Why Cannon and Ball refused to quit
By Linda Hawkins
Today comedians Cannon and Ball have their own TV series, they are making a film, their shows are sell-outs, they drive a pair of gold Rolls-Royces and go home to large country houses with panoramic views.
But getting to the top has been a real struggle.
That’s the main reason success hasn’t changed them. They both still speak with Lancashire accents, they still live close to Oldham where they were brought up and they still like to have a pint with the lads in the local.
“If I’d been 23 when this happened I don’t think I could have handled it,” says Tommy Cannon, who is now 44. “It would probably have gone to my head. I’m glad it took so long to happen. I’m older and calmer now, I’ve been around and I’ve got my priorities right.”
If anything, he feels it’s other people who’ve changed. Suddenly the bank manager wants to invite him to dinner. “And that wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago!”
They are both still haunted by the tough, early days. Sometimes as they drive through the streets of Lancashire towns, a dingy brick facade will bring memories flooding back.
“‘Ey, Tommy, remember that place there?” Bobby Ball will say, pointing out a working-man’s club. “It were right rough there weren’t it? In places like that they won’t even glance up when you walk on.”
When he was 16, Bobby Harper, as he was called then, became a welder in a factory and met his future partner.
“I went for a job and I was told to wait for the foreman by the timeclock,” Tommy recalls. “You feel a right lemon standing there on your own. Anyway, after a while this little character came along 20 minutes late, clocked in and said ‘How are you, cock?’ He was the first person to speak to me and I appreciated it. We became friends.”
Both men had good singing voices and people were always telling them they should get an act together. Eventually a London agent offered them a contract, and full of enthusiasm they gave up their jobs. But the contract fizzled out and the Harper Brothers, as Bobby and Tommy called themselves, were jobless and penniless.
“Fortunately my wife, Margaret, always encouraged me,” Tommy Cannon says. “Money was tight at first because we had three girls, but Margaret went back to hairdressing to keep us going. She used to say: ‘Never mind, Tommy, if it doesn’t work out you can always go back to the factory. They can’t take your hands away from you.'”
Bobby Ball’s first marriage broke up, but through the act he met his second wife, Yvonne. The Harper Brothers were booked to appear at the nightclub where Yvonne worked.
“I thought they were awful,” she says. Bobby himself didn’t fare much better. “I saw him at a party after the show. He was dark, with a ‘tache and seemed just my type – then he stood up and I thought, no, he’s too short.”
But Bobby’s personality soon won her over and Yvonne, who is tall, slender and blonde, soon forgot the difference in their heights. Today they’ve been married for 11 years and they have an eight-year-old daughter.
It took the rest of the world a little longer to appreciate Cannon and Ball. They came last in Opportunity Knocks and a big impressario said of them: “They’ll never make it in 1000 years.”
And when, after 19 years, they got their big chance, on Bruce Forsythes Big Night, their act was cut from the show at the last minute.
“Of course, there were times when we felt like giving up,” says Tommy Cannon. “But then we thought of the alternative, going back to the factory, and we realised that even the bad times were more fun that that.”
It was only when they realised that the gags were going down better than the songs that they decided to concentrate on comedy. They also abandoned the name The Harper Brothers.
“One important thing about us is that we like each other,” Bobby Ball says. “Tommy and I go out together and our families visit each other. The only thing we don’t do is go on holiday together. You need a bit of a break so you’ve got something to talk about.
“Another important thing is that we like what we’re doing. That’s why we keep going…”
And, judging by their success, Cannon and Ball are due to keep going for a long time to come.
The man who came to their rescue
Like Morecambe and Wise before them, Cannon and Ball owe a lot to scriptwriter Sid Green.
Sid was called in by London Weekend Television to rescue their flagging comedy show.
Cannon and Ball’s first series had proced a disappointment, and Sid recalls: “I thought they would make it, but they had a lot of rough edges. Since I’ve known them, they have become a lot classier, though I don’t think they have quite the warmth of Eric and Ernie.
Cannon and Ball are now much more relaxed, and I’m sure they are here to stay.”
Sid wrote their subsequent TV shows, and was confident enough about them to invest his reputation in writing the script for their first film, The Boys In Blue, a re-working of an old Will Hay movie.
He doesn’t believe their big-screen career will go the way of Frankie Howerd, Tony Hancock…and even Morecambe and Wise.
They all tried translating their TV acts to film, but were not hugely successful.
“This time,” says Sid, “it will not just be a case of trying to do their normal stage or TV performance and making it bigger and better.
“It’s a real story and they will have to do some proper acting.”
The film industry is understandably cautious, however, and British producer Greg Smith has booked only four weeks and Elstree to complete the small-budget film.
Sid says: “The boys are fitting in the film between their summer season and Christmas. Despite the fact that it’s a departure from their normal routine, I think their fans will like it, and with any luck they’ll get new fans, too.”