The word that springs to mind when thinking of Michael Ball is ‘Tiggerish’. The ebullient 56-year-old has carved out a niche on stage, in the studio and on radio with a happy-go-lucky gusto. And he has a lot to enthuse about: in 2016 he and collaborator Alfie Boe were responsible for the year’s best-selling album in the UK. His latest solo album, Coming Home To You, a collection of characteristically gentle, easy listening melodies, is anticipated to sell by the van load. This is a Tigger who shifts units, more than four million of them.
But over the course of our lengthy conversation it becomes clear that assumptions can be misleading. Ball is not just a ready giggle, an easy way with a soft-rock melody and a still luxuriant head of curls that bounce as he effuses. This is a man who has been obliged to face down his demons. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘There have been moments of darkness.’
Michael Ball’s urge to work is evident in his output. Last year he didn’t take a day off in six months
It was back in 1989, when he was on stage in Les Misérables, that he was first assailed by the black dog. He became pole-axed with anxiety.
‘I’d never had a nerve in my body, then this happened,’ he recalls. ‘All you have to offer as a performer is yourself. Our job is to make people feel comfortable and if you’re not, you can’t hide it, everything’s out of kilter. You suddenly think: why am I here? It’s too much responsibility, which you can’t cope with. These thoughts whizz through your head as you’re on stage. It’s totally debilitating, creates the panic attacks that mean you can’t do what it is, above all, that you want to do.’
Looking back, he believes that the problem stemmed from a physical condition. Exhausted from overwork, he fell ill. Weakened with fever, his anxiety took control. He left the show and for nearly six months was barely able to get out of bed. ‘My job is not to go out there and be miserable. And I was about as far from being comfortable in myself as it is possible to be. I simply felt I could not do my job.’
Encouraged by the producer Cameron Mackintosh, Ball struggled back to work. But what really helped him recover was meeting the former Ready Steady Go! host Cathy McGowan, who interviewed him for a television show. They became close and it was talking to her that helped him properly emerge from the downturn.
‘I hit a point where I thought this either defeats me or I sort it. I didn’t seek professional help. I talked to Cath, I talked to other people and realised it was so common among performers. When it happened initially I thought I was the only one, it was really isolating. Your mind doesn’t settle down, you spiral out of control, you lose confidence and when you lose that you lose everything.’
Michael Ball with partner Cathy McGowan in 1992. Ball’s relationship with McGowan, he says, equipped him to deal with anxiety
As their relationship developed, he and McGowan, who is 19 years his senior, became partners. They are still together, the age difference between them an irrelevance, he insists. He credits her with saving his life. Not just in the way she helped him round from his anxiety, but physically too. In 1996, at 4.30am one night before Christmas, McGowan was awoken by the smell of smoke. She was driven by an urgent need to get out of the house, but initially she couldn’t find Ball. It turned out he was on the sofa, sleeping off a heavy night of festive fun. Unable to rouse him, she had to drag him out of the door. ‘It was a really scary thing,’ he said at the time. ‘The fire destroyed all my memorabilia – gold records, videos and CDs – but it didn’t matter because everyone was all right.’
Ball’s relationship with McGowan, he says, equipped him to deal with anxiety when it reappeared in his life. ‘There was one time – I’ve never publicly revealed this before – I was in New York doing The Woman In White [in 2005]. I was on stage every night wearing a fat suit, really miserable, the show was not going well. I was not physically well again and I went right into that same spiral. I left the show early and came home. But I had the support of people who loved me. Cath said, “You need to stop or you’re going to get back into that state again.” ’
As she had before, McGowan reset his enthusiasm, relocated his mojo. But it was a chastening moment. Not least in the manner it led to him reassessing his life choices. A man of self-acknowledged appetites, he feared he might be a little too acquainted with eating and, particularly, drinking. And ten years after his last anxiety attack, following the lead of his collaborator Alfie Boe, he found a way properly to address his habits.
‘It was a health issue rather than an addiction,’ he says. ‘But I was knocking back a bottle [of wine] most nights. I’d recently turned 50, I’d put on a lot of weight. When I was on the road with Alfie he had a discipline that I admired. At the back of my mind was that thing of understanding that if I’m not physically well and I’m working hard, there could be problems with anxiety. I thought, I need to address this. But I need nudging. So I got a dietician. That’s the thing with me: I need discipline imposed. I like structure. That’s why I like work. You know what you’re doing, and you have to do it.’
His urge to work is evident in his output. Last year, between performing in Chess in the West End, recording his new album and his Radio 2 show, he didn’t take a day off in six months. Which makes you wonder: is there a risk he might work himself into a state again?
‘There is, but I’m used to it now. It’s about happiness. Working every day isn’t hard if you love what you’re doing. I don’t have hobbies. Other than watching telly and walking my dogs, what I do is work. That’s who I am.’
He is driven, moreover, by a potent fuel: fear. ‘I’m just really scared. It’s a fear of not being asked again. Everything you do you think: this could be the last gig. So when someone asks you to do more, you say yes, partly out of gratitude that they’re still asking.’
This year is no different: in the autumn, when he and Boe are appearing together in a concert version of Les Misérables, he faces another lengthy stretch without a break.
‘It’s a golden period,’ he smiles. ‘Blimey, I’m not going to turn it down. I’ve been in positions where there’s been bugger all.’
And, whatever he is doing, he invariably also finds time to record. Singing, he says, is something he has to do, not least as an emotional release. The inspiration behind his new album was deeply personal. ‘I’m mad about my dogs,’ he says, and ‘we lost two in 18 months recently. When Freddie went, it was such a long, protracted process, horrible, really upsetting. Soon after he’d gone, I played Bright Eyes on my Radio 2 show and promptly burst into tears. After it was finished, I thought, right, I’m going to record that for my boy. So I did. When we lost Ollie I put on Freya Ridings’ Lost Without You. Again, I completely lost it. There was such a response from the audience that I decided I’d have a go at that too.’
His relationship with his dogs was powerful, he says, his grieving significant. He has got another pair since their deaths, and like their predecessors these are Tibetan terriers. ‘They are such a positive force in my life,’ he says. ‘They’re my boys.’
My boys: it is an intriguing description of a couple of mutts. But it is this ready intensity – warm, unaffected, unembarrassed – that informs his popularity. For his legion of fans, to listen to Ball on record, on stage or on the radio, is to assume emotional intimacy. He gets a reminder of their fealty whenever he leaves the BBC after his Sunday show, when he is invariably met by a gaggle of enthusiasts.
‘It’s the same faces every week, it’s lovely. You get to know people’s names and stories. Probably my biggest fan is a lady called Joan. She has a severely disabled niece called Nadine, who she has taken with her to see me in Australia, America and Japan. But none of my fans ever turned up at home, no one’s ever followed me, no one’s ever tried to get in a hotel room. There’s a respect there. There’s a camaraderie, a network of friendships. I guess it started because their old man wouldn’t take them to one of my concerts, so they looked for someone to go with.’
Michael Ball with Leanne Jones in Hairspray at the Shaftesbury Theatre, 2007
And the warmth of the fans, he adds, helps to insulate him from his critics. ‘There are always knockers – it’s part of the business,’ he says. ‘But there are plenty of people out there going, “No, I like it.” I’ve never been fashionable, so I’ll never be out of fashion. As long as you are relevant to some people, as long as you move them, that’s all you can try to do.’
It may not the boldest of mission statements, but Ball makes it sound like a calling.
Michael Ball’s album ‘Coming Home To You’ is out on March 22 on Decca Records. He tours the UK from April 20 to May 22