A sizable chunk of the population will awaken on Christmas morning to find Michael Ball and Alfie Boe in their stockings.
Last Christmas the pair’s album Together became the biggest-selling release of the whole of 2016, shifting more than half a million copies. In an age when streaming and downloads have sucked the fun out of the Christmas singles chart, the battleground has moved over to albums and Ball and Boe are back to annihilate any pesky pretenders to their Christmas crown this year with their imaginatively titled follow-up, Together Again.
Their chemistry and camaraderie is as contagious as the tunes, carrying shades of Wham! via Morecambe and Wise
Their arsenal is simple: a heady mix of show tunes, old standards and contemporary hits passionately and earnestly sung with voices ringing, by turns hard as lightning, soft as candlelight. And their chemistry and camaraderie is as contagious as the tunes; they are singers with incredible pedigree but carry shades of Wham! via Morecambe and Wise (fittingly Bring Me Sunshine appears on Together Again).
On their recent TV special, they bantered like a post-pubescent, hairier version of Ant and Dec, and they come across the same in person, their answers seldom serious and frequently interrupted by gales of laughter.
The Big Issue: Are you the Ant and Dec of light opera?
Alfie Boe: I don’t think we have any connection musically, unless you want to sing Let’s Get Ready to Rumble?
Michael Ball: I do, I really do. [Laughter] If there was a team that I absolutely love – because they had such brilliant careers separately but when they came together something magical happened – it was Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.
AB: Or Sinatra and Dean Martin.
MB: Yeah, it feels quite special when they work together, but they had their own lives and their own careers as well.
Speaking of Ball, Boe and Bing, on Together Again you sing White Christmas with Bing Crosby. How does that work?
MB: What’s extraordinary is the technology.
AB: They’re able to lift the vocal off the original track and play it while we were recording. Our arrangement is the same tempo and the same structure as the original, so it fits with what Bing’s singing, but it’s actually live musicians playing; it’s our own arrangement.
Michael Ball made his West End debut in 1985 as Marius in the original production of Les Misérables and has been a stalwart of stage and screen ever since, winning two Olivier Awards, becoming an OBE and memorably coming second in the 1992 Eurovision Song Contest with One Step Out of Time.
Are there other people who are no longer with us that you would like to duet with?
AB: A collaboration with Elvis would be pretty cool. Who wouldn’t you want to sing with? Freddie Mercury…
MB: Sinatra, the list goes on…
AB: David Bowie. We’ve lost so many amazing musicians this last couple of years. It’s such a loss to our industry.
MB: George Michael.
AB: It would have been great to have sung with them while they were alive.
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I’m sure your partnership has many long and happy years ahead but now the technology exists where one of you could continue the duo if the other isn’t around…
MB: That’s a really good thought! [howls of laughter]
AB: I can’t wait to sing a duet with Michael Ball after he’s popped his clogs!
MB: Why am I going first?!
AB: You’re the eldest! You’ve got 12 years on me! [More laughter]
MB: God, you’ll have a guaranteed number one as well if I’m dead. Bastard! Actually, you’re looking peaky…
When did you realise that together you had something special?
AB: It clicked for us way before any of these albums were conceived. We sang together in Kismet, then we sang together at the Royal Albert Hall so we knew it worked. We just wanted to have the opportunity to sing more.
MB: I’m glad we waited, though. The time feels absolutely right for us.
What we’ve proven with our album is that people still want to go out and buy a physical copy
AB: Timing is everything in this industry. When we were working together 11 years ago, people were downloading their music like crazy, then Spotify came along. Now, what we’ve proven with our album is that people still want to go out and buy a physical copy. That’s the beauty of our sales, which were 97 per cent over the counter. It’s nice to know we’ve had some sort of effect on the industry.
Alfie Boe had a different journey to the top. Born in Blackpool and raised in Fleetwood, he became an apprentice mechanic at 17, entertaining his workmates by singing arias while cleaning cars. One day a customer overheard Boe singing medleys from West Side Story and suggested he audition for an operatic company. It led to him moving to London to pursue a singing career. The road was not straightforward though. Having problems making ends meet, there were times Boe would perform at glitzy venues and in front of royalty but then go to sleep rough in Hyde Park.
Alfie, you have had experience of homelessness. Does that make you appreciate the success you have had?
AB: It’s how it makes you grow, being in a situation like that. Do you buckle under or do you pick yourself up and get yourself back on track? I was determined to carry on.
I could have called home and I could have said, ‘I need a train ticket, it’s not working out down here, can I come home?’ But I didn’t do that. I didn’t want to go home, I wanted to see how far I could go. Deep down inside I knew something was going to change. I was feeling good after every concert I’d do when I was in that situation – leaving a theatre or a royal palace after singing at a function then going and sleeping rough. It was the only way I could get through. I don’t take for granted the situation I’m in now.
Throughout your careers you have sung the same songs at different stages of your life. Do the songs’ meanings change with the times?
MB: Absolutely. A song like Love Changes Everything – sung it in every gig I’ve ever done, have to sing it! – and you take it for granted for a while. Then you can rediscover it, you listen to it with fresh ears, you’re doing it for an audience and you suddenly reconnect. It will only happen with great songs, but you do.
AB: It’s the same with Bring Him Home for me. It’s the song that changed my career so I can never get tired of something that’s been so good to me.
MB: Les Mis. Empty Chairs at Empty Tables was very specific to that moment in Marius’ life but when I sing it during a time of disaster or a terrorist attack, it absolutely takes on a whole new meaning for me, the players, the audience – for everyone. It’s very powerful.
No more talk of darkness, can we expect a Christmas album one day?
AB: I think you can guarantee a Christmas album at some point.
MB: Whether it’s next year, I doubt. Maybe the year after? That would be nice. BallBoes…? BoeBalls – Christmas BoeBalls! [collapsing into laughter again]
AB: There you go.
Most of the stuff is not scripted, we’re having a go at each other in the rehearsal room and then it becomes more formalised
Will the return of Ball and Boe each year become a Christmas tradition?
AB: It would be lovely to be the nation’s Christmas… delight. I don’t know if that’s the word?
MB: [Hysterical laughter]
AB: But I think Bublé’s had far too many Christmases. Get rid of Bublé!
MB: We could get him as our third B.
AB: I’m not being last, it’ll be: Ball, Boe and Bublé, how about that?
Do you buy each other Christmas presents?
AB: Yeah we do.
What did you get each other last year?
AB: What did I get you?
MB: I know what I got you. I sent over a Fortnum’s thing.
AB: You did. And I got you… I did get him something. Let’s skip to the next question please.
MB: He’s feeling guilty now. I got him an opening night present as well that was lovely.
AB: I did as well!
MB: I know you did, I’m not saying you didn’t!
AB: I got him a suitcase and he’s knackered it already. It’s missing one of the locks, and the lining inside…
AB: It was a Rimowa! A £1,000 suitcase!
MB: But I got you a Captain America onesie.
AB: He did actually. Extra baggy.
Are you trying to conquer the music world or get into comedy?
MB: It depends, if you think we’re funny then that’s good. It’s just how Alf and I are together. Most of the stuff is not scripted, we’re having a go at each other in the rehearsal room and then it becomes more formalised.
You’re having a go at each other all the time?
MB: Absolutely constantly. In a loving, supportive way. Right Alfred?
AB: [Laughter] I’m keeping quiet on that one.
Christmas Crackers of Turkeys?
Ball & Boe are favourites to have the Christmas number one album again this year at 2/1 but they’re closely followed by a pack led by Taylor Swift (3/1) and Roy Orbison (5/1). Other contenders to their Christmas crown include a rash of releases from some better known for other entertaining talents. Who’ll be top of the pops or bottom of the flops?
Alexander Armstrong: In a Winter Light
Who? Actor, comedian and TV presenter shows off his ex-choirboy calibre
Stand out tracks: Self-penned This Glorious Morrow and I Still Believe in Christmas
Review: Far from pointless
Odds of Xmas No 1: 14/1
Sheridan Smith: Sheridan – the Album
Who? Beloved actress is a pro but her pedigree is let down by poor production
Stand out tracks: Anyone Who Had a Heart, City of Stars
Odds of Xmas No 1: 14/1
Anton Du Beke: From the Top
Who? Strictly favourite waltzes behind the mic for his take on big band classics
Stand out tracks: Putting on the Ritz, Me and My Shadow
Odds of Xmas No 1: 33/1
Shane Richie: A Country Soul
Who? National treasure provides the soundtrack for an (Albert) square dance
Stand out tracks: Wave on Wave, Love The One You’re With
Review: Wild West via Walford
Odds of Xmas No 1: 33/1
Nick Knowles: Every Kind of People
Who? DIY SOS and Lottery presenter proves he’s jack of all trades…
Stand out tracks: Make You Feel My Love, Here Comes the Sun
Odds of Xmas No 1: 50/1
Jason Manford: A Different Stage
What is it? Salford-born comedian out to prove that show tunes are no laughing matter
Stand out tracks: Stars, On the Street Where You Live
Review: No odds, but comes with Ball & Boe’s blessing: “He’s got chops!”
Odds by William Hill