Years after we first yelled ‘Rock on, Tommy,’ funny man Bobby Ball reflects on showbiz, marriage, and God.
Kids gurning and pulling their imaginary braces while shouting ‘Rock on, Tommy!’ was a common occurrence in many a school playground in the eighties. And it was in 1983 that after much pester power my parents eventually conceded defeat and booked tickets for me and a friend to go and see Cannon and Ball in Blackpool. We set off early that day with a promise of a visit to the fair followed by fish and chips on the pier before the performance.
Unfortunately, due to a minor faux pas on my behalf (it involved my parents overhearing me swearing for the first time) with one stern look and a quick march to the car we were taken immediately home, no funfair, no fish and chips and no Cannon and Ball, just an early night.
So here we are now 30 years on, and Cannon and Ball are playing Blackpool, this was one interview I wasn’t going to miss with my childhood comedy hero Bobby Ball.
“Bloody hell lass, says Bobby “that’s a great voice you’ve got.”
“Is it my sexy dulcet tones? “I reply.
“Eeh no love,” he answers, “I love someone with a right common accent.” He laughs (Note at this point, he’s the only one laughing). I ask him if he thinks I have a Yorkshire or Lancashire accent.
“It’s a Lancashire accent,” he replies. He’s got it wrong, it’s Yorkshire. I do hope he wasn’t insinuating that Yorkshire folk are common; after all he is from Oldham!
Last year while strolling along Blackpool prom with the kids we briefly came across Bobby on the Comedy Carpet being photographed by the press. Despite the showgirl by his side he didn’t hesitate to engage with my son Frank. He had Frank in awe when he demonstrated ‘The missing thumb game’, “Ah, I remember, cute little lad he was,” he says.
Cannon and Ball played a major part in not just my childhood but many others. My work colleague Lee can still remember his encounter with Bobby when he was an eight-year-old Cub Scout. Bobby was performing at Bradford, Lee was dragged on stage by Bobby who then put a saucepan on his head and continued to whack the saucepan with a wooden spoon.
“Well, he might’ve needed it,” laughs Bobby. And I’m inclined to agree!
The pair are currently in two shows at The Grand, Blackpool; the French burlesque show “Ooh La La” and the song and dance revue “Step Back in Time,” both on various dates until September 7th.
It’s 30 years ago since ‘Ooh, La, La’ last played Blackpool, and Bobby explains: “There’s nine dancers with long legs and loads of feathers, juggling acts and Tommy (Cannon) and me. It’s a big, big show. The other show we’re in is ‘Step Back in Time.’ It’s great music, including the Bee Gees, Queen and some good old rock and roll. They’re like proper Las Vegas shows. It’s a very busy seven week season. I’ve really been looking forward to it. I live in St Anne’s so I have the added bonus of returning home every evening.”
For most senior citizens, retirement is a common option, but not for our Bobby. I was interested to know; at the age of 69, with three children, nine grandchildren and a great-grandchild on the way, had he ever considered slowing down. “No. My mam and dad always worked and so will I. I enjoy working; otherwise it would mean that I would be stuck at home all day with the wife! Without a doubt, work and life go together.”
But no ‘Ball’ can be complete without its ‘Cannon’ and these two have been a comedy duo now for more than 50 years, since Bobby Harper met Tommy Derbyshire when he worked together as welders.
“A lot of comedians were originally in trade. You had to be really clever to go to university in our day. Today, they go to university for bits of this and that. You know. The majority of my age group used to leave school at 15 and get a job, because that’s what you did. If you wanted to perform you would work through the week and hit the working men’s clubs at the weekend. You’d secure more bookings and eventually go professional, and that’s what happened for us.”
Before they were Cannon and Ball they were called The Harper Brothers and originally began performing together in a jazz trio. They had a pianist; Bobby was the singer and Tommy on drums.
“Tommy had no musical experience,” says Bobby, “so I told him to get some drums and offered to teach him. He came in the next day with a drum kit, saying ‘I found ‘em on’t tip’. So, I taught him the drums, and off we went, playing weddings and all sorts. After a while the pianist left and Tommy and I stayed together as a singing duo singing mainly rock n roll. We turned to comedy because we realised the comics got three quid more than the singers.” It was at this point the ‘Harper Brothers’ became ‘Cannon and Ball’. “Tommy straight away wanted a strong name,” says Bobby “and at the time there was a rock and roll singer called Freddy Cannon. He liked that name and decided to call himself Tommy Cannon. He then suggested I could be called Ball, I said, ‘No way’. “When we were just about to go on ‘Opportunity Knocks’, I said ‘Okay, call me Ball, just for admin. And it’s stuck ever since.”
Their performance on ‘Opportunity Knocks’ saw them come in last position and the door of opportunity seemed firmly shut, however luckily for them it got them more gigs.
Bobby’s love of comedy was led by favourites such as Max Wall and Tommy Cooper. He knew Tommy well and was good pals with Les Dawson and Bernard Manning. “He told me we were the only double act with two straight men!”
Bernard may not have been everyone’s ‘cup of tea.’ His jokes caused a few people upset, so I was curious to gauge Bobby’s take on political correctness.
“The trouble is, where do you stop?” Bobby says. “Now, somebody says ‘You’ve put a bit of weight on’… ‘Hang on; he’s calling me a fat get, that’s not nice.’ ‘Look, he’s short’… ‘Oh, he’s doing short gags!’ Where do you stop?”
His two sons Robert and Darren have followed in their father’s footsteps and are due to fly out to Ibiza as The Harper Brothers, a comedy duo. “They’re excellent. If they were crap, I’d tell ‘em. My lads are good. I’ve performed with them loads of times. I don’t write for them, they do their own stuff.”
Also among current comedians Bobby rates Peter Kay, Lee Mack, Al Murray and Lee Evans, although in Bobby’s opinion Lee’s father, Welsh nightclub comedian Dave Evans, was funnier than his son. “I also think that comedy’s not the same. It’s gone into stadiums, you know, big one-offs. But I wouldn’t pay a lot of money to go and watch just a TV screen.
“You can’t beat the atmosphere of performing in the theatre,” says Bobby. “One night when we were on stage, there was a bit of a kerfuffle at the back. We didn’t know what was happening and just carried on. We were told later that a man had been laughing so much he’d had a heart attack and had been rushed to hospital. I got a letter two weeks later from a woman, she said, ‘My husband came, and died laughing at your jokes. I’d like to thank you very much: he died happy.’
“My parents always encouraged me to perform, and when my dad first saw me perform he said ‘You’re very good, but look, a proper comedian, a proper comic can stand there and not speak for two minutes and have the audience laughing’. And he was right. I can do that now. It’s all to do with body language, and having the bottle to wait.”
Disillusioned by the shallow world of show business, Bobby hit rock bottom in 1986. It was then that he became a Christian. When I ask Bobby what impact Christianity has had on his life, he’s quick to answer “Being a Christian? It doesn’t have an impact. It gives you a new life. It doesn’t impact it, it turns it totally around. In 1986 I was famous, and it meant nothing at the time, it felt quite trivial, I was drinking a lot and womanising.”
Despite his philandering ways, his marriage to his second wife Yvonne has stood the test of time and after consulting Yvonne he confidently tells me that they have been together for 43 years and married for 40. And six months after he became a Christian, there was a rumour going round that this time it was Yvonne who was having an affair!
“I was on tour and the sound guy was a chap called Mitch Bram. Mitch was a Christian and Yvonne asked to talk to him. They both went to a room at the top of the theatre. A lighting technician entered the room and found them hugging. He said, ‘sorry’, and shut the door. Before she got back to me, this chap came to me and said ‘Bob, I’ve got something to tell you. I think Yvonne’s having it away with Mitch. I said ‘No, she’s found the Lord.’ And then she walked in beaming with the love of God. His secret of a happy marriage is in his own words ‘dead simple.’
“If Yvonne and I have a serious row, I have to understand her point of view. Because if she’s feeling that, she’s right. I say to her, ‘I know what you’re feeling, love, and I’m not saying that you’re wrong, but if you’re feeling that, you must be right.’ I try to understand and tell her how I’m feeling say, and she tries to understand what I’m feeling,” he says. When it comes to his children, his sons haven’t followed him into the faith. I could spend all my life just worrying about my two boys. I said to God ‘I’ve given them to you, Lord’ and I just pray that they will, one day. But my daughter, she leads the worship band in church. But my two sons, they’re good boys, and I just pray for ‘em, and that’s it.”
From welder to singer turned comedian, Bobby is now an accomplished actor. “It wasn’t expected,” he replies “I was approached by the directing producer of ‘Last of the Summer Wine,’ Alan J Bell, who asked me if I’d like to appear in the show as the ‘Swan man of Ilkley’. I did it and loved it. When Caroline Aherne asked me to play in the drama ‘Fattest Man in Britain’, everyone said ‘Oh, you can’t use Bobby Ball, he’s just a comedian,’ and she said, ‘I’m not doing it unless I have Bobby Ball!’ So, that was that. That show really opened a lot of doors for me, and I’ve a lot to thank her for. She’s just an ultra-talented lass.”
Bobby has just finished filming the latest series of ‘Mount Pleasant’ and recently starred in another Aherne triumph ‘The Security Guards’, where he played the role of Duckers. After his summer stint in Blackpool he will be filming for Lee Mack’s Christmas special, as his dad, in ‘Not Going Out.’
“Well, if you think about it, when I was younger, I used to be a bit of a sex object, and now I’m everybody’s dad.” He laughs.
No offence to Bobby and despite him being a lovely fella; the words sex and object aren’t the first words that spring to mind. Leo and Sayer are, which is probably down to the fact that both of them sported a rather unruly mass of curly black hair and pulled odd faces. “Well, if you saw me now you’d be surprised,” laughs Bobby. “I’m bald in’t middle!”
Not to worry, just ‘rock on’ Bobby.
“That’ll do for me. Thank you, my love.”