Beanz Meanz Cannon and Ball
Cannon and Ball, who return with a new series this Friday, were “born” over beans on toast and mugs of tea in a transport cafe on the M1. Thomas Derbyshire and Robert Harper remember the occasion well.
As the Harper Brothers they’d been singing and clowning around the clubs. The song Autumn Leaves had gone down well, but it was the harmony of their comedy work that had the customers thumping their pints on the tables in appreciation. The Harpers decided it wast time to get a more suitable name for the act – one with a comedy ring to it.
Derbyshire bought the inspirational beans, and they juggled with names. Cannon came first. Derbyshire recalled a favourite American singing star, Freddie Cannon. “Strange as it seems, we couldn’t think of anything to go with Cannon for a long time. Then, of course, the name Ball leaped out at us.”
Thomas Derbyshire became Tommy Cannon and Robert Harper, Bobby Ball. The Harper Brothers were swept away along with the dirty dishes.
The comedy duo clicked with viewers in their first series last year but, as so often happens with television “discoveries”, their “overnight success” came because they had spent years learning their trade. And also because they had the humility to “die with dignity”.
A test of real stars is that they can admit their failures. Cannon, 39, recalls: “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 £7. Once, a London agent saw us in a pub, signed us up, and we were out of work for six months.”
The couple say their biggest disaster was an appearance on ‘Opportunity Knocks!’ nearly 10 years ago. Says Bobby Ball: “We failed even to move the clapometer and instead of getting more work, we actually got dates cancelled.”
There isn’t a hint of bitterness or laying the blame with “the-audience-didn’t- understand-us” type of explanations. Ball says: “Frankly, we were bad. We were amateur and just not ready.
“But failure helped us view the future with more honesty. We believed in our talent, but it was obvious we were channelling it in the wrong direction.”
It’s not hard to see a lot of Abbott and Costello in their work – the strong forceful type and the little man.
Ball, 35, is the unmistakeable funny man. He wears a crumpled suit like a latter-day Chaplin, and while his face is handsome with a Mexican-type moustache, he can crumple it like one of those rubber faces you buy in joke shops. He’s clumsy, but has the grace of Chaplin.
He snaps his red braces and has a catchphrase – “Rock on Tommy”, the origin of which he’s not sure, but thinks it cam from places like Wigan and Oldham when he was spurring on Cannon with his fooling.
The “big” man is Tommy Cannon. The one with presence and the authority – domineering, but kindly on occasions. He’s solemn, but a smile occasionally plays around his lips at Ball’s absurdities. Even Bud Abbott’s stern and aggressive mood couldn’t be moved by comic Lou Costello.
Cannon and Ball developed their repartee in the Sixties on a factory floor at Oldham. They were welders by day, entertainers by night, and arrived bleary-eyed for work each morning. “We would probably have got the sack if we hadn’t turned professional,” says Ball.
As the singing Harper brothers they had lots of bookings, bought an elaborate sound system with an echo chamber “to make us sound a bit like Elvis”, and got a booking as second top of the bill at the plush Batley Variety Club. It was there they became full-time comics.
“They booked us as a comedy act, but when they saw we were mixing comedy with music, we went straight down the bill, and they put a comedian in our place. We both made the decision.”
“That’s it,” they agreed. “Out goes the music, and in comes the comedy”. They haven’t looked back since.