A successful singer, presenter, actor and all round Mr Nice Guy, Sarah Freeman speaks to Michael Ball.
Given this is Oscar season, can I suggest we squeeze in one more award. It doesn’t need to be particularly high profile, we could pop it in just after best use of a moustache in a period drama. It’s for Nicest Man in Showbusiness and there’s no need to bother with a shortlist. It goes to Michael Ball. No arguments.
A singer, actor and presenter, Ball has somehow managed to achieve success on the stage television and radio while remaining unaffected by fame. He even managed to make an insurance salesman called Tubby one of the television highlights of this Christmas in The Day That We Sang. And that role only came about because he fluffed an interview with the show’s creator Victoria Wood.
“Oh God, it was a nightmare,” he admits. “She came on my radio show and I was so excited because I’ve always loved her work, but it was awful. It was the worst interview I have ever done. Without question. I was so nervous and she didn’t speak. I just had one of those moments when I wanted the studio floor to open up and swallow me up.”
As the interview stumbled to an unnatural and awkward end, Ball says he gently suggested to Wood that she owed him a very big favour, which is how he eventually ended up with the script for A Day That We Sang in his hands. Gentle, funny and heartwarming, Wood had been inspired to write the piece after watching a documentary about the reunion of children’s choir that sang Purcell’s Nymphs and Shepherds with the Hallé Orchestra in the Manchester Free Trade Hall. The record went onto sell more than a million and Wood suspected for many of those youngsters that day was as good as life probably got. Imelda Staunton was cast alongside Ball and he more than held his own against the veteran screen actress as together they told the story of two late bloomers who finally find happiness.
“Despite that inauspicious start, Victoria and I did keep in touch and when we finally met up to talk about The Day That We Sang it pretty quickly became clear that we had so much in common. I’m not joking, it was as though we had been separated at birth.
“I hadn’t had much experience of television and it was a completely different process to being on stage, but it was surprising and wonderful. It was a perfect experience and best of all I got to be reunited with Imelda who I worked with on Sweeney Todd many moons ago. She is the best actress of her generation and what can I say, except it was a privilege.”
Ball says he fully suspected he would have to watch the finished drama squinting through his fingers, but in the end it was a whole lot less painful and it has whetted his appetite to do more television. First though is the small matter of his latest UK tour to promote his 19th studio album If Everyone Was Listening… The album takes its name from the 1974 Supertramp song, a favourite of his growing up and features covers of everything from the Everly Brothers classic Let It Be Me to a reworking of Bad Things, the theme song to the TV vampire drama True Blood.
It was never going to be an album to worry the playlist at Radio 1, but the Sunday Times’s Clive Davis probably summed it up best when he said, ‘All right no sniggering at the back of the class. the Englishman will never be the hipster’s choice of late-night listening, but his recent live tours have proved that he can unearth thoroughly grown-up songs from the neglected corners of the American, pop and country repertoire... surprisingly affecting, all in all, as long as you listen with an open mind’.
“Of course early on in my career I had a lot less freedom than I have now. For this album, the record company simply said, ‘we’d like you to make an album, off you go’. It really was as simple as that. I had a blank canvas to choose the songs I wanted. I think after all these years, I know what an audience wants, but when it comes to the live concerts I like to include a few surprises, I want them to leave feeling like they got more than they expected. With any programme you want things that are familiar, but I never like to be too predictable. Also there are some songs that work on an album that don’t have the same intensity live and vice versa.”
It’s almost 25 years since Ball was catapulted into the limelight with starring roles in two Andrew Lloyd Webber productions. Successfully stepping into the shoes of Michael Crawford in Phantom of the Opera he followed it up with Aspects of Love which spawned Love Changes Everything. A regular on chatshows and the Royal Variety Performance there was a danger that Ball could have become shackled by that one hit song, but instead he went back to work and began notching up entries on what is now a pretty breathless CV, including starring roles in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the West End, The Woman in White on Broadway and more recently in that new production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The latter, he says, is among his career highlights and saw him and Staunton win the Olivier awards for Best Actor and Actress.
“I loved getting recognition from my peers. I won’t deny it does give you a sense of validation. Who doesn’t want someone to say, ‘Good job, well done, thank you’? Funnily enough Imelda has never read a review of her work in her life and I think that’s probably the best way, but I don’t have the resolve not to look. I remember when I was in New York with Woman in White a few people said some quite horrible things, it was what today people would call trolling. I try to remind myself that anyone who posts anything nasty online has an agenda and while I don’t do Facebook, I do think Twitter can be a lot of fun. I try not to take it too seriously.”
Next up for Ball will be Mack and Mabel at Chichester Festival Theatre. Given it is is the same venue where the phenomenally successfully Sweeney Todd started life, he’s looking forward to returning with the show about the relationship between a Hollywood director and the waitress he turns into a star.
“It’s got great songs, it’s got a great story, it’s got everything you want from a musical,” says Ball, who at 52 has the kind of career most other performers would envy.
“It’s funny when I’m on stage I often think wouldn’t it be nice to be back in the studio and when I am recording, I hanker after being in a musical and being part of a team. I know I have been incredibly lucky over the years I try to never look too far ahead and and enjoy everything for what it is.”
Ball says his one disappointment is that he turned down a chance to star in Sunset Boulevard.
Based on Billy Wilder’s Academy Award-winning 1950 film of the same title about a screenwriter and a faded silent screen star, he had read for the part, but turned down the offer of a starring role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage version.
“They cast it at first with two Americans, but it only ran for two weeks. They wanted to make various changes and I got a phone call asking if I would be interested. I had other things on and I turned it down, but that’s probably my one big regret.
“A little later, I did get to perform a couple of the numbers with Petula Clarke, but it wasn’t the same and that’s the one thing I would change if I could wind back time.”
One thing he doesn’t regret is agreeing to stand in for David Jacobi on Radio 2. It was a decision which eventually saw him taking over from Michael Parkinson and Sunday Supplement in 2006 and he has now become one of the station’s most popular presenters.
“The idea of taking over from Michael was terrifying, but it’s also been hugely enjoyable. I was in no doubt that they were huge shoes to fill, but I thought if I’m going to do radio, I’m going to do it properly. I want to learn how to run the desk, I don’t just want to turn up and have to rely on someone else.
“I try not to think too much about who is listening, it’s like I’m talking to you. I love the music and I genuinely want to share the things I love. That’s what life’s about isn’t it?”
If there is a reserve list for national treasure status should Alan Bennett’s or Dame Judi’s halo slip Ball’s name should definitely be on it.
• Michael Ball, York Barbican, April 23. 0844 854 2757, www.yorkbarbican.co.uk