Alfie Boe and Michael Ball are back together with a new album and a tour heading to Yorkshire in the new year. Nick Ahad caught up with the pair and joined in the banter.
Something interesting happens to the dynamic of an interview when you add more than one interviewee. It brings a sort of anarchy, a shifting of the parameters into which a conversation fits. You can end up with unexpected moments. With, for example, something like this: “While you’re down to earth, you seem a little more, well, showbiz.”
“How on earth do I get this reputation?”
“I’ve no idea.”
“Am I really that showbizzy?”
“Mate, you are so showbizzy.”
“Yes. Yes you are.”
“Darling, how marvellous.”
Cue much cackling. The above is a conversation between me, Michael Ball and Alfie Boe. But only the first line belongs to me.
You will be able, I’m sure, to guess who the person accused of being “showbizzy” is and who is the one enjoying ribbing his partner about it. Clue: the showbizzy one isn’t the former apprentice mechanic from Lancashire.
That was how Boe began his working life but, thanks to a remarkable voice and talent, is categorically not how he continues it today.
Ball is a former boarding school pupil who enjoyed trips to the Royal Shakespeare Company from his early teenage years and is the target of the showbiz accusations levelled above.
Boe and Ball are quite the combination, on stage and off, a duo born more than a decade ago and still going strong today. They met in a theatre production (about which Ball has strong opinions, more of which later). It is a curious life, working as a performer in theatre. You find yourself thrown together, relying on the person alongside you. You form bonds which you swear will never be broken and then the show finishes, you move on to the next job, consign the previous one to a little box of memories and begin the cycle again.
When you experience Ball and Boe together, you do wonder why it is this relationship, from the many each has had in their careers, that has such longevity. Showbiz tendencies are not the only way in which they are so entirely different. As odd a couple as Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, Ball is garrulous, always laughing, doesn’t take himself seriously and happily answers any questions (even the ones I very clearly address to Boe).
For his part, Boe is, not truculent exactly, but, well, when you put him next to Ball for comparison they’re like chalk and cheese. One is a natural raconteur and the other isn’t.
And yet Ball and Boe as a duo have now sold over one million albums in the UK, received two Classic Brit Awards and enjoyed two sell-out arena tours. They are back with a new album, Back Together, and an accompanying arena tour which visits Leeds First Direct Arena in February.
They are an unusual arena-selling act in many ways, not least in that they both seem very approachable. Ball by virtue, perhaps, of his popular BBC Radio 2 show, which sees him in the kitchens, cars and bedrooms of millions on a Sunday afternoon, and Boe by virtue of his down to earth nature.
“You do have a vast space out in front of you in an arena, but there is somehow an element of intimacy that we manage to get with the show,” says Boe. Ball adds: “I think you learn how to create that intimacy by playing smaller venues and learning how to connect with the audience.”
I tell Ball that I witnessed this first hand when he performed at Bradford Alhambra in 2014 to celebrate the theatre’s centenary. “Oh, it’s a beautiful venue, I remember celebrating that anniversary, I was on the bill with the Krankies, does life get any better? Have I told you this story, Alf?” Boe doesn’t respond and simply settles in to hear the anecdote. You feel like he’s been here before.
“I was sitting backstage waiting to go on, when Janette Krankie runs off stage for a quick change. She strips down to her bra and pants, right next to me and she says [a pitch perfect Janette Krankie impression] ‘I know what you’re thinking, it all needs a good iron’.”
Ball’s enthusiasm for his own story is infectious and I laugh – along with the storyteller. Boe chuckles. I ask Boe if he is the more serious of the two? “The thing is,” answers Ball. “We take the music and the job very seriously. We want to deliver the best show we can and having fun and an element of spontaneity is part of that, but the music is paramount. We want to treat that with respect.” Boe gets a word in: “The music is best when I’m doing a solo.”
Just in case this isn’t coming across, Boe is plenty of fun, in his own inimitable way. The unlikely couple met in a production of Kismet in 2007. “I have to say, of all the productions I’ve been involved in, this was the biggest turkey,” says Ball. Boe stays diplomatically quiet.
“It was so bad it actually became quite funny, you know like Springtime for Hitler in The Producers? I remember Alf and I just looked at each other and we were clearly thinking ‘what is this?’ When you have something like that, you have two options, you leave or you decide to go through with it and have as good a time as you can, so Alf and I decided to stay and have a laugh and that’s what we did.”
I ask about the riders they have while on tour. “Mine’s got smaller and smaller, I just want tea, water and a towel, while Michael wants puppies and a palm tree in the corner of the room and simulated whale sounds,” say Boe.
Ball: “Don’t need that, I’ll just listen to you.”
Is there any element of competition between the two?
Ball: “I don’t think there’s any room for it when you’re in a partnership, I think it would take away some of the fun if we were competing.”
Boe: “There’s no point in competing. He’d lose.”
What’s the best thing about being on tour together? Ball: “The gigs. Every night is different – different reactions, different response, different people in the audience, you get the applause and you are there with your mate and he’s feeling exactly the same as you.”
Boe: “For me it’s the catering.” A penny drops for Ball. “My gosh, you were right. I am so showbiz. And he’s so basic. Part of his rider, and I promise you this isn’t a joke, is Bisto.”
The thing is, while it pains me to fight the corner of a Lancastrian, I do have to point out to the Southerner in this three-way conversation that there is nothing wrong with gravy on a list of demands.
“Gravy, okay,” agrees Ball. “But on sushi?”
Ball falls into floods of laughter at his own joke and this time, Boe laughs heartily too. You can see why these two make such a good showbiz pairing.
Back Together is available on Decca Records. The Back Together Arena tour comes to Leeds First Direct Arena on February 25.