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Why Cannon and Ball are going great guns

They're the biggest comedy duo to hit the British audiences in years. They've got us rocking and rolling with laughter and they're playing to packed houses in London's West End. But who are the real Cannon and Ball? Lulu Appleton finds out with the help of their real-life other halfs...

As Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball were strolling past a car showroom one day, the sun glittered invitingly on the burnished gold finish of a Rolls-Royce. They grinned at each other. What better way to celebrate their long-sought success? "We'll take two," they told the astonished car salesman. "One each, please."

Today, ask Tommy how it feels to own such a grand car and he'll tell you it's wonderful! But Bobby's not so sure. "To tell the truth," he says in an accent as thick as tripe, "I feel a bit of a snob in it."

Cannon and Ball are the hottest comedy duo since the inimitable Laurel and Hardy - and just as different in looks and personality as Stan and Ollie. Tommy Cannon, 44, is tall and slim with beautifully cut suits and a Sinatra-style singing voice - the perfect straight man. Bobby Ball, four years younger, is small and curly-haired with a moustache, baggy trousers, red braces and a penchant for shouting "Rock on. Tommy" and "Ooh, I really hate you!" Separately, they are chalk and cheese. Together, they are pure magic.

Within days of their Christmas show at London's Dominion Theatre (December 16 to January 29) being announced, tickets were selling like hot cakes. Everyone, it seems, wants to see Cannon and Ball in action. Not that the duo ever seem to stand still. They have completed four successful series for LWT, several specials (including their own annual TV Christmas show) and a new series is planned for 1983. They've also released a single for Christmas entitled Hold Me In Your Arms. Now rounding off a sensational year, the pair have just completed their first feature film which will be released at Easter. Called The Roys in Blue, it stars Sergeant Tommy Cannon and Constable Bobby Ball in charge of Britain's quietest police station! Indeed, the crime rate is so low that Tommy and Bobby reserve their energies for running a local general store. As you can probably imagine, it's a situation that cannot last for too long . . .

Tommy and Bobby were so keen to do the film that Tommy actually fibbed his way into it by pretending that he could ride a motorbike. He'd never actually been on one in his life, but he learned to ride in five days. They began filming in October, taking just two days off after their punishing four-month, twice-nightly hit summer season in Bournemouth. Bobby admits he was terrified that first morning when filming began. And Tommy says: "The worst bit of all was seeing the rushes at the end of the day. There we were, so huge up on the big screen. It was a really daunting experience."

Making the film fulfilled an ambition the pair have had for some time, although they realise that not even veteran comedians Morecambe and Wise have managed to make the transition from TV to cinema screen successfully. But then, who'd ever have envisaged such Cannon and Ball success for Thomas Derbyshire and Robert Harper, two Oldham lads whose only claim to fame had been failing to move the fabled clapometer on Opportunity Knocks?

Neither Tommy nor Bobby came from a show business background. In fact, if Tommy's parents hadn't split up when he was four, he'd probably have been a footballer instead of a comic.

"My dad was a Geordie and a champion boxer," he says. "I was sports mad at school and longed to be a professional footballer. I'm sure if I'd had my father's influence, he would have encouraged and pushed me forward in that direction."

Tommy's mum remarried when he was five and her new husband's four young children joined them. For a year, Tommy had been the man of the house, having beans on toast ready for his mum when she returned from her job at the cotton mill. Suddenly, he became the odd one out in his own home and to this day he still feels the pain of his childhood. "Things happened then which I still don't want to talk about," he says.

He adored his mother, who after nearly 60 years of working in the mill, retired and died shortly afterwards. "She saw us get our first big break in show business," says Tommy sadly, "but she never lived to see us really take off."

His first job on leaving school was down a coal mine, followed by a succession of jobs when the pit closed. At 21, he married Margaret, only the second steady girlfriend he'd ever had.

"My pals enjoyed the bachelor life, but I was different," he recalls. "I always wanted the security of marriage and Margaret was what I was looking for."

Meanwhile, in another part of Oldham, Bobby was experiencing a far happier childhood than Tommy. "We had a marvellous childhood, my two sisters and me. We lived in a slum - in fact, the house was condemned - but we still had a fabulous life. I remember it with great affection."

When Bobby was a toddler he sang along to the radio and, as a small boy, formed a singing act with his sisters to entertain the mill workers during their lunch breaks.

"There were about 15 mills with lunch-time shows and some of them had fabulous ballrooms," he says. "I had a licence to be off school to entertain and sometimes I earned more than my dad!"

In 1954, 10-year-old Bobby was spotted by a show-biz agent who wanted to take him to London and make him a star. He offered Bobby's parents money as an advance on his future earnings but they were horrified. "My dad, a real flat-cap-and-clogs type of chap, said that nobody was going to buy his son."

And so that was the end of that.

At 17, Bobby teamed up with his girlfriend Joan as a singing act and three years later they were married. "We were very young," says Bobby, "but very happy at first." They had two sons, but the marriage ended when Joan fell in love with someone else. The break-up knocked Bobby for six, but he picked himself up and soon started dating a pretty, blonde girl called Yvonne. They've been married for 12 years now and they couldn't be happier.

But the story goes back to Oldham, where the wheels of fate were turning. Tommy took a new job as a welder in a factory and on his first day was waiting for the foreman so that he could clock-on when a little figure came scurrying in, 20 minutes late for work. It was Bobby. "How are you, cock?" he yelled at Tommy, as he rushed past. And that was the beginning of Cannon and Ball. The two palled up and, as Tommy says, "It felt as though I was his big brother. With his little face, Bobby would look like a little boy lost and I'd look after him and get him out of all sorts of bother!"

Bobby then asked Tommy if he would like to join a trio, so Tommy rushed out and bought a second-hand drum kit. He joined vocalist Bobby and another chap on the piano and they got an act together. However, the three soon realised it wasn't going to work and something had to give. It was the pianist and the drums. Bobby and Tommy became a singing duo with comic overtones, called the Harper Brothers. They picked up quite a lot of club work but, after a year of turning up late and bleary-eyed for work, they were finding it difficult to marry their daytime jobs with their night-time singing engagements. So they took the plunge, handed in their notice and turned professional. They were also finding that the comedy element in the act was proving more popular than the singing, so gradually the songs became fewer and the gags flew thick and fast.

And so the Harper Brothers were an overnight . . . well, failure!

Says Tommy: "In the early days, we were engaged for three days' work in Wales for £50. We got paid off after two nights and, after paying our expenses, came back home with just £7."

The biggest disaster was that appearance on Opportunity Knocks 11 years ago. They passed the audition as a singing act but, by the time they appeared on the show, they'd become a comedy team. Only they weren't very good, and audience reaction failed to move the clapometer by so much as a quiver. "Frankly, we were bad," Bobby admits. "We were amateur and just not ready. It made us work all the harder, though, and helped us decide to change our name - if only to save face!

"We were sitting in a transport cafe when we made the decision and Tommy fancied calling himself Tommy Cannon after the American singer Freddie Cannon. We agreed it was a good, strong name - but do you think we could find something to go with it? We tried all sorts and it was ages before Tommy came up with Ball. 'I'm not calling myself that,' I said. 'It's too corny'."

But Cannon and Ball it was. They worked the club circuit, and were so popular that they won the National Club Award as Comedy Act of the Year (they have since won the award a further twice and they remain the only act ever to have notched up a hat-trick of club awards). After that first win they were featured in TV's Wheeltappers and Shunters Club, but their big breakthrough came when they were offered a string of guest spots in Bruce Forsyth's Big Night series.

But it wasn't so much a big night for Cannon and Ball. More a flop as week after week they were billed to appear, but nothing happened. In the end, their half-dozen planned appearances were cut to just one, a single appearance in the Christmas edition of Bruce's show.

However, that one appearance was enough for London Weekend Television to spot their potential. The following year they were given their first ever TV series. At last they were poised for success, sure that nothing could go wrong this time. But it did! After just two shows had been screened, ITV was hit by a long-running dispute that blacked out TV screens for a couple of months. And it led to Cannon and Ball being affectionately nicknamed Cannon and Blackout by show-biz colleagues! But they managed to have the last laugh, because when that initial series was finally screened it was a huge success - and another one followed on very quickly, to the delight of fans.

At last, at long last, Cannon and Ball had been launched with a bang, and virtually the whole country reverberated to the sound of "Rock on, Tommy!"

It's been a long 19 years since those days in the Oldham factory, but Tommy and Bobby aren't complaining. And neither are their wives, Margaret and Yvonne, even though, in its own way, it can be tough at the top, just as much as when you're at rock bottom.

As Bobby says, "When I'm not up on that stage, I'm just killing time. That's where my life begins and ends. ' And blonde Yvonne, who towers over her husband by several inches, knows this.

"He told me right from the start, if you want me to give up show business, you'll lose me. And I believe him. But I couldn't stand a nine-to-five man anyway. I'd be bored to death. We've got a fabulous marriage, a marvellous sex life and I can make him laugh, which is really terrific!"

Sometimes, though, the separations forced by Bobby's work are difficult for them. "When he's home again, for the first couple of days were like strangers. It takes us time to relax properly together. And when I'm around, Bobby comes straight home from the theatre, unlike when he's away and needs to go out and have a few drinks and laughs to come down after a show."

What about other women and all those fans? "If Bobby was unfaithful, it would split us up," Yvonne replies without a shred of hesitation. She pats the wallet in the pocket of her jeans, crosses her long slim legs and grins. "I'm in charge of the money, too. He's hopeless - he'd give his very last brass farthing away!" Bobby pretends to look hurt. "I could take you to her wardrobe," he says, "and show you dresses that she hasn't even bloody worn!" But he's laughing, really. "If someone put down as much as £500 on this table right now, I would give it all to her."

"True, " says Yvonne, "he would. I once let him look after our finances and he spent all the mortgage money on me!"

So how has Cannon and Ball's success affected her?

"I'm always nervous if I have to meet other stars. I'll agonise for hours over what to wear and I make Bobby stay beside me the whole time because I never know what to talk about. Life for me personally was a lot easier before Cannon and Ball became famous. We could go to the pictures, have a meal out, visit a club. Now, Bobby gets recognised and everyone asks for autographs. If I go anywhere alone and talk to a fella, people put two and two together and make five!"

Her devotion to Bobby is total. When they met, she was a waitress in a club. "I saw this bloke and really fancied him - he was sitting down at the time." Yvonne laughs. "We talked for hours, and it was only when he stood up I realised he barely reached my shoulder! But it didn't matter - it never has."

Their first home was with Bobby's sister. And, by the time baby Joanne arrived (she's 10 now), their cluttered bedroom, which accommodated all three - resembled a dormitory. But they were happy times for the family.

During Cannon and Ball's first summer season, Yvonne waitressed by day while Bobby looked after baby Joanne on the beach with the showgirls. They swapped over at four o'clock when Bobby had to go to the theatre.

Yvonne never lost faith or asked Bobby to settle into something more secure. "He promised me that one day he would be able to buy me everything I wanted. I never believed him then and it didn't matter. But it's all come true now."

She smiles at the memory. Her whole world revolves around her husband and daughter, and Bobby is protective towards her, won't let her take a job and likes her there when he needs her. Her only sadness is that she can never have another child. Unknown to Yvonne, complications set in after Joanne was born which went undetected until agonising pains landed her in hospital. Not only could she never have another baby, but if her illness had been allowed to go untreated for another 18 months, she would have been dead.

"I looked at the new babies in the hospital and it nearly broke me up," she says. Bobby feels deeply for her, knowing that, because he already has two sons as well as Joanne, the blow for him is softened. But Yvonne isn't the sort of person to let things get her down, and if she gets depressed about not being able to add to her family, she doesn't let on. Bobby and Joanne are enough of a world for her, you feel. And she enjoys her life, even if Bobby's fame sometimes makes her uneasy.

In contrast to Yvonne, Margaret Cannon is much more relaxed about her husband's success. She's also very efficient, no-nonsense and completely unconcerned about what people think of her, and has made few concessions to their new-found affluence. "I tried a health-farm once but I couldn't stand it," she says. "All that time to think of nothing but yourself! In a way, money spoils things slightly. I used to save for ages and really enjoy buying something when I could finally afford to. It's not the same, being able to go and buy whatever you want."

She and Tommy have two lovely daughters, Jeanette, 22, who's married to a lorry driver and has a seven-month-old son, Ben, and 18-year-old Julie who works for Cannon and Ball's manager and still lives at home.

Tommy Cannon adores his grandson. "It's wonderful having two beautiful daughters, but I'd have loved a son. I sometimes have to stop myself from becoming too possessive over Ben and remind myself that he's not mine."

Like any other proud granddad, Tommy splashed out on an expensive pram for the baby, while Margaret painstakingly sewed blankets, sheets and pillowcases for her first grandchild's cot.

Margaret is good for Tommy and that is plain to see. She provides the stability he needs. But she doesn't let the grass grow under her feet; she's built a life of her own which she lives to the full. "I have just finished renovating and covering an old bedding box," she says, "then there's my evening classes. I do yoga, dressmaking, cookery . . ." She counts them off on her fingers.

Tommy is proud that Margaret has remained the same level-headed and fair-minded girl he married. Like Yvonne, she's suffered through lean times; indeed it was her hairdressing business that housed and fed the Cannons in those early years. Then, when Cannon and Ball were beginning to take off, a tour of Australia was offered which would take them away for six weeks. It was an offer they couldn't refuse.

Bobby recalls: "We'd just bought our first house. I sent Yvonne 12 quid a week and, when I came home, she'd furnished the whole place by living on baked beans and toast, saving every penny she could. I walked into that place and bloody well cried."

All four take pride in their Lancashire roots and make no attempt to smooth out their accents or lose touch with their background. Even though they have moved up in the world, their homes - Bobby's converted coachhouse and Tommy's luxury bungalow - are in Oldham, a place so filled with memories that they're reluctant to leave.

Despite the amount of time Bobby and Tommy spend in each other's pockets, they've remained firm friends over 19 years.

"We've been good mates," Bobby agrees, "but we live with each other more than we live with our wives, so we have to work at it, just as you would a marriage."

They are two very contrasting personalities. Tommy is a private, shy person, preferring to leave Bobby to the autograph hunters and flee home after a show. He's sports mad and relaxes with a few rounds of golf, a workout at the gym or a game of cricket.

Bobby, on the other hand, enjoys the parties and social life that are part of the trappings of a star. He likes to retain that euphoria which comes from playing to an ecstatic audience.

"Being so different, of course we've had arguments," says Tommy. "We've had times when each of us thought we could go it alone. But we know, in our heart of hearts, that we're a double act and neither of us can do without the other.

"The lovely thing is that no one realises I can make Bobby laugh much quicker than the other way round. He pulls faces all the time and if I pull one, he creases up!" We have total respect for each other," adds Bobby, "and that's what makes a double act. Our wives get on very well, too, and usually go out together once a week for a meal when we're away."

So how has success changed them from the entertaining welding workmates? "The main difference to our lives today," says Tommy "is that in the old days we used to have a lot more laughs offstage. Now we're big names, it's for real. The old carefree attitude had to go - no more belting around in old bangers that kept breaking down. If that happened today, we could be keeping 2,000 people waiting, and that's no joke."

The first night of their Christmas show at the Dominion was a big charity performance, one on which they insisted. Bobby explains why: "It's a way of paying back a little of what we've got. It helps us remember where we came from and where we are now." And that's the spirit which has fired their success. So rock on, Cannon and Ball!