The huge success of Cannon and Ball, Britain’s popular comedy team, has now taken them on to the large screen – they talked with Ian Woodward while filming at Elstree recently
NORMALLY you would have little trouble finding them. You would simply look for their twin gold-coloured Rolls-Royces parked outside the theatre, club or television studio at which they happen to be working. But, on this occasion, they’ve left their limousines back home in Oldham, so you have to rely on less exalted clues.
Like veteran Centurion tanks.
“Look for the tank parked outside,” they advise,
At first, because their names are Cannon and Ball, and because they just happen to be the hottest comedy double act since Laurel and Hardy, you think they must be ioking. Look for a pedestrian crossing, a sweet shop, or even a petrol station, yes, maybe – but look for a tank?
But, for once in their madcap lives, they’re serious. The location on the day in question for The Boys in Blue, the debut movie of Northern funny men Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball, turns out to be within a military motor-vehicle experimental establishment in rural Surrey-and, sure enough, a tank is parked outside the main entrance.
When the scene they are filming, showing the noisy, glass-splintering, metal-crunching collision of a green double-decker bus with a Land Rover towing a motor-launch, appears in the finished picture at its Easter premiere, it will have happened (to all intents and purposes) on a quiet country road “somewhere in southern England”. But then nothing in movies is what it seems up on the screen.
“Having no audience to play to is taking some getting used to, I can tell you,” says Tommy, the duo’s good-looking straight man. “You’re supposed to be doing something funny, and nobody laughs. The film crew obviously can’t laugh when we’re doing a ‘take’, otherwise it ruins it.”
“It’s a very, very slow medium to work in,” adds Bobby, the little one with the moustache, the braces and the air of a delinquent nine-year-old. “But I enjoy smashing cars and the other ‘disaster’ things we get up to. What a way to make a living!”
The film is a sort of up-dated, sophisticated, highly-polished version of an old Ealing comedy. Tommy and Bobby are the sergeant and constable of a village police station threatened with closure because the boys haven’t suffered a crime nor made an arrest in ten years.
Between “takes”, Tommy and Bobby relax in their respective “directors’ chairs”, one with “SGT. TOMMY CANNON” emblazoned in large capital letters across the canvas back, the other with “P.C. BOBBY BALL”.
“The business of filming is such a serious affair, with everyone showing intense concentration during the actual ten seconds or so of a ‘take’, that I sometimes find it very difficult not to giggle,” explains Tommy. “I’m the biggest giggler in the world.”
“Once he starts giggling,” says Bobby, “I’m finished. I break up.. .it’s a job to keep a straight face.”
“Fortunately, with filming,” continues Tommy, “we can always do another ‘take’. Funnily enough, giggling can actually help you: it relaxes you a bit.”
Director Val Guest, the man who wrote, produced or directed such movies as The Day the Earth Caught Fire, Casino Royale, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and Quatermass Experiment, overhears the conversation.
“Don’t listen to them,” he says good-humouredly. “They’re taking to making films like ducks to water.. .they’ll soon be teaching us a thing or two!”
“Val’s been marvellous,” Bobby goes on. “He’s taught us things like not to over-react to anything while filming, otherwise it will look too exaggerated on the screen.”
Producer Greg Smith, comments: “I saw Tommy and Bobby on television about three years ago and thought them unique. I got together with their manager to talk over a possible film deal.
“They weren’t then enjoying the extraordinary countrywide success they have now, with nearly £1 million advance bookings for their Christmas show at the Dominion Theatre in London. Nothing speaks louder than money, and when the film people could see the kind of public response they were getting, the film was quickly set up.”
They work hard for their money – summer-season work usually means a seven-day week. Tommy wears crocodile shoes and Christian Dior shirts. The rich trappings of the good life surround them. Tommy will tell you that they could each have a £200,000 mansion now if they wanted – “but that’s not a home”.
They both still live on the outskirts of their native Oldham, and they have no intention of leaving. Bobby, thirty-eight, has been married for eleven years to Yvonne, and they have a ten-year-old daughter, Joanne; he also sees a lot of his sons – Robert, eighteen; Darren, fourteen – by his first marriage. Every window of their two-hundred-year-old cottage looks out across open countryside to the Pennines.
He was born just up the road from his present home, which is only a mile or two from Tommy’s birthplace. Tommy, too, owns a bungalow a mere four miles from where he was born. It is set in its own spacious grounds and has splendid views over the area where he grew up in a one-up, one-down terraced house. Here, the forty-four-year-old comic lives with his wife Margaret and their younger daughter, Julie, who is eighteen; their elder daughter, Jannette, twenty-one, is married with a baby boy.
Tommy and Bobby are both inseparable from their roots in Lancashire, and the merest thought of moving south fills them with horror. They still drink in the pubs and working men’s clubs they used before they became professional entertainers, and they still describe themselves as “just a couple of ordinary fellers”.
Although those closest to them say that, in private, they are both sentimental, emotional, unchanged, others have noted that the pressures of success have occasionally made them prickly and mistrustful. Basically, they both enjoy the same sort of films and the same sort of entertainers. Sometimes Bobby will play a round of golf to please Tommy, and Tommy is now taking up the guitar to please Bobby. ? But they never take their holidays together (“we’d never unwind”).
Tommy admits that he is more of a private person than Bobby – and certainly shyer. There have been times, he says, when he’s left the stage, signed autographs, done “the bits and pieces”, and all he’s wanted to do was to shut the door and be on his own. Bobby, on the other hand, might want to go out after a show. To all outward appearances, at least, they are the proverbial opposites.
Professionally, they are a comedy double-act with a difference. Their act blends humour with pathos, and relies for its impact on the constant conflict between the suave Tommy and the scruffy-suited, leg-shaking Bobby. Their catchphrases, “Rock on, Tommy!”, “That’ll do for me, Cocky!” and “You hate me, you really hate me!”, are among the most repeated in the country.
Tommy and Bobby tell you simply that their present double act has evolved from an initial friendship of two Oldham factory workers who got together to form a singing act, and that that genuine friendship and total respect for each other ultimately led to the formation of Cannon and Ball.
Their pre-success story is this; Tommy Cannon was christened Thomas Derbyshire, and Robert Harper is the real name of Bobby Ball. They met in 1962 while working as welders in an engineering factory making trailers for articulated lorries, located some two miles from Bobby’s present home.
“I can remember it as if it were yesterday,” says Tommy. “It was my first day at this heavy-welding factory, where Bobby was already working, and I was waiting there to be assigned my first job. And Bobby came in, about twenty minutes late (like he’s always been!), and his first words to me were: ‘Hello, cock.’ ”
Bobby smiles. “He looked a bit lonely,” he says. “I tried to make him feel a bit at home. It was a couple of days later before we really talked, and we instantly liked each other- we shared a love for singing.”
After a couple of impromptu performances at the factory social club, they formed a singing duo called The Harper Brothers. It soon became apparent, though, that Bobby had a natural talent for comedy, which was complemented by Tommy’s ability to remain straight-faced and act as the perfect foil to him. Gradually, the comedy content became stronger, as did their popularity, and the time came to take the plunge and turn professional.
“It got to the point,” recalls Bobby, “where we were rehearsing our act on the factory floor. Our workmates loved it, but we were being constantly reprimanded by our foreman. If we hadn’t decided to turn professional I’m sure we would have been sacked.”
It was at this time that they decided to change the act’s name. Says Tommy: “We needed something catchy, something to attract attention.”
So, on a typically wet Lancashire morning, Tommy and Bobby and their then manager visited a dreary cafe and began suggesting names to each other. They got through several pots of tea before someone came up with Cannon and Bail.
“It sounded stupid at first,” says Tommy.
“I thought it was a silly name, like calling us Fish and Chips,” adds Bobby, “It seemed a bit corny, but we needed a name that people wouldn’t forget and would talk about.”
“We knew,” explains Tommy, “that we’d get all the puns from critics and announcers -you know, ‘and here they are, the quick-fire comics’, and ‘they went off with a bang’; and they’re still saying things like that,”
They’ve come up the hard way, through the Northern club circuit, but their fame began to spread to other parts of the country until they were voted Top Comedy Act by readers of a leading showbiz magazine, an award that led to a booking on Granada’s television show, Wheeltappers & Shunters Social Club.
Now that they are the comedy duo that is all the rage, having enjoyed four series of Cannon and Ball on London Weekend Television and being the only entertainers ever to win three separate National Club awards, it is worth remembering that their journey to the top has been rougher than most in the world of show business.
They’ve failed many times. They managed to come last in Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks television talent show. They have been paid off as sub-standard in several working men’s clubs. Their first ITV series was hit by a strike after just two shows.
Worst of all, they had the galling experience of recording nine six-minute inserts for Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night TV series in 1979 – their first major break – only to be told that they were all going to be axed as plans for Bruce’s show were changed in a desperate effort to make it more viewable. The trauma of that major disap-pointment is still with them.
“We both suffered deep inside with that experience,” says Tommy. “When I found out what had happened to the Big Night show, I didn’t even phone Bobby that night; I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that we weren’t going to be on it at all. I broke my heart that night.”
“We’re both great worriers,” says Bobby, “and that sort of thing just finishes you. It’s very tough on the old self-confidence. I always took it very badly. I’d go home with a terrible black cloud around me.
“Yvonne would say, ‘Well, you can’t please everybody. Don’t let them think that you’re not good. You’re the best in the world.’ She stood by me.”
Tommy says: “We’re married to two exceptional women. My wife’s a wonderful lady, because even when we were struggling in our early married days and I was earning just £10 a week, she was always a very levelheaded girl. Every obstacle that came along, she just took it in her stride. It never seemed a problem to her.
“I worry even if I have nothing to worry-about. Margaret is the exact opposite. She’s my stability, and I think she always has been. She’s always been one hundred and ten per cent behind whatever I wanted to do. She’s never said ‘Don’t do it, it’s not worth it’.”
Bobby recalls the early days and confesses that, although times were tough, there was also an underlying happiness.
“When Yvonne and I first got married,” he says, “we lived with my sister in a two-up, two-down house. There were four adults and three kids. We had no money, and we were struggling, but we’re so close as a family that, do you know, it was the best time I’ve ever known.
“What you’ve got to remember,” Bobby goes on, “is that we’re married to a couple of special women. Tommy wasn’t joking when he said that. In the last twelve months we’ve been away for eleven of them, and Yvonne and Margaret accept it and stick by us. We’re not the easiest men to live with. Even if I’m not actually worrying about the job all the time, I’m usually thinking about it, how to improve the act, and so on.
“I might go home for two days, after being away for a week, and I’ll go straight to my little room, where I wrote the theme for The Boys in Blue. She has to put up with that: she has to put up with the sort of husband who, having not been home for a great length of time, then locks himself in a room until the evening. Moodwise, I’m mostly very happy. I’m mostly what you see on the screen, so I’m not a difficult husband in that respect. Sometimes I do go a bit quiet, but that’s usually only when I’m writing something or thinking about the act.”
He grins. “But there’s no respect for the artist, you know! Little Joanne will come barging in the room, whether I’m writing something or not. I don’t grumble.. .I love to see her.”
Mention that there must be certain hardships for the family of entertainers who are always away entertaining, rarely at home, and they both nod philosophically.
“Yes,” agrees Tommy, “but it’s accepted. While we’re doing well, it’s worth the sacrifice: we benefit, and so does the whole family.
“They’re a great gang. There’s no obvious age-gap in my family. When I’m with my eldest daughter, Jannette, I don’t feel like a father-I’m more a pal.
“Both daughters,” continues Tommy, “are now old enough to talk to about ‘problems’, whereas once poor old Margaret got the brunt of them. So I’ve now got more than one shoulder to cry on. It’s a release, having them there to discuss things with.”
His wife Margaret, whom he married when he was twenty-one, was only Tommy’s second steady girl friend. They met at a dance in a disco at the top of the Oldham Co-op.
“I’ve always been very shy,” says Tommy, “and I probably had a couple of pints first, for Dutch courage, before turning up for the last waltz. We went out together for eighteen months before getting married, though there was a six-month period when we split up, to see whether we were really suited.
“I must be honest, it wasn’t my idea. It was Margaret’s. She said: ‘I’m not sure whether I want marriage just yet.’ So what can you do, when your girl friend says that?”
He smiles at the recollection. “I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I was too much in love with her. I kept ringing her up, asking ‘Do you feel differently yet?’ You know, the usual creep!”
They celebrate their twenty-third wedding anniversary in 1983.
“It’s been a terrific twenty-three years,” he then tells you, “but like every marriage, we’ve had our ups and downs. Basically, though, it’s been very good. I’ve got two terrific daughters, and I think you can always tell how your marriage has fared by the children you have-whether they’re stable or not.
“Myself,” he goes on, “I didn’t have a very happy family life, and I think that may well explain why I’ve tried that much harder with my own children. My parents separated when I was about three or four. My father used to come and visit me every Sunday and, until I was about fourteen, we’d go out somewhere together; then Mum got married again, and I inherited two step-sisters and two stepbrothers, and I wasn’t.. .1 wasn’t very happy.. .1 don’t really like talking about it.
“Julie’s working as a receptionist in an office at the moment. She’s happy doing that. She used to talk about having a flower shop, but they’re just ideas. If she wanted one, there’s no way I’d say, right, here’s the money: she’d have to blooming well work for it. Being over-generous to them could be a bit dangerous.”
Bobby nods. “He’s dead right,” agrees the smaller one. “Our daughter Joanne has got two ponies, but we try very hard not to overindulge her. She’s got to work for her pocket money. She washes up, she keeps her room clean, she takes the dog for a walk-little set jobs.
“I was brought up in a very poor household, and I was made, by circumstances, to appreciate every little luxury, every little present.
“I see my two lads every time I go back home; I go and spend a day with them about once a week. We’re very close. Robert’s now left school and works in an engineering firm, and he’s just so happy with what he’s doing. Darren will definitely go into show business. He’s showbiz-mad; a very funny lad.
“And Joanne.. .I don’t know what she’ll do. She’s very ‘animalised’. She saw on TV how they were killing the seals, and it really broke her heart, although she’s not overtly sentimental. She’s a good lass.”
Says Tommy: “Bobby’s lucky – he’s got two sons. I always wanted a son of my own, but, when it didn’t happen, I had to say to my daughters, ‘The next best thing has got to be a grandson.’
“I was doing a television series for London Weekend when Jannette was expecting. They called me to say it was due in a few hours’ time, and I immediately got on a plane and flew to Manchester and went straight to the hospital, by which time she’d had it.
“As soon as I walked in, Margaret started crying, and I knew. I said: ‘It’s a boy, isn’t it?’
“I was just so happy, and I got all choked up and I couldn’t hold back the tears. Ben, the little darling, was the thing I wanted more than anything else in my life. I dote over him. He’s my treasure, one of the most important things that’s ever happened to me.”
Tommy and Bobby are so besotted with children that their ambitions, after wanting to crack America as English entertainers, embrace a projected plan to build an adventure playground for them in Oldham -“a really fabulous place for them to go”.
This is just the beginning of the Cannon and Ball story. A story based on hard work, determination, bruises, and talent. But their success is unlikely to affect their personal lives: they are determined, indeed, that it won’t.
“After all the ups and downs,” muses Tommy, “we can at last smell that famous sweet smell of success that you hear so much about. It feels wonderful, and anybody who says that it’s not wonderful, what we’re enjoying right now, doesn’t deserve it.”
“Up to now,” says Bobby, “we’ve been working so blooming hard that we just haven’t had time to turn round, let alone savour it. But now we’re going to make more time available so that, in our private lives, we can benefit from everything we’ve been working towards in our professional lives. We no longer have to worry about money.”
“We used to have twelve envelopes, Margaret and I,” says Tommy, “and it used to be a pound for the gas, a pound for the electricity, a pound for the coal, and so on. We don’t have to do that any more. It’s the sort of security everybody’s looking for in the world. Not everybody can have it, that’s the sad thing.”
“We’ve known both sides of the coin,” adds Bobby, getting up in readiness for a new scene in front of the camera. “We’ve got no pangs of conscience about enjoying this new phase in our lives. We now want to enjoy ourselves-and make other people laugh!”