Michael Ball’s novel method of beating the ‘black dog’ of depression
20th October 2022

Michael Ball and Alfie Boe answer quick fire questions

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A double Olivier Award winner and chart-topping, multi-platinum recording artist, the charismatic performer who recently turned 60 is also a hugely popular broadcaster on TV and radio with an OBE to boot for his services to musical theatre.

Yet his anxiety has been with him almost from the beginning, starting in earnest in 1985 when he joined the original London cast of Les Miserables.

After being diagnosed with glandular fever, he took six weeks off to recover, but returning to work still suffering from fatigue, he began to suffer debilitating panic attacks on stage.

He eventually quit the show and, over time, taught himself coping mechanisms. But even today anxiety can still take hold.

“Periodically through my life the black dog is always lurking, but you learn how to deal with it,” he admits. “It’s about understanding the spiral effect of panic, depression and insecurity and finding ways of distracting yourself and stopping your mind going down and down. I often find that panic attacks happen when I’m tired and vulnerable.

“There’s suddenly this overwhelming wave of adrenaline. And what happens when you’re a performer, which is fatal, is that you have a voice outside your head, commenting and telling you: “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

“It’s the worst feeling in the world and I still get it on stage after all these years. It’s challenging, but I say, “Okay, I’ll use this adrenaline and deal with it.” It doesn’t always work but my job is artifice, so as long as nobody knows, then that’s fine. What you can’t do is give in to it and suddenly stop and run away.

“I’ve not been in therapy or had professional help – it’s like I’ve never had singing lessons! I’ve just grown to understand instinctively what works for me and as you get older you care less about how you come across.”

His latest venture, debut novel The Empire, is not something he could even have contemplated a decade ago.

“I absolutely wouldn’t have had the confidence to write a book ten or 20 years ago,” says Ball. “I’ve always wanted to write a novel. But it wasn’t until two years ago that I actually thought I could.”

It’s this more positive attitude Ball has embraced and, he reveals, it was the prospect of his milestone 60th birthday in June that has prompted it.

“Turning 60 is a gob-smacking thing,” he explains. “You are way over half way through your life, so it is a time of reflection and assessment and a time of going, ‘What challenges will make the rest of it interesting?’

“Some people think – I’ve done my bit; I’m going to retire and have a lovely time. That’s not what interests me. So, I thought – what haven’t I done, what’s on my bucket list?

“And what the pandemic has taught us is that you never know what is going to happen, so you should grab moments and have a go at things. I didn’t know I could write a book; you don’t know until you try. But I’m a good collaborator – that comes from my work in the theatre – and I listened to my editors.”

He jokes: “Ultimately, I made the final decision, but other than aliens arriving and a zombie apocalypse, they were happy with everything!”

We are talking via Zoom from his home office in the attic of his London home. He has set up the camera in a corner next to a cupboard and when I suggest the importance of a carefully-curated wall behind him for Zoom calls, the laughter starts again.

“I’ve got b****r all!” he grins. “There’s a framed poster from my first Royal Variety Show and my Olivier nomination, but I know I’ve let myself down.”

It was in this room that Michael spent the last six months shuttered away, writing The Empire. He shares his home with his partner of 30 years, former Ready Steady Go! presenter Cathy McGowan. So how did she cope with the long hours when Michael shut himself away to write.

“She was incredibly relieved,” he deadpans. “Like everybody else we were together 24/7 in lockdown. But what was lovely was that she’d come upstairs and bring me a cup of tea and I’d say: “Look what I’ve done” when I’d written a chapter.

“So, she was very much involved with it, but one step removed. It’s the way we’ve always worked.”

Also in lockdown, Ball for the first time wrote an album of his own songs. We Are More Than One was a hit and gave him the push to turn his hand to writing fiction.

“For me it’s all a matter of confidence – can I do this?” he explains. “And because the album worked it gave me a bit of self-belief.

“I read a lot and as I was heading towards a big birthday, I thought to myself: “I wonder if I could actually write a book and if I did, would anyone be interested?” He is, of course, not the first famous name to pen a novel, so what sets him apart from the many other celebrity authors out there?

“It really means something to me,” he insists. “It’s what I’ve done all my life. I could have had a career that was just about the theatre, but I chose to diversify.

“I chose to make records and do concerts. I chose to have a radio programme and work on TV and do shows such as Hairspray that people wouldn’t expect me to do. So, writing seemed almost like a natural progression.”

Full of mystery, romance and intrigue, The Empire is a sweeping drama set in the theatre world after the First World War. Ball has drawn on experiences from his own life for many of the stories, including his stage fright.

“It’s not a central thrust of the book – it happens to one of the characters. It’s not a central thrust to my life, but it was a pivotal moment,” he says.

“Les Miserables was my second job, life couldn’t have been more gilded, but if your head isn’t working properly, nothing works.”

Since those unhappy days Ball has appeared on stage in a host of shows, including Aspects Of Love, Sunset Boulevard, Hairspray and Sweeney Todd, as well as on Broadway.

He reached No 2 in the charts with Love Changes Everything and topped the charts with Second World War veteran and lockdown fundraising superstar Captain Sir Tom Moore with You’ll Never Walk Alone.

In recent years, he has also enjoyed huge success with his tenor friend Alfie Boe, with the duo’s latest album Together In Vegas due out later this month.

Meanwhile it has just been announced that Ball will be returning to the West End next year in a revival of Aspects Of Love, which he first starred in back in 1989. “It’s going to be fascinating to revisit that extraordinary time in my life from a whole other perspective,” he says. “I took the idea to Andrew (Lloyd Webber) and he got it instantly.”

Meanwhile, with The Empire now out, he is waiting for his first reviews to come in.

But rather than panicking, he remains sanguine about the reception that awaits. “I used to be paranoid about what people thought about me and I’d hope that with everything I did people would go, ‘Oh, you’re bloody marvellous,'” he recalls.

“And of course, they didn’t, because people don’t. But now, as long as I feel I’ve done something to the best of my ability, then if other people like it, that’s great and if they don’t, that’s OK.”

The Empire by Michael Ball (Zaffre, £20) is out now. Michael Ball and Alfie Boe release their new album, Together In Vegas, on October 28 on Decca.

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