The following article appeared in The War Cry, a newspaper published by The Salvation Army in the UK. It was split between the issues 24 June 2000 and 1 July 2000.


Cannon and Ball Bounce Back

Tommy and Bobby"s faith is not an act, says Nigel Bovey: the first in a two-part interview.

They had it all. Cannon and Ball. Name in lights. Top of the bill. Palladium-fillers. Television series. Ten million viewers. Christmas special. Spin-off film. Instant recognition. Fame. Fortune. Flash cars. Fleshpots. Tommy and Bobby, the comic double act the stars wanted to appear with and the Queen commanded to see. But at the height of their appeal the laughing, joking, rock-on-Tommy stage show was only an act. With a divorce each to their names, offstage the two pals from Oldham hadn't spoken to each other for years. Success never tasted less sweet.

Young Thomas Derbyshire first bumped into Robert Harper on his first day working at Boden Trailers. He wanted to be a professional footballer but had to settle for being a welder. Bobby was one of the few that spoke to him. At weekends Tommy went drinking with his mates only to find Bobby on stage singing in one or other of the clubs. They got talking. Bobby taught Tommy to play drums and with fellow factory worker Stan Moores on piano, they formed a trio and started playing the working men's clubs.

Around 20 years and hundreds of gigs later Cannon and Ball were on telly - an overnight success. The traditional trappings of stardom - bubbly on ice and effervescent girls - followed in abundance. A girl in every town.

Over afternoon tea and fondant fancies in the pair's fashionable London hotel, I ask them if it was really all wine, women and song. 'No, it were more like wine, wine, women, women, song, song and more again,' gleams Bobby. 'Everybody in show business seemed to be living like that, so we thought that was the thing to do,' says Tommy. 'We were TV stars, we didn't want to be the odd ones out. We got carried away on a crest of a wave, big time. It was very easy to go down that lane. Very easy. Yes it was wine, women and song. We were the original rat pack.'

And were the kiddies' favourite funny men really nasty pieces of work? 'Well it was the alcohol really that fuelled the nasty side,' says Bobby. 'When I were younger I always liked a bit of a scrap. Our egos took over. We had a bit of power and we didn't know how to handle it and we were not nice with people.' 'We went from being two lads from Oldham who lived in terrace houses whose mothers were cotton mill workers to being people that everybody recognised,' says Tommy. 'We never dreamed we'd become "stars", for the want of another word. We were very happy doing what we were doing before we got on television because we thought playing clubs and theatres was better than clocking-on and welding.

The icing on the cake came when we got our TV show. We'd be walking down a street in London and the cabbies would lean out their windows and shout: "Rock on Tommy!" Of course your head went bigger and our egos took over. We did what we thought stars did. We didn't think we were doing anything particularly wrong.'

But going wrong it was. Bobby felt increasingly left out as Tommy spent more time socialising with their manager. On the business side too he felt decisions were being made without him. Tommy meanwhile was suffering from bouts of depression and going through divorce. Having his personal life splashed on the front pages didn't help.

Publicly the punters couldn't see the join. But privately after 17 years the partnership was falling apart. Separate cars. Separate hotels. Separate dressing rooms. Silence. Six years of silence. Then in 1985 came a knock on the dressing-room door. 'It was a vicar, a guy called Max Wigley,' says Bobby. 'I thought: "Stone me, I don't want this! I don't want a vicar coming at me and telling me about God and all this holier-than-thou pious stuff." I said to him: "Take your collar off!" and he did.

Now after the show I'm going out and taking a bird to a disco. And I'm married. This vicar sits there in the dressing room and doesn't mention God. It were me that said something about it. And then on his way out he just says: "I've got everything really, I have Jesus in my life." Oh and then he says: "Can I come out with you tonight to the disco?" No way, I thought! I'm not taking a vicar to a disco!

'But he got me thinking about God. I had a phenomenal life. Lots of money, Rolls-Royce, pulling the birds, getting drunk, the life of Riley. But I'm married, me, and I was committing adultery. Suddenly I felt dirty. I got sick of the lifestyle but I couldn't stop. I was addicted to it. The more I thought about God, the more I realised the things I was doing were wrong. I couldn't live with myself. You can't think about God and sin at the same time. I kept thinking about all the bad things. I really wanted to meet God. I wanted to change but I knew I couldn't.

'One morning I phoned the vicar up. I said: "I want to come to see you but I'm very frightened. If I meet God I don't want to become a monk and I don't want to become a Christian because I've seen them." Actually, what I'd seen was the religious churchgoing types. He just said: "Ask God to forgive your sins." Sins? I hadn't done anything wrong! A sin to me was something big like murder. Max explained how it's not just big things that are sins. And I said: "I really want to do it. I really want to meet God." He said: "Well, let's pray, then," and I said: "I've never prayed in my life." He told me to repeat a prayer after him. I were only a few lines in and I was crying.

I felt God come into my life there and then. God totally changed me. I never went with another bird again and he healed me from what I needed healing from. And there were a lot of things that needed working on.'

'Yes, like stop kissing me, that would be a big help,' chips in Tommy. 'It were fantastic,' recalls Bobby. 'It was a real life-changing thing. Me and Tommy have been both sides of the fence. We never went to church. I'd been brought up to believe there was a God or a something. I'd never read the Bible. I'd seen organised religion and were turned off by it. But this were fantastic. I can't tell you the feeling. It's amazing when you realise that God is actually real. Not something you believe in because you've been brought up with it but actually real. It were fantastic.

And I just wanted to tell Tom I've become a Christian.' Tommy was gobsmacked. Not so much at Bobby's news but just at the mere fact that his old mate was talking to him again. 'It was a shock. I thought he were pulling my leg,' says Tommy. 'There were no way I thought he could change from what he was. He was nasty. Like me, he was birding it and had fancy cars, fancy boats. We had the lot, so why would he suddenly want to become holier-than-thou? I thought, here we go, he's going to preach the Bible at me every day. Mind you at least he'd be talking to me again. But he never mentioned the Bible once. After the day he told me he had the Lord in his life he never mentioned it again.'

It would take seven years of not nagging before Tommy became a Christian. What did speak volumes, however, was that the pair made up. And then there was the home front. Before his conversion Bobby had remarried. His new wife was Yvonne, a nightclub waitress he'd met after a show. 'I went home and told my wife about the women,' says Bobby. 'I had no fear telling her. As it happens she knew what I'd been up to and amazingly she forgave me. She has since become a Christian.

The realisation of what I did wrong doesn't hit me any more. Some people may say I should feel the pain but I don't. I feel joy that I'm forgiven. Jesus has made me a happy man. He's given me hope and fulfilment. When you get Jesus your spirit comes alive. You know he's alive but not everything changes overnight. I wouldn't want people thinking I'm holier-than-thou. I'm not. Me and Tom have a great time, loads of laughs. God heals certain things in your life and then the journey begins. The battle begins. You start getting better, then you make a mistake. You go back to Jesus and ask for forgiveness and start again. Bit by bit things get better and better.'

Many of those laughs are to be had at the Cannon and Ball Gospel Show. Shortly after Tommy became a Christian the pair decided to use their hard-grafted stagecraft to tell their stories in a two-hour mix of songs, gags and words about their life and faith. They have seen many people come to faith as a result. Separately they accept church speaking engagements. Their touring itinerary is as busy as ever: summer season in Torquay, a cruise and then panto in Bradford are on the immediate horizon.

How do they keep their faith alive? 'By being together,' says Tommy. 'That's the biggest and best thing that we've got. Between shows in the dressing room we'll get the Bible out and have a few questions and answers at each another and all that, so we keep ourselves... 'Tommy asked me a great question the other day,' Bobby butts in. 'Are the epistles the wife of the apostles?' he grins. 'Fantastic question, that!' 'And nobody knows the answer to that,' says Tommy. 'There should be laughter in church. I don't think for one minute that Jesus wandered around with 12 disciples and there weren't one comic among them. It can't be. Twelve lads together and no funny guy. No chance!'

So if Cannon and Ball were in charge of the parish church, how would they pack in the punters? 'No gimmicks, I'd preach the gospel,' says Bobby. 'If Jesus could get thousands to come I am sure his words are good enough. You don't need a showbiz gospel. I'd have good tunes, good joyful tunes. Church should be a joyful place, not a place where people are frightened off. Christians have a duty not to frighten people off. The trouble is people get an idea of what religion is but never realise what Jesus offers them. Why should anybody come to religion? Jesus is the answer. I just wished I'd got to know him sooner.'

NEXT WEEK: How Tommy became a Christian and what Cannon and Ball make of celebrity TV chefs.

The duo"s story, "Rock on, Tommy!", written by Cannon and Ball with Chris Gidney, is published by HarperCollins at £15.99


Cannon and Ball are Fired-Up

A TWANG of the red braces, a swivel of the hips and a 'Rock on, Tommy!' was all Bobby Ball had to do to get audiences laughing in their millions. In the mid-Eighties, Cannon and Ball were must-see viewing, providers of a national catchphrase - and the top of the tree was a long way from the engineering works in Oldham where they first palled up as welders.

For years Bobby's parents lived in a condemned house on the Lancashire hills. When Tommy was five years old his father walked out on his family. Two years later his new stepfather arrived with his four kids. Tommy taught himself to sing, and after bumping into Bobby as he worked the pubs and clubs they joined forces to take on the world.

The big break seemed set to come when they appeared on 'Opportunity Knocks' - their chance to show the prime-time nation what they were made of. They came last. Back to the day job, looking after dog kennels. However, the pair made it big on the club and summer season circuit and were offered their own show on London Weekend Television. The big time had finally arrived. So had the high life.

'It were wine, wine, women, women and song,' quips Bobby, with the same cheeky grin that endeared him to millions. 'I was wining and dining the women and then going home and pretending to be happily married,' says Tommy. 'I didn't think I was doing anything particularly wrong. It's only now that you look back on it and think: "What on earth were I doing?" I used to go home and pretend - "Hello love, how are you? It's great to be home." But I couldn't wait to get away, couldn't wait to get on the road again.' 'He were married to me at the time!' slips in Bobby.

Tommy also liked the odd flutter or six. Ten grand a time. But neither man was satisfied.

In 1985 Bobby received a visit from a theatre chaplain Max Wigley. Within weeks he became a Christian. When he went to Tommy's dressing room to tell him the news it was the first time the pair had spoken casually in six years. Bobby's new-found faith helped restore their relationship.

As a youngster Tommy was sent to church but he soon decided it wasn't for him. 'My mum made me go to church. One morning the vicar was doing the usual thing and it just seemed he was not interested. It seemed like he was just doing it for the sake of it. The place was freezing. Some of the congregation fell asleep in the sermon and they mumbled through the hymn. I thought they were supposed to be enjoying themselves. That did it for me and I thought: I don't want any of this. This is not for me. And that was it.'

So when Bobby arrived to tell him that he'd just become a Christian, Tommy thought he was having him on. 'Bob and I were not speaking and he comes to me and says: "Hey, Tom. I've got Jesus in my life now." That were a big shock. There were no way I thought Bob could change from what he was. He was nasty. Like me, he was birding it and had fancy cars, fancy boats. I thought: Here we go; he's going to preach the Bible at me every day. But after the day he told me he had the Lord in his life he never mentioned it again.'

What, never? 'No,' says Bobby. 'I couldn't nag him. I just said: "I'm a Christian," and then let him see what God had done in my life. And I didn't really try to do anything. God did it.'

One Sunday in 1993, seven years after hearing Bobby's revelation, Tommy drove to Newport, South Wales, for the dedication service of Bobby's grandson. 'For me to go to church was my worst nightmare,' he says. 'I suppose since the day Bob told me about his faith I was looking at him and thinking: Well, you know, he is a lot better person. He'd talk about his family instead of talking about the bird he'd been with the night before. I saw there was a massive change in him. Maybe I started getting envious of what he had. Don't get me wrong; I was still going with the birds in my fancy car, even though I was married. I didn't really want the Lord in my life because I thought I was OK. I didn't think I had done much wrong. I hadn't beaten anybody up or mugged old women or anything like that.

'Anyway, Bobby invited me to the service and after my previous experience of miserable vicars church was the last place I wanted to be. It really frightened me. But this particular service was different. Something the minister said got through to me. At the end of the sermon he asked people who wanted Jesus in their life to go forward and commit themselves to Jesus. I was struggling. He asked people to show they wanted Jesus by raising their arm. A couple of times I struggled to put my hand up. I thought: What are you doing? And then on the third time it just went up without any hesitation. I don't exactly know what happened, it just felt like somebody was pushing my arm up in the air. And my wife, Margaret, put hers up at the same time.

Although it was very emotional, tears and everything else, I still didn't know what I had done. I was absolutely clueless but I knew my life had changed. I knew it had changed when I walked out of that church.' Bobby knew too. 'Right after the service I knew he had gone,' he says. 'Tommy carried many walls from his childhood - protective walls - and a lot of them came down. I could see that Jesus had touched him. He didn't know what had happened. He was wondering "What were it?" but I knew he had become a Christian. I saw the peace in him. I saw the change in him. It were fantastic. I were crying. I thought: Well, he knows now!'

'I came away from the church knowing I was different but I didn't have a clue,' says Tommy. 'It was an "OK, so I've given my life to the Lord, what happens next?" sort of thing. I knew something else should happen. Two or three weeks later I was at home on my own and I thought to myself: Right, well the only way I can do this is to pray to the Lord. I hadn't prayed in years but I got down on my knees in my bedroom and the Lord came down to me that day and touched me and that was it.'

But why had it taken Tommy seven years to respond to the change in his partner's life? 'I think when you're born Jesus has a path for you. We either stay on the path that he has destined for us or we come off it. I'd gone my own way. But somewhere along the line Jesus got hold of me by the scruff of the neck, shook me up and said: "Look, what are you doing? You need me in your life." Over the seven years different things happened to me, and it was a question of time. But even though I didn't understand everything that was happening I got the Lord in my life that morning at the church. And he has changed my life.'

'If people are prepared to look for God they'll find him,' says Bobby. 'The trouble we have in this country is that we're brought up to think that because we're British we're Christians already. Tommy and me, we thought we were all right. But we weren't. I don't like looking back much but I do wish I'd become a Christian a lot sooner than I did.'

When Bobby became a Christian he knew he had to tell his wife about the other women. For Tommy things were a little different. 'My wife knew about the other women,' he says. 'I was splattered across all the Sunday papers: "Tommy Cannon seen with busty brunette".' 'He wouldn't have cared but she were only a 34A,' quips Bobby. 'So I had no secrets to confess,' says Tommy. 'And praise the Lord, me and my ex-wife are still friends and my two grown-up daughters are fine now. It has taken a while for it to be fine and I've prayed long and hard about it, but we are a lot better now as a family. I now have another young family (I have a little boy) and so, yes, the Lord has blessed me. It has been great. Before, when I was on the road, I didn't want to go home. I just wanted to live the life. Now it's hard for Bob and me to be on the road because we'd rather be with our families.

'Jesus has given me so much happiness and fulfilment. I'm a much more secure person. I feel I've got a real friend with me all the time. Real change comes from the inside. And once you have the Holy Spirit inside, you will change. You've got no option. You will change.'

Taking to the road today is as much a business necessity as a Bohemian pleasure. Years after the big bucks started to roll in, the pair found themselves in debt to the taxman to the tune of a quarter of a million. They are still paying it off. The immediate itinerary is mercifully full - theatre work, gospel shows, Bolton this weekend, Torquay summer season, cruise, Aladdin in Bradford.

So when might we expect to see Cannon and Ball back on the telly? 'It's not likely because what we do really is gone,' says Bobby. 'DIY's big isn't it?' asks Tommy. It feels like a lead-in line for a gag. But no. It's Tommy's less-than-humorous comment on the state of television programming. 'You've got to be a joiner or a chef or work at an airport to have a TV show now,' says Bobby. All the more pity, then, that there's no room in the schedules for a couple of ex-welders from Oldham with something to say.