘As in previous years, we took a house in France in the summer. We also went to Majorca for the first time. It’s a much underrated island. Then I spent an enjoyable week in New York, partly work but also an opportunity to see lots of shows. I particularly liked Aladdin. Who knew the Americans got panto? If it comes over here, I predict a huge hit.’

He spent last Christmas on Bequia in the Caribbean but it was not without incident. ‘I always used to wear my maternal grandmother’s wedding ring. We were going down to the beach so I took it off and left it in my room. And it was stolen. I was gutted. They probably wouldn’t have got more than 50 quid for it but it was priceless to me.’

He’s also travelled for work. ‘I performed in Taipei. The students protesting in Hong Kong and Taiwan were singing Do You Hear The People Sing? from Les Mis. That song from a show we first performed almost 30 years ago is now a rallying cry for the disenfranchised all around the world.’

Happy at work, happy at home, Michael Ball knows just how lucky he is. Ask him to name his indulgence and his answer comes as less than a surprise. ‘Some pampering in a spa followed by a theatre trip, an amazing meal in a restaurant and a very good bottle of wine. I like to stimulate all the senses.’