It is only an hour and a half before curtain-up, and if Michael Ball is feeling a rising panic at the idea of spending this time speaking to me through his iPad, rather than on his usual warmup, he is hiding it well. A trouper. It will be only the second performance of Hairspray, in which Ball plays the matriarch Edna Turnblad, and he is still on a high from opening night. “It was one of the most extraordinary nights I’ve ever had in the theatre,” he says. Despite an audience of only 1,000 – fewer than half the London Coliseum’s capacity – “they did twice the work,” Ball says. “I’ve never heard an ovation like it for the cast. They were up, and there was cheering and screaming. It’s just electric, and we needed to hear it. It’s been a long time.”
The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, was there; he was photographed with Ball – who was, in Edna’s pearls, handbag and wig, almost Thatcherite – looking delighted. “I had a nice chat with him,” says Ball, with a theatrical grimace. Theatres, and the whole ecosystem around them, have been devastated by the pandemic. “And so we’ve got to say our piece, and the most important thing I said for us would be Covid insurance for producers,” says Ball. “It’s all very well opening theatres, but if there’s nothing to put into them, what’s the point? Producers need to have confidence that they can put productions together knowing that, if they have to be cancelled, they’re covered. I was banging the gong, in a frock, so I don’t think he knew quite what hit him. But he listened.”
Ball is “cautiously optimistic” that the West End will bounce back, but there has been a big impact on regional theatre and on many performers. Should there have been more financial support? “Yes, but I’m sure everyone thinks there should have been for their own industry,” he says. But many in the arts are freelancers “so they’re left high and dry; they’re not furloughed”. A disregard for the cultural and financial value the arts bring to the country seemed to have been revealed – the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, implied that people should retrain for jobs in other sectors, and a 2020 campaign advising, among other things, that a professional ballet dancer could get a job in tech, appeared. “This business is hard enough … to then be told: it’s not even viable, go and retrain in IT or whatever,” he says. “You just think: ‘How to make a bad situation worse.’”
Ball has fared well over the past year. While his arena dates with his singing partner, the tenor Alfie Boe, were cancelled, their Christmas album went to No 1, and his solo album, released in May, also got to No 1. He even got his first No 1 single, last year, when he recorded You’ll Never Walk Alone with Captain Sir Tom Moore and the NHS Voices of Care choir, for charity. He continued to present his Sunday morning Radio 2 show, and occasionally BBC One’s The One Show.
This year, he made Wonderful Wales With Michael Ball, a four-part series for Channel 5, in which he travels through the nation – it is part travelogue, part homecoming. “Having not been out of the house much for a year, to suddenly be travelling all over the most glorious country, meeting amazing people, doing all this stuff and going on a personal journey, it was …” He smiles. “Yeah, I have been lucky.”
Ball’s mother is Welsh and his father is English. Despite growing up in Devon and Surrey, he says: “I feel Welsh,” then stops and questions himself. “Do I? Yes, I do if it comes down to the crunch. I think it’s because, as a family, we moved around a lot and I didn’t feel rooted properly. But the one constant in my life was Wales, and my gran and Mountain Ash [her town in the Cynon Valley], and I always felt a kinship with that.”
His grandmother, Agnes, known as Lil, was a huge influence on him as a performer. He remembers going to stay with her, and she “always encouraged us to do that old-school, ‘make your own entertainment’ kind of thing. So she and I would put on little things to entertain the family.” She had impeccable timing. “She really encouraged that creativity in all of us as kids – we had this amazing dressing-up box, so we could create costumes and plays.”
In the series, he goes back to her street, a modest terrace that, as a child, he thought of as “the longest street in the history of the world”. Lil died a long time ago, but Ball met people who remembered her. “She was that generous, outgoing, embracing, wise woman who you’d go to if you had a problem. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But that’s how the community felt, talking to people who were still around in the street where she lived.” Ball based his Edna Turnblad on her. “I genuinely am playing my gran,” he says with a laugh. When he played Edna in the first run, for which he won the first of his two Olivier awards in 2008, his mother and uncle came to the show, “and when they saw me, they cried because I look like her”.
Mountain Ash was a close-knit mining community; Ball’s uncle was a miner, as was his grandfather. That also wasn’t something he had given that much thought to before. “Going back there and finding out what it was like to be a miner for my ‘grancha’ – he died because of it, he died from dust on the lungs – it was a bloody hard life.”
Ball has had huge success, and, though he is undeniably showbizzy, he has never seemed grand. Did going back to Wales and seeing the life of his grandparents put his own success in perspective? “I’m very aware of it,” he says. “My parents came from working backgrounds, and became successful and middle class, and therefore were able to give us as kids the best they thought they could.” He adds: “I never put myself into any kind of class.”
Ball, 58, has defied labels, even if critics seem to have their own image of him. He is an unashamedly mainstream singer, with a legion of devoted fans, and also the man who played a no-cheese, no-chat run at the Donmar Warehouse, with an unusual repertoire that included Radiohead, Bowie and Joni Mitchell. He can play the romantic lead, camp it up, sing at the Proms; the daytime TV host who will also take on Stephen Sondheim’s less crowd-pleasing work (such as the tricky one-act musical Passion). Ball likes to say he has never been fashionable so he can never go out of fashion. “It’s easy to knock something,” he says of the snobbery he has come up against in his career. “I’m really proud of so much of what I’ve been able to do.”
Ball’s mother was a teacher, and his father was an apprentice at the Longbridge car plant who worked his way up and became a sales director, which meant the family moved around a lot, including three years spent in South Africa. It’s quite often the way that children who are uprooted create shortcuts to friendships, and this was true for Ball. “I’ve always been pretty good at making friends quickly, so wherever we would go, I would find people to latch on to,” he says. “I was also pretty good at being on my own and making up fantasy worlds.”
Back in the UK, he was sent to boarding school, which he hated. It was a sporty school, “and I wasn’t. I could be very entertaining. I could be funny.” He was good at mimicking the teachers and doing impressions of things that had been on TV. He loved, he says, “making people laugh and making people happy. That was my thing.” His teacher at the Surrey County Youth Theatre suggested he apply for drama school. He got a place at Guildford School of Acting, “and I found my tribe. Suddenly it was: ‘This is what I’m meant to be doing.’” He loved performing, “being somebody else. I loved surprising people, making people laugh. I love moving an audience and having that connection.” And, he adds with a laugh, “I quite like being the centre of attention.”
He was lucky, he says, that graduating coincided with “the time of the great British musicals – the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh extravaganzas that were happening.” A huge early break was getting the role of Marius in the original London production of Les Misérables in 1985, co-directed by Trevor Nunn, then the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. “I’d been going to the RSC since I was about 12, and I’d seen a number of productions that Trevor had done,” says Ball. “So to then be working with him, it was the dream come true.”
It wasn’t to last. Ball has long been open about the mental health crisis he experienced, even when it was still quite rare for celebrities, especially men, to talk about such things. He had been ill with glandular fever and, though he went back to work after about six weeks, he was exhausted. He had a panic attack on stage, then they started happening “on the way to work, randomly, anywhere,” he says. “I just withdrew.” Ball left the show, spent about nine months virtually housebound and thought he would never work again. He felt unable to seek help, muddling his own way through. When Mackintosh called, offering him a part in a recast Phantom of the Opera, it was a lifeline, and Ball grabbed it.
An announcement comes over the public address system, welcoming the audience to the Coliseum and inviting them to start taking their seats. Ball still doesn’t look anxious about the time. The breakdown, he says, “made me a better performer, and a better person. I wish it hadn’t happened, but I’m quite glad it did in a way. You get to the other side, and you learn of the vulnerability of all of us. I think that’s been very useful over this last year. It’s recognising that you’re on a spiral down, and how to stop that.”
Ball never sought professional help, but he recognises the importance of it. Although, he adds: “We have people out there saying: ‘Go and get help,’ and it’s all very well, but there has to be the help out there.” A friend, he says, has been trying to get help, but is on a long waiting list.
The potential for a panic attack “is always there” for him. “If I get really tired, stressed, run down, I can feel that thing happening.” It underscored for him, too, that, despite appearances, you never know what someone is going through. He knows people might have thought about him: “‘Oh, he just breezes along, it’s all absolutely marvellous.’ No, that’s my act, that’s what I do to survive. No one wants to hear me being miserable, so that’s not what I do. We’re all, to a greater or lesser extent, plagued by the same things.”
He credits his partner, Cathy McGowan, for being a stabilising influence on him. They met when McGowan, a former TV presenter, interviewed him when he was appearing in Lloyd-Webber’s Aspects of Love, and have been together for 30 years. Ball is stepfather to McGowan’s daughter, Emma, and grandfather to Emma’s children. Their relationship has lasted, he says, “because we love each other. My life is better with her in it than it would be without her in it. When you’ve been together for 30 years, you know each other really well, and you build a life and a family and a home.” If a relationship survives a pandemic, he says with a smile, “you know you’re on to a winner. We get each other.”
Someone comes into the room to call him for makeup, and he waves cheerily at them. “We fight as any couple does, and we make up like any couple does, but our life is together, and I love it,” he says, turning back to the screen. “I really feel very lucky.”
What is he like at home? What would McGowan say about him? “She would say I was a simple, complicated man,” he says. It’s the title of a song on his latest album, which he wrote. “I’m certainly not Mr Showbiz. The door closes and I’m at home, and it’s very real. Like anyone, I can be up, down. I think I’m quite nice. I don’t know that I’m particularly easy to live with. I’m very impatient, and I like my own way.” A smile. “As does she.”
His public image is so positive and cheery, though he once said in an interview: “I don’t think I’ve ever been truly happy.” Ball has a great line in self-deprecation – was that a joke? “I have been truly happy,” he says. “But I’m also well aware that it won’t last. We’re on a journey that does this [he makes an up and down motion with his hand] all the way through it. I never used to, but I’ve learned to smell the roses, to stop and go ‘great’. Life is so surprising. I genuinely didn’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing. I hoped that people would continue to ask me to work. As soon as I get a job, I’m thinking: ‘What the hell am I going to do after this one?’ I’ve got to learn not to do that so much.” He really does have to go now. The audience have been taking their seats and here he is, still in specs and black T-shirt. How’s he feeling? “Normally, I’m warmed up and I’m ready,” he says with a laugh. “I’m feeling a bit panicked.” But he looks completely at home.
Wonderful Wales With Michael Ball starts on Friday 9 July at 8pm on Channel 5