He’s a star of Broadway, the West End and is about to appear in Mr Selfridge, but as Alfie Boe tells Phil Penfold he has never forgotten his northern roots.
Kevin Spacey, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Daniel Craig, Hugh Jackman and pianist Stephen Hough have all, at one time or another, roundly condemned the owners of mobile phones when they have started ringing during their performances. The late and much-missed actor Richard Griffiths once stopped a play at the National Theatre and ordered a woman out of the auditorium when he heard her phone chirruping happily in the stalls.
But tenor Alfie Boe has a different way of doing things. “I was halfway through a concert in Cardiff,” he laughs, “when, just as I was introducing the next song, I heard a loud ringing noise, and spotted a woman trying to switch off her phone. So I walked down into the audience, made my way along her row, and introduced myself. I asked if I could have a look at her phone and pressed the redial button. It started buzzing at the other end. Then someone picked up, and it was the woman’s mother...
“I put the phone onto loudspeaker so that the entire place could hear her. I told her that I was Alfie Boe, that I was in the middle of a show, and that her daughter was standing right next to me. She didn’t believe me when I told her my name, so I asked everyone to shout it out loudly for her. That convinced her, and we had a very nice conversation. In fact, it turned into one of the highlights of the night... the point is that the lady with the phone was so incredibly embarrassed that I don’t think she’ll ever take a phone to a concert again.”
We’re in a hospitality suite at ITV’s headquarters on Theobalds Road in London, sharing a pot of coffee, and Mr Boe is dressed from head to toe in stylish black, which makes his infectious grin seem all the more white. Alfie has just recorded an episode of the second series of ITV’s period drama Mr Selfridge, which begins later this month.
He’ll be seen playing a 1916 music hall star who is co-opted into a charity gala performance – and he’s going to be a busy boy for the rest of the year too. “I’ve got a coast-to-coast tour of the USA for several months, and then an 11-date tour here in the winter. I’ll be playing the Leeds First Direct Arena as one of the dates and, when I checked the other day, the tickets were all going very well indeed.
“The great thing is that my wife Sarah and our two children – Grace is five and little Alfie is two – can come with me on my travels when the youngsters aren’t at school. Gracie already looks as if she’s going to follow me into entertainment – her favourite trick is to pile all our suitcases on top of each other to make a stage, and then she clambers up and starts singing. And I was driving along the other day, with Alfie in the back of the car, and a Johnny Cash number came on the radio – he immediately started singing along and he knew all the words, as well.”
Boe’s latest foray into the acting world in Mr Selfridge came out of the blue.
“The director of the show saw me in a couple of things, apparently, and she thought that I’d be able to pull it off. I play a bloke called Richard Chapman, and he’s totally fictitious. He could have been any one of a number of people around at the time, but I didn’t base him on anyone in particular. I get to sing a few songs, numbers like It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, and Let’s All Go Down The Strand and a favourite of mine, Danny Boy, and I also had the thrill of filming a couple of scenes at the famed Wilton’s Music Hall in London’s East End, which is one of those amazing surviving theatres from the height of the Victorian era.
“In between takes I was having a nosey around backstage, and there are some amazing framed pictures of artistes of the day, and also some clipping about the history of Wilton’s. There was one all about this singer who had been giving his all to the audience when someone started heckling him. He tried to ignore it, but this fella kept on shouting things out, so the singer – just as I did – got off the stage, went into the audience, found the heckler, and punched him one. The bloke went down like a sack of spuds, hit his head, and died. The singer got back on the stage and resumed his act. Incredible. They knew how to deal with unruly audiences back in those days, eh?
“But the police came and arrested him, he ended up in court – and got a sentence of only a fortnight because the defence lawyers said that he had been unnecessarily provoked…”
The story also illustrates something Boe has felt for a while – that other side of the business that some young stars, desperate to go from zero to hero overnight, don’t understand.
“They don’t realise that it’s not all full houses with enthusiastic audiences, that it’s such a hard slog, with so many disappointments along the way, and so many obstacles to overcome. I’d love to do more work at the Royal College of Music (where he trained), where I could mentor the up-and-coming performers of today, and to give them a few words about what to expect. I’d tell them ‘life out there is tough’. There’s no use in weaving a lovey-dovey fairy story for them.”
He certainly told the truth in his best-selling autobiography, Alfie – My Story. Well, 99.999999 per cent of it. Because he owns up that the name of his first girlfriend was changed – for legal reasons – as he paints her in a very negative light. His father, who he adored and who died a couple of years ago, came out it rather better.
“I guess it was dad who introduced me to opera and to music in general when I was quite small,” he says. “Dad’s favourite singer was the Austrian tenor Richard Tauber, one of the greatest stars of the pre-war and wartime era. In fact, one of the first true auditions I ever did was with one of Tauber’s greatest songs, You Are My Heart’s Delight and the reason for that was it was just about the only piece of classical music that I knew all the way through.”
The idea for the book came after he appeared on Desert Island Discs with Kirsty Young and gave a pretty honest assessment of some of the productions he’d been in. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, that was pretty cathartic, and I feel that I’ve got a lot off my chest. Why not extend it, and get it down on paper?’” One of the “truly bad” productions, he confesses now, was a revival of Kismet at the Coliseum in London.
“Everything that could go wrong with that show did, and the director had some incredible ideas that just did not work. It didn’t help, either, that it was updated to today, and that I entered as an American soldier with a rifle. We opened, needless to say, on the day that Tony Blair took us all into Iraq. How’s about that for great timing?”
He also suffered – physically this time – when he was cast in The Pearl Fishers, and the director for that wanted a video wall of shots of Alfie swimming underwater. After hours of immersion, the chlorine affected him, and he was a very sick man for some time afterwards.
He wants his audiences today to relax and enjoy themselves when they come along to a show. He loves doing opera, always will, but admits he would find it very hard to sit through one. “I like the performing bit, and not the sitting on my backside bit,” he says by way of explanation. “One thing that I’ve found is that you cannot educate people to like something – they either do, or they don’t. Are audiences different in various places around the country? Northern audiences are far more warm toward you, that’s for sure – and I’m not making that up. London audiences are hard to please, but wherever I am, I have a strong need to connect with my audiences.”
If he had to pick a couple of moments when he felt on top of the world, he says, one would be singing at the top of the steps on the Victoria Monument for the Queen’s Jubilee, which he describes as “a huge adrenalin rush”, and the other would be selling out the Royal Albert Hall for two nights in a row, and performing to thousands. “Those were my highs – and I hope that there are more to come.”
His own favourite tenors, he reckons, are “Jussi Bjorling, Tauber (of course), Gigli and Giuseppe Di Stephano, who had an amazing voice and who was one heck of a good actor, too. They pity is that a lot of young singers coming through today don’t listen to the voices of the past, but if they did, they’d learn a few valuable lessons, not least in technique and in phrasing.”
He doesn’t however, “give advice to people. Only opinion. Advice has a tendency to rebound on you, I always feel. If I said anything to anyone, and this is right across the board, is ‘Be yourself’, and be the best ‘yourself’ that you can. There are too many who settle for second best, I reckon.
“And, if I’m honest again, I’m rather glad that I’m Alfie Boe from Fleetwood in Lancashire, and that I’ve never forgotten where my roots are. And that I speak my mind.” He laughs and adds, “maybe, perhaps, a bit too often and too loudly…”
Alfie Boe: Trust is the new CD on Decca. Alfie: My Story is published by Simon and Schuster in paperback at £7.99. He plays the First Direct Arena in December. For tickets go to www.firstdirectarena.com. The new series of Mr Selfridge starts on January 18.