Rock On! With Cannon and Ball
It took ten long, hard years for top comics Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball to achieve “overnight success.” Perhaps that’s why these undoubted stars still regard themselves as “just a couple of lads from Oldham.”
A Special Interview By SYD GILLINGHAM
The cruise liner, sleek, spruce, and festooned with gaily-coloured streamers, edged its way gently from its berth in Sydney harbour while, on the quayside, a band played and friends and relatives waved their goodbyes to the holidaymakers crowding the deck rails.
Out for an evening walk, Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball, who were in Australia to play a series of important club dates, paused to take in the happy scene.
“It was at that moment,” Tommy Cannon said, “that we realised – probably for the first time – just how much had happened to us in such a short while.
“Who’d have thought, we asked ourselves, that a couple of lads from Oldham would, one day, be twelve thousand miles from home! I mean, about the farthest either of us had been for most of our lives was Blackpool!
“Tommy and I can look back and think to ourselves that, yes, we’ve done quite well!” Bobby Ball put in.
That they have, and I’d come to Bobby’s home in the village of Shaw, not far from Oldham, to find out how he and Tommy – their friendship goes back 18 years to the days when they were welders together in a factory – reached the top as one of Britain’s most popular comedy double acts.
In fact, as I was to discover, it was a long haul, for in a career which saw several “downs” before the “uds” eventually came their way, it took them 10 years to achieve the elusive and ill-named “overnight success.”
The first and over-riding impression you gain of them is that after all the successes have been totted up and the applause, for the moment, has died down, they’re still “a couple of lads from OIdham.”
It’s also crystal-clear that they’ll happily remain just that, for they have no intentions of straying too far from their origins.
Bobby, for example, was born, 37 years ago, just up the street from his present home, only a mile or two from Tommys birthplace. And Tommy, who is 43, lives a. mere four miles from where he was born.
It was in a heavy-welding factory making trailers for articulated lorries that they met. It was situated between Oldham and Shaw, some two miles from Bobby’s present home.
“People ask us what it’s like to be stars – and we tell em we haven’t a clue!” Tommy laughed.
“I was out with my daughter the other day and a woman came up to me and put her hand on my shoulder and said, Oh, we do admire you so much. When are you coming back on television?’
“It was very nice of her, but to tell you the truth I was quite surprised. ‘People are funny, aren’t they?’ I said to my daughter.
“I suppose it’s because we haven’t really noticed what’s happened to us. All I know is that it hasn’t altered us, and I hope it never does.”
“Were just a couple of ordinary fellers,” Bobby said. “If you’re talking about stars, well, Frank Sinatra is a star, isn’t he? We’re just personalities.
“We go into pubs and clubs round here and meet the lads we went to school with and grew up with, and they wouldn’t let us put on any airs and graces, even if we wanted to!
“I sometimes take the mickey and say, Don’t talk to me … I’m a star!’ But then they shout back, ‘Oh, twinkle, twinkle!’ It’s lovely!”
As we spoke in the room where much of the work is done on their act-they have a piano, guitar and hi-fi equipment there and, on the wall, is a Silver Disc awarded for a Cannon and Ball LP – Tommy’s wife, Margaret, and Bobby’s wife, Yvonne, chatted over cups of tea in the lounge next door.
Tommy and Margaret have two daughters, Janette. who is 21, and 17-year-old Julie. Bobby and Yvonne have a daughter, Joanne, who is nine, while Bobby also has two sons from his previous marriage – Robert, who is 17, and Darren, who’s 12
Pride of place on top of the piano goes to a small, framed newspaper advertisement for the Sunderland Empire’s “Coming Attractions.” Over the names of Cannon and Ball had been printed the magical words, “Sold Out!” The date – September 1981.
That gave us a lot of satisfaction.’ Tommy explained. There s a story behind it, you see, which we passed on to the audiences at the Empire where, by the way, we got standing ovations.
We told them we’d come to Sunderland nine or ten years before, and that we’d been paid off for being no good. It actually happened to us twice.
“We’d been booked to do a Sunday lunch-time and a Sunday-evening spot at a club.”
All the blokes are there at lunch-time,” Bobby put in, taking up the story. “If the act isn’t any good they go home and tell their wives, and then later that evening they go off to some other club. So the lunch-time spot is a sort of audition.
“As soon as the concert secretary asked for good order for our turn and said we’d come all the way from Lancashire, we were booed. It was another country as far as they were concerned.
“One of the clubs was a boiler-makers’ social club. They all laughed at our first gag and then, as if realising they’d done something wrong, they just turned their backs on us and read their newspapers.
“At the end of the act someone came up and said, “You’re not good enough for us – here’s your money!’ There was no backstage entrance so we had to leave by the front door, making our way through the audience with our stage gear over our arms. You could almost hear them thinking out loud, well, we’ve paid those two off!
Tommy and I had started off with a singing act, but by this time we were into the comedy and in front of that sort of audience the going was very rough. We came away feeling very down.”
I asked if they’d ever felt so down that they thought that they’d made the wrong decision in leaving the factory for show business?
“Yes, we seriously thought of packing it in two or three times,” Tommy told me. “On the way home, we’d pull off the motorway and sit in the car and talk about it – often near to tears.
“We usually decided that the best thing to do was to keep away from areas where we didn’t go down well – like Sunderland. It was funny about Sunderland, because we always did well in Newcastle, not many miles away.”
“We’re used to criticism now,” Bobby said, ‘because we still get it. Once you make it to the top, then they do their best to knock you off the pedestal. In fact, you get criticism all the time.
“We did get upset by it at first,” Bobby went on. ‘But when you know you’re filling theatres, and your television shows are getting top-ratings, then you realise you’re pleasing more people than you’re not.”
Both Tommy and Bobby started pleasing people with their talents long before they met up at the factory.
“I suppose you could say I’ve been in the business since I was a small kid,” Bobby said. “My great-grandad was a comic, and so was my grandad – he went round the pubs in Oldham.”
“I remember my mum singing, too,” Tommy put in. “She’d always get up and sing if she was asked to.
“But I wanted to be a professional footballer more than anything else in the world. I love sport – any sport.
“I’d go out on a Friday night and – just like my mum – get up and give them a song if they asked me to. I also did a bit of compering. I used to enter for talent contests as well, but I won several times and so I dropped out to give someone else a chance.”
“There were three of us in the act to begin with,” Bobby told me. “We had a pianist, Tommy was the drummer and I was the singer. But we realised that it wasn’t going to work, so we packed in the piano and drums and Tommy and I sang.
“We were doing a lot of work in the clubs but after a while we began to get info trouble at the factory – if we arrived home late from a club we’d take time off from work the next day. So after about a year we took the plunge and turned professional.’
“We’d been working as pros for some time when we did an audition for Hughie Green’s ‘Opportunity Knocks’ in 1969,” Tommy said. “We were singers then, and we passed the audition.
“But by the time we were eventually called to the studios we’d turned comedians.”
“We called ourselves The Harper Brothers then,” Bobby put in. “Not only did we come last, we even failed to budge the studio clapometer!
“There was a lad on drums with his father on organ – Simon Smith and Father they were called – and they’d won week after week.
“That brought us down quite a bit, too. We got a week’s work out of it though, in a club in South Wales. That’s when we started working in clubs in that area.
“But what ‘Opportunity Knocks’ did for us was to make us work all the harder. Tommy and I have never been interested in what we can get out of show business – what were interested in is how we can progress as an act.
“So, in its way, it was good for us. And it led, too, to our change of name.
“We were sitting in a transport cafe when we decided we wanted to change our name. We liked the American singer Freddie Cannon. Tommy, his real name’s Derbyshire by the way, said he’d call himself Tommy Cannon. We agreed it was a good, strong name.
“But we couldn’t find a name to go with Cannon. We tried all sorts, and it was quite a while before Tommy suggested Ball.
“I’m not calling mysetf that,’ I said, ‘it’s too corny!…”
I wondered if, virtually living in I each other’s pockets as they do, the one-time Thomas Derbyshire and Robert Harper have any serious arguments.
“Well, we’ve had one serious row and that was last year,” Tommy said, “but deep down we both knew there was no way it was going to split up the act.
“It was due to pressure of work. We were topping the bill in summer season and, when you’re in that position, you know that people come to the theatre to see you.
“So, if you walk out on stage to a full house, it’s fantastic – but if there are empty seats you worry about it. And we’re great worriers! Me, I worry if I’ve got nothing to worry about!
“So we had pressures on us that we never dreamed we would have. We were actually finding that success can be very hard to handle.
“In the early days we worried about getting to the top. Now we worry about staying there!”
“We’ve been good mates for eighteen years,’ Bobby told me. “But we live with each other more than we live with our wives, so we do have to work at it, just as you would have to work at a marriage.
“Of course we argue. But we know each other so well by now that the arguments are over in seconds. We have to learn to tolerate each other, and to compromise, especially as we always stay at the same hotel, travel in the same car, and use the same dressing-room.”
“I think I’m more of a private person than Bobby,” Tommy said. “There are times when I’ve left the stage, signed the autographs, done the bits and pieces, and all I’ve wanted to do was to shut the door and be on my own.
“Whereas Bobby might want to go out after the show. You see, the highs’ you get after you’ve done a good show take people in different directions. So there are times when we go our own ways.
“Its not for me to tell Bobby that he should do this or that – and it’s not for him to tell me what or what not to do.
“Once we’ve finished on stage, unless we have something to talk about regarding the act, we have our individual lives to lead. But we try to co-operate as much as we can.”
“Basically, we enjoy the same sort of movies and the same sort of entertainers,” Bobby remarked, “I think we have a lot going for us.
“Sometimes I’ll play a round of golf to please Tommy – and he’s taking up the guitar to please me.
“We have total respect for each other, and that’s what makes a double act.
“Our wives get on well together, too, and usually go out once a week for a meal when we’re away. But if we have four or five days off, then we stay apart, and we don’t take holidays together. That would be a big mistake, because on holiday, or even during a few days off, we would never unwind.”
“If you’re together all the time the conversation eventually has to stop,” Tommy went on. “But, after a fortnight’s holiday, we begin missing each other and we want to get back to work, and by then there’s always fresh things to talk about.”
“We’ve had our holidays apart,” Bobby added. “But when it’s got to the middle of the second week I’ve thought, I’ll be glad to see him again!”
The major television breakthrough for Cannon and Ball came with their appearance on Bruce Forsyth’s “Big Night Out,” and, of course, with their own series which they landed shortly afterwards.
Their “Rock on. Tommy!” catch-phrase was here to stay. And, any doubts that they had indeed made it to the top were dispelled when they found themselves facing the cameras on “This is Your Life ” and “Parkinson,” all in the same week.
Ask them what they’d like to see ahead for themselves and they’ll mention the film they’d like to make for the cinema and the record they’d like to have in the Top Ten.
“But we’re very happy as we are, simply doing what we’re doing now,” Tommy said. “It really has been wonderful.
“When we were kids, money was tight and, yes. it was rough. My mum and dad parted company when I was about four and so it wasn’t easy for Mum to bring me up.
“She worked in the cotton mill and I’d come home from school and make her tea – usually beans on toast, which was my limit in those days.
“Now I’m lucky enough to be living in a detached bungalow in an acre of beautiful ground – a house I used to pass years ago and think how fantastic it was!”
“It’s nice now to be able to go out and buy a new suit if we want one,” Bobby continued. “And both Tommy and I like nice cars.
“But the main thing is that both of us have had a lot of love shown by our families, and that’s really all you need, isn’t it?
“We’ve had our ups and downs – plenty of downs-but now we’re beginning to get the ups.
“You know, I stood on the stage at the Sunderland Empire those few months ago and thought, we’ve beaten you – it’s taken a long time, but we’ve done it.
“I think we both knew something would happen for us – that we’d get our chance on television and do well after it.
“Were certainly optimists – anyway, there’s usually something ticking away inside that says everything’s going to be all right!”
To tell the truth, everything couldn’t be finer for the couple of lads from Oldham.