Lost in a gold Rolls on the M62
By Linda Hawkins
The top-of-the bill dressing-room at the Civic Hall, Sheffield is quite a grand affair. There are oak-panelled partitions, there are carpets, there is a drinks trolley, there is a toilet and shower room for top-of-the-bill artists only. There is also, on this particular night, a chill in the air.
“You want a fire?” gasps the man in the dress suit. “A fire? But we’ve got central heating.”
“Well it’s not very warm in here is it, cock?” says Tommy Cannon, mildly.
The man in the dress suit is amazed. “A fire! Well I don’t know. We’ve got central heating, see.” A few minutes later he is back carrying a battered convector heater. He stands hesitantly in the doorway. “Now this won’t find it’s way into the back of your van, will it?”
Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball, their gold Rolls Royce parked neatly outside, assure him it won’t. The heater is installed, reluctantly.
When he’s gone, Cannon shrugs off any suggestion of insult. “They can’t be too careful. You’d be amazed what some acts take.”
But such minor irritations can’t tarnish the glamour for Cannon and Ball. It’s taken them 19 years to achieve automatic star billing, and the difficuly years still outnumber the good. They have failed many times. They managed to come last in Opportunity Knocks! They have been paid off as sub-standard in several working mens club’s – an experience which is burned deep into Tommy Cannon’s memory.
“The humiliation of having to walk out through the punters with your coat over your arm and your head down…it’s the looks on their faces…’You weren’t good enough for our club, pal'”. And when they finally got their big break – a spot in Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night – their act was cut from the show at the last minute. But with optimism and the kind of determined vision that can spot good fortune where others can see only ill luck, they stuck with their act.
Today they can’t walk down the street without being followed by autograph hunters, and public demand keeps them on the road for nine months of the year in a constant round of live shows, TV recordings and Summer seasons. It’s a punishing pace, but Cannon and Ball aren’t knocking it. Success has been a long time coming.
Sheffield is a typical stop on their northern tour. Last night it was Batley, tomorrow Edinburgh, the day after Newcastle-upon-Tyne. But that’s in the future. On tour, the only way to survive is to concentrate on the present, and the present is Sheffield.
For Bobby Ball the day gets off to an inauspicious start. He drove home from Batley at two in the morning and it’s now 10:30, his gums ache from two teeth extractions the previous day, and his dog has run away again.
“Shan’t be long,” he shouts to personal assistant Trefor Davies.
Davies, the thin, sel-effacing man who is responsible for shepherding Cannon and Ball to the correct place at the correct time with the correct props, glances at his watch. Yvonne, Bobby Ball’s slim, blond wife, goes off to make coffee. She is his second wife and they’ve been married 11 years.
Today they live with their daughter in a 200-year-old cottage on a hill near Oldham; and every window looks out across open countryside to the Pennines.
“The first time they came on television, in the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, I was more nervous than Bob,” says Yvonne. “I couldn’t speak to anyone all day. I sat down in front of the set when the show started, with two lagers. I drank them both without tasting anything at all.”
The Balls’ gold and brown Chevrolet Cherokee suddenly swishes up the gravel drive and moments later Ball and a portly labrador appear.
Trefor Davies brightens and looks hopefully at the door. They have promised to visit a child who’s in a coma in Rotherham hospital on their way to Sheffield – but Bobby hasn’t had breakfast yet. He sucks painfully on a bacon butty.
“I was born just up the road from here. There used to be 10 cotton mills then and my mother worked in one of them. My sister Mavis and I were in the mill nursery and we used to go round the canteen literally singing for our lunch. We got quite popular and ended up singing on the BBC radio, but I gave it up when I was about 16.”
It’s 12 o’clock and by now Davies is getting anxious. Like a fiathful sheepdog, he circles round and round, until eventually Bobby is ready to leave. Davies takes the Cherokee with the props, while Bobby climbs into his other car, a gold Rolls-Royce.
The Cannon home is a modern detached house clinging to a steep hillside, with views across the valley. Tommy Cannon is in the garden enjoying the Spring sunshine. His Rolls, almost identical to Ball’s, stands in the drive.
He surveys it with pride. “I still think I’m dreaming sometimes. Years ago I watched this house going up and I used to say to Margaret ‘That’s going to be a lovely place.’ I never dreamed we’d own it one day.”
The Cannons met in a dance hall over the local Co-op and have been married for 22 years. She has always encouraged her husband, she says, even when things were going badly. “It was a bit of a risk at first with our three girls to bring up, but we could just about manage on my money and, as I used to say to Tommy, if it doesn’t work out you can always go back to the factory. They can’t take your hands away from you.”
For the Cannon and Ball partnership started on the factory floor. “I went along for a job and was told to wait for the foreman by the time clock,” says Cannon. “After a while this little character clocked in and said ‘How are you, cock?’ Bobby was the first bloke to speak to me and I appreciated it.
They became friends and soom Tommy Cannon, who’d won a few talent contests as a singer, and Bobby Ball, who’d been singing since childhood, teamed up as a double act called The Harper Brothers. Success eluded them, however, until they changed the name and turned to comedy.
“We used to do six songs with gags in between,” says Cannon. “Then after a while I realised the gags were going better than the songs. But the problem was getting Bobby to change. He’d always thought of himself as a singer, you see.” Eventually the change was forced on them. “We were doing a show with Frankie Vaughan topping the bill in the days when he was at his peak. Anyway, after we’d finished our act, the manager came over and said, ‘What are you doing? You’ve just done six songs with only a few gags in between. I’ve already got a singer. You’re the comedy.'”
Outside; Trefor is checking the props again. It’s 43 miles to Rotherham, then they’ve got to find the hospital, spend some time with the small patient and get away again in time to reach Sheffield, for 6 o’clock.
Inside, Cannon is reminiscing, while Ball holds his swollen jaw. They both say they haven’t changed and you believe them. Thev retain thick Lancashire accents, a fondness for a pint with the lads and their northern common sense.
“I can understand how some of the lads might feel about us now,” says Cannon. In their place I would back off and think, ‘They won’t want to be bothered with us.’ It’s not true. It’s the other people who’ve changed, not us. These days, you get a lot of people wanting to talk to you who wouldn’t have wanted to know 10 years ago. I mean, 10 years ago the bank manager wouldn’t have dreamed of asking us out for dinner. He does now. You’re driven into a different circle.
Bobby Ball is miles away. “They told me to rinse my mouth with salt water,” he mutters to nobody in particular.
“Oh, salt!’ says Trefor, who happens to be passing. ‘Mustn’t forget the salt.’
There is a discussion over which cars they should take but eventually they settle for the Cherokee and Ball’s Rolls, on the grounds that he enjoys driving and it will take his mind off his gums.
The convoy sets off, but it doesn’t get very far. Stopping to refuel, the autograph hunters descend. Trefor sighs. “I’ll wait for you at junction 33 on the M1”.
The Chrokee has vanished by the time the Rolls hits the road again, but Cannon and Ball are unperturbed. They speed along making good time, and all goes well until they reach a roundabout. Trefor Davies has spun away to the M1. Cannon and Ball spin away to the M62.
Unaware that they are on the wrong road they zoom off towards Hull, whil Trefor Davies hurries towards Rotherham in blissful ignorance of the disaster behind him. At junction 33, miles down the M62, Cannon and Ball cruise placidly in circles.
“Can’t see Trefor,” says Ball. “Wonder what’s holding him up?”
The news that they are at the right junction, wrong motorway, comes as a complete shock. There is a strained silence, then they look at each ther and burst out laughing. Half an hour later, at 4:30, an ashen Trefor Davies, parked on a grass verge overlooking the M1 is just about to flag down a police car then the Rolls Royce appears.
“I thought you’d had an accident,” he mutters through white lips. But there is no time for explanations. The pace quickens. Everyone leaps back into his car and the convoy, nose to bumper this time, negotiates the streets of Rotherham.
At the hospital, the reception committee is pacing the car park, but the sight of Cannon and Ball brings smiles all round. They head towards the childrens ward, signing autographs all the way. In the corner, and 11-year-old girl lies uncomprehending on the bed.
“She loves Cannon and Ball”, says her father. “They’re her favourites. We’ve been playing tapes of them to her for weeks.” Cannon and Ball bend over the bed and speak quietly to the child. After a while, her leg moves.
“That’s the first time she’s moved as much as that,” says the father tensely. They wait, but nothing else happens.
“Now remember love, the next time I come to see you, I want you up out of that bed,” says Cannon.
The other children press close. “My dad laughs at you. He says you’re daft”, says six-vear-old Lee, who’s had pneumonia.
‘Rock on, Tommy!’ adds an angelic-faced boy who’s paralysed from the neck down.
Tommy Cannon goes over to admire his special wheelchair. “Boy, look at this. It’s better than a racing car this, isn’t it?” While Bobby Ball crosses to a giggling brunette in the corner. “Hey Tommy, look at this sexy one over here. It’s Sue Ellen out of Dallas!” Sue Ellen collapses in mirth and hides her scarlet face in the pillow.
But Davies is getting twitchy. The minutes are ticking past, so it’s back on the road again.
At the Civic Hall Sheffield, the audience are already filing in as Cannon and Ball arrive. They hurry to the dressing room. There is still a lot to do. Davies dashes out for fish and chips while his charges go through the fan mail that’s waiting. Then there are costumes to unpack, props to lay out and last-minute consultations with the band.
Bobby Ball is wandering about with a glass of salt water as Cannon gets dressed. They are both very calm. “Well, you can only do one of two things. You can be goor or you can be terrible, and that’s the end of it,” says Ball.
“We don’t really like doing two shows, one after the other,” he says. You come off after the first one on a real high. It’s like taking drugs. When you’re up there making the audience laugh it feels like you know each one of them personally. You come backstage afterwards still floating on that feeling and then just as you’re coming down, and all you want to do is go home, you have to go back and do it all over again.”
Tommy Cannon is ready and it’s time for Ball to get changed. Davies holds out the famous baggy suit and braces. “We got that suit by accident really,” Cannon recalls. “Bobby used to wear a flash, bright, pinstripe suit, It worked for a while, but we began to feel it made him too cheeky, too fly. So we went to an Oxfam Shop and found this suit that was four times too big. He tried it on with a belt round it first and it looked terrible so I said, ‘Try it with braces,’ and that’s how it started.”
Fifteen minutes to go and the calm starts to crumble. Cannon and Ball are up and pacing. Trefor Davies is bustling more than ever. “Two glasses of water for the stage. A pedal bin. I mustn’t forget the trumpet…”
Then it’s into the wings. The band strikes up, and they’re on. As the spotlights hit them, Cannon and Ball become different people. The mild, easy-going Tommy Cannon is suddenly irritable and impatient. The lively, quick-thinking Bobby Ball is transformed into a sort of manic imp, alternating pathos with aggression. The only time the masks slip is when something goes wrong.
Tommy Cannon snatches a prop trumpet, with the intention of breaking the top off it, but the top won’t budge. He tries several times, he even attempts to snap it across his knee but the trumpet remains obstinately intact. Ball catches his eye, they both start to laugh and the audience cheers in delight. “That’s a cock-up!” Cannon tells them and tosses the trumpet to the floor.
In the wings, Davies, whose attention had wandered, realises something’s wrong. “What happened? What happened? They were laughing in the wrong place. What? The trumpet wouldn’t break? Oh no. I’ve just bought 300 of those!”
But it doesn’t matter. The audience loved the show and Cannon and Ball come off-stage to shouts of “More!” Sweat rolling down their faces, they hurry through the autograph hunters to their dressing room, to get ready to do it all over again…