When Michael Ball showed his partner of 30 years the final draft of his first novel, he was delighted when she declared it was a "page-turner".
The singer says Cathy McGowan – presenter of the 60s music show Ready Steady Go! – has always been his fiercest critic... and his fiercest supporter.
And it showed when it came to her review of his debut novel, The Empire.
“She’s the person whose approval I want above all others,” Michael says.
“I only showed her what I’d written at the end… she looked at me, slightly surprised, and said, ‘You can do this!’
“She called it a page-turner, which is some compliment.”
And there’s a sweet dedication at the beginning of the novel which reads: “To Cathy, for keeping the engine running!”
Michael, 60, says: “It’s an expression we’ve had all the time we’ve been together. Before I go on stage, I always say to her, ‘Keep the engine running… we may need to make a quick getaway!’”
The singer moved in with Cathy, 79, in 1992, three years after she interviewed him when he was starring in Aspects of Love.
Cathy is almost 20 years Michael’s senior but to him, age is just a number.
“She has taught me so much and made me laugh like a drain,” he says. “People sometimes ask about the age difference but it’s irrelevant. No one would mention it if I were the older one. Why does it make any difference?”
Michael, who is also famed for playing Edna Turnblad in the musical Hairspray, says Cathy was hugely supportive of his decision to put pen to paper during the pandemic.
The star, who has “always wanted to write a novel”, says: “To go down a new career path at my grand old age is really exciting. But I’ve always loved a challenge. I just hope I haven’t embarrassed myself.”
Michael’s debut novel isn’t going to win the Booker Prize. But if there’s one thing he knows about, it’s the theatre industry – which is where the book is set. The Empire, which has all the glitz, glamour and drama of the theatre, is set in the aftermath of the First World War.
Michael says: “I was drawn to the 20s when post-war Britain was roaring and society’s attitudes were changing.
“Then there was the music, the influence of America crossing the Atlantic, although it was still possible to encounter the last vestiges of music hall in Britain.
“I wrote the whole book at home on my laptop. I started with a synopsis, establishing the beginning of the story, and where and how I wanted it to end.”
Writer’s block wasn’t a problem for Michael, either. He says: “If ever I got stuck, I’d take the dogs for a walk.
“With nothing to distract me, I’d let my mind go blank then a solution would invariably bob to the surface.
“I was lucky enough to secure a two-book deal so I finished the first book leaving readers, I hope, needing to know what happens next.”
Michael, who says he is a voracious reader, reveals that none of his characters are based on any famous folk he knows. “They are all an amalgam of people I’ve met and worked with down the years, liberally sprinkled with a mix of pure invention and poetic licence,” he says.
“I’ve been asked many times to write my own memoir but I’ve always said no... I’m not prepared to tell the whole truth!”
As well as Cathy, the other great partnership in Michael’s life is with singer Alfie Boe. The two first met during a 2007 production of Kismet – and clicked when they duetted at the Proms later that year.
Now, after four collaborations and more concerts than you can shake a stick at, they’ve just released their fifth album, Together in Vegas. Michael says: “I think we’ve got better and better. We certainly both want the best for each other. If you’re with someone who’s good, you raise your game.”
Once Michael has nailed his second novel, he’ll be straight into his next project: Aspects of Love revisited. It came about after he watched the James Bond film Moonraker – and was struck by a thought.
Back in 1989, Michael had been due to star opposite 007 Roger Moore in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical, Aspects of Love, but Roger pulled out two weeks before the curtain went up, not convinced his singing was up to the task.
“Seeing Rog again on screen, I realised I was approaching the same age he was when we started rehearsing Aspects,” Michael says. “And it just struck me – I’d played the young Alex over 30 years ago.
“Now, I could play the older George. I tried the idea on Cath and she immediately went for it. I then mentioned it to Andrew and director Jonathan Kent who’d directed me in Sweeney Todd, and everyone said yes.”
Now, there is set to be a limited six-month West End season, starting in May.
Through it all, Michael will continue to host his Radio 2 Sunday morning show.
It went from strength to strength during lockdown, helped in no small part by having the late fundraising hero Captain Tom Moore as a guest in April 2020.
At that point, he’d raised around £70,000 walking round his garden. “During the show, it rose to £200,000 then started mushrooming from there,” Michael says.
When Captain Tom was on his 100th lap, Michael joined him on BBC Breakfast and serenaded him with a song. “You’ll Never Walk Alone seemed appropriate and then he started singing along with me,” he says.
The rest is history. Their duet, recorded that very day, was in the shops 14 hours later and went to No.1 on Captain Tom’s 100th birthday. He died in February 2021.
Michael was heartbroken by the recent story about a young climate change activist desecrating Captain Tom’s statue by pouring human waste over it.
“I’ve always been amazed by how wonderful some people can be and how sh***y others can be,” he says.
Michael is no longer afraid to say what he thinks – which is why he didn’t mind turning 60. “Well, there wasn’t much I could do about it. And I got my Freedom Pass and a test-your-own-poo kit from the NHS,” he says.
Michael says he’s essentially a happy man, but: “I worry about the state of the world and what’s going on in our country. I worry about my elderly parents.
“Professionally though, I’m fulfilled. And my home life gives me the security and strength which enable me to do what I do.
“When Cathy came to see me all those years ago, I wasn’t keen on being interviewed and she’d never heard of me. But the minute we met, we clicked. We haven’t stopped talking since.”
The Empire by Michael Ball (£20,Zaffre) is out now in hardback, eBook and audiobook. Together in Vegas has just been released on Decca.