Article in the Observer magazine, 31st May 1981
Why Cannon and Ball are finally calling the shots
After 18 years on the pub and club circuit Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball have taken off. Their simple and unsophisticated act has suddenly hit the public funnybone and audiences can’t get enough of them. ALAN ROAD talked to them about their rise into the showbiz big-time. Photographs by RAY GREEN
When double act Cannon and Ball met Eric Morecambe, their idol, recently, his advice to them was to be themselves and to take their time.
Being themselves should not be too difficult for these former Oldham welders, but time is something they don’t seem to have much of these days. Their record-breaking panto at Bradford ran into March, when they began work on the Saturday night TV series which ended last night, and on Friday they begin a summer season at Great Yarmouth.
All in all it has been a hectic 12 months for Cannon and Ball, ne Derbyshire and Harper. It was a year ago that their second TV series suddenly took off and they reached the number 10 spot in the ratings, and between May and September they filled the 1,500 seats of Blackpool’s north pier twice nightly and six times a week. There were occasions when enthusiastic audiences stormed the stage and two elderly holidaymakers actually died laughing at them.
All 7,000 tickets for a week at a Birmingham theatre recently were sold out eight months in advance. Even such international stars as Jack Jones, the Three Degrees and Dionne Warwick had not attracted such interest, said the manager, who added, ‘With these bookings we could play them 52 weeks in the year.’
But for a couple of proud north-countrymen the final accolade came in the autumn, when they were invited to switch on the Blackpool illuminations: an honour which compares roughly with having a rose named after you at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Their immediate predecessors in this role were Kermit and Red Rum. ‘They ran out of animals,’ jokes Bobby Ball.
It is not easy to explain to the uninitiated just why Cannon and Ball have hit the nation’s funnybone at this moment. At one point in their act Ball says to Tommy Cannon, ‘You have to be suave and suffocated.’ Well, suave and sophisticated they aren’t, as this brief snatch from their stage act should demonstrate:
Cannon: What do you need to sing like a bird?
Ball: A beak.
Cannon: No! You have to open your vowels.
Ball: But I’m regular.
It may be unfair to reduce their gags to words on a page, but it is true to say their stage act is a triumph of personality over content. “We’re not a real clever comedy act,’ says straight man Cannon a trifle defensively. ‘I think that simplicity is the essence of comedy.’ He offers as evidence a line where his partner says to him,’I used to think I was a dog, but I’m all right now! The word ‘now’ is barked out and gets howls of laughter. (You see, this sort of thing is catching.)
Forsaking his stage persona for a moment and agreeing with his colleague, Ball says, ‘If you do a gag and people have to think about it and then say, “Oh! that’s funny,” then it’s unfunny.’ They find that it is the simplest things that get the best laughs.
A series of successful Sunday concerts at Bournemouth, Paignton, Plymouth and Yarmouth proved that Bobby Ball, 36, is the one with the red braces and the face of a precocious apprentice. Tommy Cannon, 42, is the older mate, prickly but ultimately protective, which is very much as it is in real life, they both admit they have bridged the comedy chasm between north and south, though Eric Morecambe warns that they should modify their Lancashire dialect. ‘Some people in the south can’t understand it,’ he told me.
Fortunately then, much of their humour is visual and depends on the antics of Ball, a diminutive figure who behaves like a flea with St Virus’s Dance. When he is not twanging his vivid red braces to the extremes of their elasticity or thrusting his hands elbow deep in the pockets of his wrinkled trousers, he is making belligerent gestures behind his partner’s back.
Even when he is standing still, one leg trembles uncontrollably like that of a small boy anxious to leave the room. At 36 Ball has the face of a precocious apprentice. Cannon, 42, is the older mate, prickly but ultimately protective. Which is very much as it is in real life, they both admit.
Tommy Derbyshire and Bobby Harper first met 18 years ago at Boden Trailers in Oldham, where they were both employed as welders but apparently spent most of their time entertaining their workmates. After a while they decided that instead of getting up and doing it for nothing they would try to get a few bookings. They did – very few.
Bobby recalls how they would play from eight till 11 in a local pub for three quid – between them, that is. At first they were a musical act. ‘I’d sing and Tommy would play drums and then he would take a turn singing and I would play drums.’
‘You wouldn’t believe it now, but Bobby wouldn’t do comedy,’ says Cannon, taking up the story. ‘He’d always been a singer with the mohair suits, the silk shirts and all that razzmatazz,’ he recalls. ‘He thought it were knocking his ego to say he were a funny man.’ Eventually Ball began getting laughs and he liked the feeling. Between them they built up a routine. They moved upwards from the pubs through the social club circuits to the night clubs. Like prizefighters, they have a repertoire of tough contests and unlucky decisions that went against them. Sometimes they were ‘paid off’ after only one appearence. One night in Newcastle they went on stage to complete silence. During their act there was not a flicker of response from the audience and, at the end, they came off to the same silence. They were sitting afterwards in a state of mild shock when the manager came into their dressing room to congratulate them. ‘You did well, lads,’ he said. ‘You kept ’em quiet.’
It was following a more successful weekend in South Wales clubs that Cannon and. Ball decided that they might have attained sufficient general appeal to take the plunge as full-time professionals. Their resignations, says Cannon, saved the long-suffering foreman the trouble of sacking them.
Cannon and Ball still look back in anguish to the night opportunity knocked for them on Hughie Green’s talent programme. ‘We were terrible,’ says Ball. ‘It were the proverbial opportunity flops.’ At the end of their act the clapometer, which registers the audience’s applause, scarcely flickered, he says.
They were learning, however, and there was another TV chance with ‘The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club’. Then came what appeared to be their big chance with a projected series of appearances on Bruce Forsyth’s ‘Big Night’, but before they had reached the screen the programme had run into ratings trouble and in the subsequent revamping their contributions had ended up on the cutting room floor.
David Bell, London Weekend’s controller of entertainment, thinks that this was probably the best thing that ever happened to them. ‘It gave them 12 chances of working in a TV studio without anybody ever seeing the results.’ Instead of being exposed to the public gaze, they were able to learn the new business of TV comedy in private, he says.
Another TV misfire for Cannon and Ball came in July 1979, when technicians pulled the plugs on ITV after two shows of their first series. The couple became known among their colleagues as Cannon and Blackout and it was October before the series returned.
The series went out on a Saturday evening while the BBC was screening ‘The Two Ronnies’. ‘It was an awful lot to ask of any act,’ David Bell admits now. ‘Their second series went out on a Friday at 7.30, which was much more sensible.’ And why they did much better, he says like a boxing manager, he planned to protect them from premature pressure until they were weather breakers – the term in the trade for entertainers who keep the viewers indoors even when the sun is shining.
Teaming them up with Sid Green, who wrote for Morecambe and Wise for 10 years, was an astute move, and” their TV success has assured them of house-full signs wherever they appear. As Bell says, ‘It was substantially the same act that they had been doing for years. It’s just that audiences know who they are and it goes four times better.’
Knowing for themselves just who they are has not always been that easy for Cannon and Ball. They spent years searching for the correct roles to play. They experimented with outlandish costumes but it did not work out, says Ball. They scoured Oxfam shops for the scruffy suit he now wears. ‘When we found it and brought it back to the digs the bloody thing were six inches too big round the belly.’ So he went out and bought the pair of braces that are now his trademark and are sold to fans at £2 ? 50 a pair. The catchphrase ‘Rock on, Tommy’ also emerged naturally one night while his partner was singing. Now when fans recognise them in the street they chant it like a password entitling them to membership of some secret society.
Cannon and Ball agree that the characters they were seeking all those years were their own. ‘What we are now is ourselves,’ says Ball. ‘And that’s the hardest thing to play.’ It took them a long time, but now when they go out on stage they are just two mates on a night out and that comes across to audiences.
After 18 years in double harness their relationship is like a marriage, Cannon says unsentimentally. ‘I want a divorce,’ snaps Ball. ‘A marriage becomes companionship,’ says Cannon, ignoring the interruption. ‘You reach a point, as in a marriage, where the arguments become less and less, and we’ve reached that point.’
Coming after so many nights in pubs, clubs and theatres, their overnight success seems to them almost unreal – rather like winning the pools, says Cannon, who recently presented a pools cheque for more than £60,000 to an elderly couple who also hadn’t a clue what had happened to them.
Of course, the money is nice. There is talk about holidays in the West Indies. Cannon runs a large Mercedes and Ball’s pride and joy is a Chevrolet Caprice with better air conditioning than many of the theatres they have played. But, says Ball, in a strange way he does not feel as if the money is really their own. ‘Well, me and Tommy are a limited company and that’s like a third person who really owns it.’
Being able to book separate rooms in a nice hotel is a pleasant change after 18 years in digs. Once in Scotland they discovered they were to sleep eight to a room. They retrieved their bags and crept out, says Cannon. Recently, when they arrived at the Royal Bath Hotel in Bournemouth, the receptionist recognised them and there was someone to carry their bags.
The burden of making people laugh; remains on them, however, and, according to old hand Eric Morecambe, they have the hardest part to come. Which, remembering all those pubs and clubs, must be a pretty daunting thought.
‘I like them because they emanate a lot of warmth,’ says Morecambe. ‘Bobby Ball has a lot of heart and Tommy Cannon isn’t just a straight man. Another five years will establish them in a big way.’