“I believe in giving value for money. And I get such a kick out of it.”
Being in the public eye can often be a curse: you are regarded as a disreputable hell-raiser if you are featured in national newspapers all the time or you can be seen as too good to be true if your name never appears in the gossip columns. Some people regard Michael Ball as being in the second category.
The singer, actor, broadcaster and heart-throb is never pictured falling out of a nightclub or in a clinch with someone else’s wife. But is that the real Michael Ball or it just his public persona?
I first met him in Nottingham a while ago when he was fundraising for two charities. I found him pleasant and amiable. And after speaking to him on the telephone on behalf of Country Images, I can confirm that he really is a good bloke.
He utters a mild swear word when I inform him that it is eight years since we met at Nottingham Castle. “Time just runs away with you,” he offers.
Later he utters an amusing phrase that borders on shocking when he predicts how ecstatic he would be if he were to win a second Olivier Award for his performance in the musical Sweeney Todd. On the whole, though, with Michael Ball what you see is what you get.
Godspell and Phantom
We had met when he released 200 balloons as part of his fundraising for the Great Britain tennis team, which was competing in the Special Olympics in Glasgow, and his own charity ROC, Research into Ovarian Cancer.
This was set up to honour his sister-in-law Angela who died of ovarian cancer. Eventually the government provided a grant of £22million to pay for screening; Michael’s work on the project was complete.
Michael Ashley Ball was born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire to a Welsh mother and an English father.
He studied drama at Guildford School of Acting and after graduating his career soon took off. His first part was in Godspell at Aberystwyth Arts Centre but his first major break was a star part in The Pirates of Penzance at Manchester Opera House.
Shortly afterwards Cameron Mackintosh cast him as Marius in the original London cast of Les Misérables. Despite catching glandular fever which later resulted in panic attacks, he had convinced the right people that he had the talent to succeed.
Parts as Raoul in the second London casting of The Phantom of the Opera and Alex in Aspects of Love confirmed his potential.
Connecting with people
Fifty-year-old Michael has now been entertaining audiences for nearly three decades with concerts, musicals and as a BBC Radio 2 and television presenter. But he had modest hopes for his career.
“I wanted to be an actor – I trained as an actor. Musicals kind of happened by accident but they were absolutely the right genre for me.
“I did it the proper way, the old school way, which is still the best way to do things.”
“I never thought I’d make records, do concerts, do broadcasting – that all happened by chance. But once they came along they felt the right sort of fit for me.
“I love talking to people. I interview people myself and I find that really fascinating, and having been interviewed so many times you get a feeling for broadcasting. It’s just being connected with people.
“That’s all I do, in whatever way it manifests itself, be it playing a character, singing songs in concert, talking to people over the airwaves, it’s just being connected with people.”
I point out that he did it the hard way because there was nothing like The X-Factor when he was starting out.
“I did it the proper way, the old school way, which is still the best way to do things.
“I grew up very quickly. But I was surrounded by people who knew what they were doing and they mentored me and guided me. I was really, really fortunate.”
You might think that Michael would criticise shows that offer instant fame to youngsters who have little experience of performing. Not a bit of it.
“I think they’re great television. I love watching them. The ones that Andrew (Lloyd Webber) did were particularly good. I think he found some great talent and it gave a wonderful boost to musical theatre, got a whole new generation interested.
“What I don’t care for are the people who are used and dropped, the people who are exploited.
“It’s a tough old business to be literally the top of the pile and the one everybody’s talking about one minute and the next you can’t get anybody on the phone. It’s a very hard lesson to learn.
Eurovision Song Contest
“But it’s been going on long enough now for people to be aware of it. If people are going to go into that kind of programme,they know what to expect.”
Michael’s varied career even led to his representing the UK in the 1992 Eurovision Song Contest in Sweden. One Step Out of Time came second – and we have had little success since then. Why is that?
“It’s no longer a song contest, is it?” says Michael. “It’s a European popularity contest. It’s an excuse for some of the worst songs being put on television and I love it. Long may it reign.”
Michael’s diehard fans have seen different sides to him in the past five years, not only as the demon barber in Sweeney Todd but also as Edna Turnblad in the musical Hairspray.
He won an Olivier in 2008 for best actor in a musical for his performance as Edna and would jump at the chance to play the role again.
“It was an amazing experience.To play opposite Imelda Staunton every night was a masterclass in acting.
“It’s the best musical that Sondheim’s ever written and I think it’s one of the best musicals ever written.
“I had such a nice time, doing it in the West End and doing parts of the tour. I loved it. It’s one of those shows you know an audience is going to leave feeling better than they came in.”
Michael has just visited Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall again as part of a tour to promote his new album Both Sides Now, his 18th solo album which will no doubt achieve gold status like all the others.
Michael, who has been in a relationship with Cathy McGowan, the former presenter of Ready Steady Go! since 1992, says he has no specific burning ambition about what he wants to do next.
“I work hard to make sure every show is different and exciting.”
“There’s a lot of choice on what you can spend your money on in the arts – you go to the theatre, you go to concerts and buy records. And the fact that people will still feel that I’ve got something to say and I can make them feel better is the best compliment in the world.
“I work hard to make sure every show is different and exciting. I think that‘s the secret of longevity – making sure people want to come back, that they’ve had a good time.
“I believe in giving value for money. That’s my ethos. And I get such a kick out of it.
“If an audience is giving that energy to you and you give it back, that’s how you keep going, that’s how the adrenaline kicks in and the momentum keeps going.”
So how long does Michael Ball intend to continue in show business?
“As long as they’ll have me. It’s that simple. If there’s somebody out there who’s prepared to come, I’ll be there for them.”
* This article appeared in the May 2013 issue of Country Images magazine