Michael Ball: ‘It feels like a time when we should be thinking about getting our mojo back in this country’

Michael Ball is in a reflective mood ahead of his forthcoming run of concerts with his close friend Alfie Boe. The singer, who turns 60 on Monday, sees himself as “lucky” for having been able to navigate his way through the pandemic relatively unscathed, even though “like everyone else” he and his long-time partner Cathy McGowan came down with Covid early on.

Michael Ball.
Michael Ball.

Since then, he says, he has been doing what everyone else in music and theatreland is doing, “trying to think of new ways to do what we’ve always done”. “I feel so relieved that things are coming back to some semblance of normality,” he sighs.

Having been a leading voice for the reopening of the West End as lockdown restrictions were gradually lifted, Ball says it is “difficult” to assess the lay of the land for theatres in the wake of the recently-announced closure of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cinderella.

“There are audiences, but they’re not like they were,” he considers. “The big problem with the West End is the lack of tourists, especially for the stalwart shows, the ones that relied on tourists. They’re managing to just about survive, but it is a struggle. People have got out of the habit of going to the theatre. With the credit crunch being how it is, the cost of living crisis, people are a lot more wary about what they will spend their money on. But on the other hand, people are desperate to go out and do something, so I think they’re being fairly choosy about what they go to.

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    Michael Ball with Alfie Boe. Picture: Paul Harries

    “What I do know is that as much as it can be, it’s safe to do so and an incredible welcome is waiting for anyone who goes to the theatre or goes to concerts or gets out and about.”

    Amid everything, Ball found his Sunday morning show for BBC Radio 2 a “vital” haven. Unable to have guests in the studio, he uncovered “this little story about a man who was doing 100 laps of his garden for his 100th birthday”. His interview with Captain Tom Moore would go on to help make the Keighley-born centenarian one of the most famous figures in Britain. “It was extraordinary,” says Ball. “From that moment on, myself and my producer realised we could make a sort of appointment every Sunday to check in with each other, spread some news and just be a voice of comfort, hopefully, and togetherness. It gave me something to focus on, to go to every week, and for the listener as well it became sort of an appointment, so it was absolutely vital for me.”

    Ball’s recording of You’ll Never Walk Alone with Captain Tom also reached number one in the UK charts in April 2020. The singer feels glad to have been able to honour the remarkable Army veteran whose endeavours raised more than £32m for NHS charities. “When you think back to those times he was such a shining beacon and...he got such a kick out of doing it,” he says. “I felt proud of being a small cog in the wheel of what he achieved and to show him in as best a light I could.”

    As we speak, Ball is “sat in front of a laptop” writing his debut novel, The Empire, due to be published in October. “My deadline is fast approaching, but I’m on course, it’s going really well,” he says. The Empire is a fictional theatre in a northern town, he explains. “I didn’t want to make it specific, I didn’t want to make it Manchester or Leeds, because people will claim ownership, but it’s based on a lot of those big, grand, beautiful theatres that are in towns and cities all across the UK,” he says. “I wanted to set it in an interesting time for this country and for the theatre, so 1922 is when I’m setting it, just after the First World War. There are a lot of changes happening in society, in women’s rights, in the theatre in tastes in what people wanted to go and see, what was the entertainment of the time, all wrapped up in a family saga of the people who own this theatre and the people who work there and the people who visit it, and I’m loving every second of it. I’m drawing on my own experiences and people that I know loosely, their ideas and personalities,” he chuckles.

    This month and next Ball and Boe are reuniting for a run of shows for which Ball says he “can’t wait”. A few days after our interview, the pair were due to go into the studio to work on their fourth album as a duo before starting rehearsals for their tour. “I love those open-air festivals and concerts. There’s a magic to them, as long as it doesn’t rain. Or even if it does at Scarborough,” Ball says, remembering the “monsoon” that greeted their performance at the resort’s Open Air Theatre in 2017. “I don’t know how we survived it, I don’t know if we legally should have actually done the show, but everybody stayed,” he recalls. “I got absolutely soaked, but there is a wonderful atmosphere in those things, and we’ve got lovely support artists coming with us. Alfie and I on stage, what’s not to love? We just love performing together.”

    Boe has recently been seen in BBC One’s Freeze The Fear. The popular singer’s revelation that he had spent time in rehab after taking an overdose following the breakdown of his marriage caused a stir, but he and Ball evidently remain close.

    “I think he’s been very brave talking about the challenges he’s faced up to,” says Ball. “I know why he did this and I think it’s really valuable for him. He’s acquitted himself well and if what he’s been through and what he’s talking about helps other people to face what they’re going through and to find techniques and ways to deal with things, all credit to him.”

    Their friendship, forged when they shared a stage in an ill-fated English National Opera production of Kismet 15 years ago, seems unbreakable. “He’s my friend and I remain there for him in good times and bad times, as he would be for me,” Ball says simply. “I think that’s when you find out who your friends are when things are going wrong, when you face challenges and you’ve got someone there to share them with, it’s a bit easier, and he’s done the same for me.”

    The pair’s Together This Summer concerts will have a celebratory feel, Ball reckons. The feeling is “very different” to their winter 2021 arena tour where things were very much still up in the air with the pandemic. “This feels totally free,” he says. “We will be celebrating the Jubilee happening, it feels like a time when we should be thinking about getting our mojo back in this country and enjoy the fact that we can be out in the fresh air, we can be with friends and family and people who like the same things and relish that.”

    However, he adds: “You’ve also got to acknowledge what we have been through. It’s been awful and I hope we don’t lose sight of those moments when we really did come together, when we really did bring out the best in us as a community and as a society. I’m all for that. We’re so quick to lose sight of the lessons we learn or should learn. I hope we can hold on to a bit of the positivity.”

    Ball and Boe play at Scarborough Open Air Theatre on Thursday June 30. www.ballandboe.com