What Michael Ball and Alfie Boe really think of each other

Britain's favourite tenors talk first impressions, annoying backstage habits and their least favourite songs

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A performer’s lot has its burdens. Playing a role can sometimes extend beyond the stage. Stars faithfully parrot well-learned lines about their wonderful show and adorable co-stars.

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But this cannot be said of two-time Olivier Award winner Michael Ball and the nation’s biggest-selling tenor Alfie Boe – they really do have a special bond. The friendship between the two was forged in 2007 under testing circumstances, when both appeared in the English National Opera’s disastrous staging of Kismet at the London Coliseum. Happily, they were the only two to be spared from the uniformly gruesome reviews.

Boe recalls, “We went through hell together on that. There was a lot of childishness, ego and petty squabbles. Best forgotten.”

Ball has called the show “shockingly, gloriously awful… a cross between Springtime for Hitler and Carry On Camel”.

Their alliance was sealed shortly afterwards when Ball, 54, headlined a Prom at the Albert Hall and Boe, 43, joined him for the duet from The Pearl Fishers.

This autumn has seen them reunite for a British concert tour and this week’s ITV music special. And now, here, for RT…

What were your instant impressions of one another when you first met?

MICHAEL BALL: Younger than me, better-looking than me, sang better than me.

ALFIE BOE: Professional, solid, a great leader – he kept everyone together when there was a really hard job to do.

What do you most like about each other?

MB: Great kisser. Really marvellous.

AB: Oh man. My mother’s going to read this.

Kissing aside, anything else?

MB: He makes me laugh.

AB: He’s very kind, both as a performer and a gentleman. He’s always got my back.

How are you different from one another?

AB: I like routine, having a framework of preparation for everything I do. Michael just gets up, puts his underpants on and sees how it goes.

MB: Not always the underpants, to be honest… I’m good at putting on an energetic and positive front. Alf wears his heart on his sleeve – how he’s feeling is how he’ll behave. I’m used to faking it. He’s not really seen the real me. It’s not how I deal with things.

Is there a song that each of you loves to hear the other sing?

MB: I’ve heard everyone do Bring Him Home from Les Misérables. When Colm Wilkinson did it, I truly never thought I would hear anyone as good, never mind better. Alf uses the training he has to keep it rock solid, but the emotion he brings, the variety and range, are exquisite. I can’t sing it very well – I don’t have the technique to float and hold and give the power.

AB: Michael’s really good at Wham! [Both laugh.] Actually, when Michael cracks into Empty Chairs at Empty Tables [Les Misérables], his phrasing is spectacular. No one else can deliver the power of a story like him. He’s a great actor.

Do either of you have a song you’d be happy never to sing again?

[They laugh knowingly.]

AB: Michael can answer for me.

MB: He’d love never to have to sing Music of the Night again.

AB: I don’t like the song. I can perform it but it’s not one of my favourites.

MB: How many millions of times have I sung Love Changes Everything? But when I see how it matters to people, it gives me the impetus to rediscover it and remember how lucky I am to have a song like that.

Any pre-performance rituals?

MB: Hundreds. I need to have a sleep before a show and a quiet hour. I need to get dressed following the same routine. And I like to smell right for a show. The last thing that absolutely must happen before I leave my dressing room is that my assistant Andrew asks me, “Are we smelling nice for the ladies and the gentlemen?” If he isn’t there, someone I’ve never met before has to do it. So I get some hairy-arsed member of the crew saying it. I can’t go on without it.

AB: I take note of where I’ve put things in a dressing room – my shoes, my coat – and if I have a really good show, then I have to do it all differently the following night.

MB: You weirdo.

AB: One other thing – last thing before I walk on stage, I say to myself: “Lend us a hand, Dad.” [His father died of cancer in 1997 aged 63.]

Do you feel diminished when the term “crossover” is used to describe your work?

MB: It’s used so lazily. Climb Ev’ry Mountain is an aria. And Alfie can sing proper opera then rock Elvis with the best. When other singers attempt that span, it’s embarrassing.

AB: I hate the word crossover. La bohème was reviewed as musical theatre on its debut, not opera. I don’t change my voice for different styles of music. Crossover isn’t about genre. Music is the universal language. The notes are all the same. It’s the audience that changes.

Do you prefer playing the Royal Opera House or Hammersmith Apollo?

AB: They’re buildings. The audience is what matters.

MB: Played both. You can’t get down and dirty at the opera. Hammersmith… yeah.

Have any female fans ever overstepped the mark?

MB: When I was in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 2002, one evening a suitcase arrived backstage containing clothes for me, a sandwich, a can of beer and a ticket to Rhyl. She’d booked us a caravan. She thought we were going away together.

AB: I usually invite people up on stage to join in, and I’ve had my bottom pinched a few times. No caravans in Rhyl, though!

Imaginary scenario – house on fire, all loved ones and pets safe. What do you retrieve?

MB Been there. It was 23 December 2001. Cath saved my life. [He has lived with his partner Cathy McGowan since 1999.] I lost all my gold discs, every picture, and it doesn’t matter a sod. We were all right, the dog was saved. Everything else is just stuff.

AB If everyone’s out and all right… The thing is, I like being prepared, so I’d probably go back into the house and make sandwiches. Make sure everyone was fed. [They laugh.]

Happiest moment of your life?

AB: Wedding day, birth of kids. [He and his wife Sarah have Grace, eight, and Alfie, four.]

MB: Loads. Still waiting for the most earth-shattering, life-changing, spectacular one.

And the saddest?

MB: God, loads of those, too. [Laughs.] No, the saddest times are always when you lose someone.

AB: Yes… my dad. I was very close to my dad. As a teenager I was an idiot and I wish I’d been different, but at that age you think you know it all. It wasn’t until my father passed away that I started to realise what life was about.

The one thing most likely to make you lose your temper?

AB: Singing Music of the Night. [They laugh.]

MB: Cutting it from the show. [They laugh even louder.]

Do you irritate one another with any annoying habits?

MB: He whistles backstage. I hate it. I can hear it anywhere in the building. Don’t do it.

AB: He rabbits on between songs. I might lie down and have a nap while he’s talking. MB: It’s true. Ages ago there was a book running on how long I would spend on one anecdote between songs. My record was 18 minutes.

Finally… each describe the other in three words.

MB: Very. Very. Northern.

AB: A good friend.

MB: In that case I’m changing mine to “complete upstaging bastard”.

[They fall about laughing.]

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Ball and Boe: One Night Only is on Friday 9pm ITV