Article in Blitz magazine, February 1986
Interview by Jim Shelley. Photographs by Julian Simmonds.
Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball are often dismissed as cheap ‘family entertainment’ just another in a long line of straightman-and-clown comedy double acts in the tradition of Vaudeville and Music Hall. On the other hand, more ‘modern’ comedians have expressed considerable admiration for their work – Lenny Henry has described the diminutive Ball as a “genius”, and Rik Mayall
is a self-confessed fan.
“You’re late, you realise that? You’re late.” The first face that greets me as I dash into Cannon & Ball’s rehearsal studio, ill, tired, misdirected and, to my happy amazement, just a few minutes late, is that of Tommy Cannon. A serious stare, a professional’s displeasure, he is visibly unamused. “What time is it? It’s five past, five minutes late, that is. You know you’ve kept us waiting?”
As I fluster between indignation and apology I notice everyone in the room has slowly started laughing. Suddenly Cannon too is grinning. Giving me a featherweight handshake and perfect smile, he introduces himself: “Tommy Cannon. How do you do, Jim?”
The perfect straight man.
Cannon & Ball: a straight stare and a grinning giggle, perfect calm and brilliant mischief. Loved or loathed as either hilarious slapstick or Cheap Entertainment, and one of the dying breed of Vaudeville, variety tradition, Cannon & Ball are stuck between the heritage of their heroes (Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy, The 3 Stooges) and the present-day demand for the formularised nonsense of empty celebrities like Little & Large and Dustin Gee & Les Dennis.
Just back from the Middle East, and with just one day left of a seven day schedule to rehearse their Christmas Special, they haven’t much time. So how much can we learn from a forty-minute chat? Well I find that they are warm, friendly, funny, modest, down-to-earth, without any of the bloated, gloating egotism and smug professionalism of the likes of Tarbuck, Davidson or Ted Rogers (what I come to call the Bruce Forsyth Syndrome, to Bobby’s endless amusement), who smother our screens. I do not learn what makes them cry or why they’re liked, or how they do what they do.
Cannon, with a chuffed smile, gold chains, Nike trainers and Frank Bough golfing-and-gardening sweater, a shiny showbiz face and healthy smartness in appearance and manner, is the more uncertain, distrusting of the two. Bobby Ball, a firecracker, live chimney-brush, with a short, wiry frame and mop of curls, is instantly likeable, indeed irresistible. An anxious face with leather creases and softly-spoken Lancashire lilt, old jeans, plimsolls and scruffy jumper, he’s a bundle of constant cheek, shabby mischief and energy. Always, as someone said of Chaplin, standing up as he sat down, going out as he came in, always chatting, chiding, chirping. When asked to test the tape recorder and introduce himself, there’s no clowning and the words, “My name is Robert Ball and I’m from Rochdale,” sound solemn, even rather lonely. Though he complains, with weary disappointment, that “people always expect us to be funny, and we’re not,” he carries the constant threat of that special spark of mischievous excitement with him all the time.
As I wait, a charmless young blob in a smarmy suit gives them their instructions for the next sketch. They piss about. Ball pins back his shoulders and struts up to nut Cannon, when Cannon bursts into grinning admiration, shouting, “Hey, that’s the famous one, that walk, the first one, you realise that,” as if he’s spotted his hero in a crowd. The smarmy suit forces a smile, but when Ball minces perfectly out of the scene, hand on hip, his bum stuck saucily up in the air (perfect camp Max Wall), Cannon is quietly creasing himself. They have a tremendous, warm humility and both betray an obvious love for one another.
“All that the comedian has to show for his years of work and aggravation is the echo of forgotten laughter.” Fred Allen.
Tommy Derbyshire met Robert Harper in the early sixties in the welding factory where they worked as school leavers. Starting as a singing act. The Harper Brothers, using Bobby as compere, they spent years touring the clubs and cabarets before incorporating Bobby’s shop-floor antics and turning professional as ‘Cannon & Ball’. They went on Wheeltappers & Shunters and Opportunity Knocks (coming last but one) but finally got their own LWT series in 1979. With This Is Your Life, The Royal Variety Show, a current 10-week Bristol panto run, a television audience of fifteen million and plans to take the show Stateside, they’ve all the trappings of sheer Showbiz Entertainment. As ‘The Biggest Box Office Attraction In The UK’, last year 300,000 people saw their Summer Season at the Blackpool Opera House, where Lenny Henry was part of the bill. He left describing Ball as a genius. Adam Ant rated appearing with them as one of the biggest challenges of his career and Rik Mayall appeared in their last series, by request. (Ball rates Mayall as “the best of that bunch – he’s here to stay.”) Ball now has his own club (‘Braces’) and Cannon is a director of Rochdale FC. They’ve come a long way.
“How did we fall into it? It took us fifteen years’ graft, you cheeky bugger. We still do forty-five weeks a year,” Ball reminds me. “We were both brought up the same way – poor backgrounds. My parents worked the cotton… (this sparks him off into singing a hilarious negro spiritual) Oh de cotton, working de cotton, yes lord. Bless my soul!” TC: “My parents? They’re both dead. They were cotton workers.”
BB: “OH DE COTTON! OH MAN DE COTTON! WORKING DE COTTON, YES LORD!”
TC: “We were always together at work. There’s always a crowd of mates with one like him, a little fella looking up to his mate, ‘Why can’t I be like you?’ “
BB: “I were a tearaway at school and at work I were a daft bugger, I were the littlest, y’see. We’d all go to the pub and I’d always get into trouble. Tommy would keep an eye out for me.”
Do you see a lot of people like him, like your character?
BB: “Oh yeah, everywhere. We know loads of people like that… Like yourself, for instance…”
The glint again. That perfect cheek that could charm policemen is, as I said, irresistible.
“Nobody should try to play comedy unless they have a circus going on inside them.” Michael Curtis.
Clearly relishing the chance to talk about comedy and the great acts of comedy, they both take the interview rather seriously, fending off any attempt to be drawn back to rehearsal. Comedy’s what they know, so that’s what we talk about. TC: “In them days showbusiness was different. It was less of a business. There was a lot of work about with so many clubs – you had ten or twelve acts in the same digs. That community spirit was what kept you going. Now that’s all changed. You pay a quid now, for a video, that’s an evening’s entertainment.”
BB: “If you don’t get on TV today you’re nobody! Ten years ago it didn’t matter. We progressed through the clubs to theatre to TV. Today it’s BANG, straight onto TV. There are people today been going three years, they’re stars! You’re right, the real comics are working-class, because you either laughed or cried. It was those clubs too. You had to go to those dives and die. It made you a comic.” TC: “Me and him can play theatres, 3,000-seaters, two shows a day, for ten weeks and we fill them. We know how to. These kids are lucky to fill a week. In our show we had magicians, we had eighteen dancers, the show cost us a quarter of a million pounds, like an old variety show, but people got value for money.”
Have you learned how to do what you do, learned about comedy?
BB: “Well, you can learn how to tell a joke, but you can’t learn to be funny. That’s the difference between being a comedian and a comic. There are clever comics, but they’re not funny. They tell a joke and you go, ‘Oh that’s funny’, but you’ve not laughed. You get a lot of lads from universities like that… like Who Dares Wins the other night. Very clever, isn’t it? They had a fella asking this schoolgirl about a bloke who’d exposed himself. They said, ‘Did he show you his willy winkle?’ She said, ‘No, he pulled his cock out’. Now this is clever comedy! We stopped doing that fifteen years apo. And people accuse us of cheap comedy!”
TC: “Comedy’s very basic. You have one smart guy shouts at his mate, who wears a baggy suit and braces. They’re not fucking clowns, they can’t even talk proper English! That’s Cannon & Ball. The 3 Stooges just hit one another. The Marx Brothers -one couldn’t talk and whistled, one of them said one line every film, Groucho had a funny walk, a moustache and a cigar. Shit. Basic shit. But they had a magic. And you won’t see that magic again.”
You agree TV’s killed off any chance of that quality, the chance of a Sellers or a Hancock?
BB: “Maybe, but it all comes down to taste. The way you see Peter Sellers, kids today see Jim Davidson or Jimmy Tarbuck. For Tommy it was Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, Abbott & Costello. To me a comic genius was Max Wall. Nobody talks about him today.” The sadness in his voice is unmistakeable.
“Entertainment confirms rather than challenges.” Ned Rorem
Though they say the question of comparisons doesn’t bother them, the paucity of their material, on TV at least, has given them the reputation of a down-market Eric & Ernie, more like the talentless idiots who (dis)grace the panel-games, and the Tarbuck/O’Connor showcases, than their impeccable idols.
“To be honest, sometimes it does get to us,” admits Cannon. “If it didn’t, we might as well pack up. But there’s no way you can judge if you’re as good as Abbott & Costello. Sometimes I watch them, for a split second I see us, a flash of the magic, exactly the same. But that aeroplane sketch you didn’t like (which consisted entirely of the pair trying to see down the blouse of the air hostess), well it pleased me that in my own mind we did it as well as anyone else could have. Groucho did the same – he says to this woman with a very big chest, ‘What’s that you’re smuggling in, coconuts?’ It’s the same fucking gag!”
Their audience, of grannies, kids, housewives and lorry drivers, is often dismissed and derided. Are they part of that Bruce Forsyth Syndrome, cheap comedy?
“Well, the show was getting formularised, that’s why we changed it. We have a lot less freedom with TV, we can’t jump into the audience or mess about. Sometimes, with an 80-page script to remember, you lose that edge. The live show is one hundred percent better. It’s like anyone, a Bruce Springsteen concert, on TV it’s not the same atmosphere as live. The studio’s cold, strange, they’re looking round, going, ‘Oooh, look at that’. They haven’t even paid!”
BB: (smirking): “You know this ‘ere Bruce Forsyth Syndrome… Well I’ve a lot of respect for Bruce, he’s been a star for twenty years, a very talented man. Remember, the press never knock failure. My mother, 77, will watch Play Your Cards Right every week. He’s good at what he does, he enjoys it and the public love him for it. You know what my favourite is? I’ll try and guess the clues every week…3-2-1. It bloody is, lad. It’s entertainment.”
Do you enjoy that side of showbusiness, the type of Bruce Forsyth thing?
BB (laughing): “Why do you keep saying this?”
That sort of nauseating figure: cheap laughs, empty, shallow, egotistical, so pally…
BB (laughing): “Oh, you mean Acquaintances As Opposed To Friends! No, we don’t have any showbusiness friends. And we never use taped laughter. Ever. But we get fifteen million viewers, you can’t argue with that. And we played to six hundred thousand people last year. There’s no act in England does that! A lot of people in showbusiness forget that. ‘Oh, Cannon & Ball, yes, nice TV show’.
TC: “That’s bigger than Bruce Spingsteen. (We leans into the tape recorder.) Do you hear that, Bruce baby? We’re bigger than you, pal.”
Comedy is an escape, not from the truth, but from despair, a narrow escape into faith.” Christopher Fry.
“It’s a funny thing, comedy,” Bobby says quietly at one point, again with a trace of subdued sadness, shyness. Like any comedian he takes his comedy very seriously, though he brushes aside my romantic notions about the inherent sorrow of comics or the idea that the character has taken him over. “Well it can’t really, it’s me. You ask how much we are acting, well you’ve seen us, for yourself. We’re very like the characters, they’re just extensions of what we are.”
When did you first discover you were funny?
BB: “I don’t think I ever did. I never had that fear of not being funny, ‘cos I never felt funny. I get nervous, of course, I squat in the corner and get meself together. But that fear, it’s like the tears of the clown image, it’s a myth.”
Cannon stops short of Lenny Henry’s accolade of Ball because he distrusts the term ‘genius’, but he agrees the real test of any comedian is whether you laugh at him before he’s opened his mouth.
“Definitely. Bobby’s like Eric Morecambe was. He can just walk into a room and be funny. Not in character, just as he is. Like Eric with the glasses, Bobby and his braces. You could do it, I could do it, it would mean nothing. Bobby does it and people cry with laughter.”
Do you get fed up with being funny?
BB: “Well, when people expect you to be funny all the time, yeah. You go into a pub and the first thing people say is, ‘Where’s your braces?’ or ‘Where’s Tommy?’ He gets people having a go at him for picking on me. They don’t see it’s just a flipping act.”
Yours is very much a comedy of excitement, the excitement from having that mischief. What if it’s not there?
BB: “Well, I have no middle ground, I’m either very high, like you say, or very low, and I get depressed sometimes obviously… But I can give the right impression. Sure, Tommy knows when I’m doing it, but no-one else does. It doesn’t happen very often.”
But it’s a very lonely pursuit, making everyone else laugh. Chaplin said life was a comedy in long-shot but tragedy in close-up, and Twain said the source of humour was sorrow, not joy.
BB: “Yeah, but that’s partly that if you’re a comic there’s not many people make you laugh. Who makes me laugh? Les Dawson, Max Wall, 3 Stooges. I mean, Chaplin wasn’t a tragic figure, he was a happy, successful man. Hancock was, yes, but there’s not many like him. People see a comic when he’s a little bit depressed one day and suddenly it’s the tragic image again. A lot of what you read, too, like Freddie Starr, it’s ‘cos they’ve had divorces. They’re very sad things, divorces, I’ve had one meself, but so’s my bank manager. Seventy-five percent of people in show-business have them, and it’s good publicity too, remember. It’s a myth.”
So there are more happy things to life than sad?
“Yeah! There are… though I think it’s very sad what’s happening to the country, very sad… But I’m thankful to be alive. Yes, really! Cheeky sod. Life’s a beautiful thing.”
The two of them are dragged off in a huddle and Cannon shouts, ‘See you pal’ over his shoulder. There is no goodbye. Feeling slightly cheated, I make my way out, passing them on the way. Cannon gives me another featherweight handshake and says thanks. Ball earnestly tells me he’s really enjoyed it and he wished we’d had more time. I walk off and, smiling cheekily, he shouts, “I’ll tell Bruce what you said! Cheerio, kid.”
The interviewer leaves. Naturally, a helpless grin is slapped over his face.