Bobby Ball: Tommy Cannon says he will ‘never get over his death’
When Robbie Williams invited Tommy Cannon to bring his family to his Manchester AO Arena show last October, the veteran comedy star had no idea what would happen next.
“We were about 150 feet from the stage; Robbie walked over, seemed to look right at me and saluted,” Tommy tells me in that unmistakable Oldham accent.
“I said to my wife, ‘Was that for me?’
“Then, at the end, he said ‘I want to dedicate this show to a legend’. We’re all looking round for the legend and Robbie said, ‘Mr Tommy Cannon’ and 20,000 people started chanting ‘Tommy! Tommy!’
“I was in buckets; I’d never known anything like it.
READ MORE: Tommy Cannon pays tribute to right-hand man Bobby Ball
Comedian Tommy Cannon
“Later Robbie whispered ‘I love you Tommy’ in my ear. That was a night I’ll never forget.”
Tommy, born Thomas Derbyshire, lost his comedy partner Bobby Ball to Covid-19 in October 2020. He was beyond devastated.
As much-loved double act Cannon & Ball, the ex-welders once commanded TV audiences of twenty million. Tommy, who turns 85 in June, contemplated retirement.
“I didn’t know whether to say ‘That’s it’,” he tells me. “Then I thought of all the stories we had, and what we went through, and thought people would love to hear it – the ups, the downs. And I decided, I’ll do it for us, partners.”
He will perform selected dates on the Legends Of Variety tour, which kicks off in Bradford Alhambra next month, followed by his own Rock On Tommy tour running from September into next year with anecdotes, clips, songs, stories and a Q&A segment.
When Tommy started work on the shop floor of the Crane Fruehauf engineering factory in Royton, fellow welder Robert Harper was the first to talk to him.
Bob was performing as club singer ‘Stevie Rhythm’ and invited his new pal to watch him sing at a working men’s club. The Cannon & Ball story starts there. After briefly performing with a keyboardist, they became the singing Sherrell Brothers, then The Harper Brothers.
Finally, Tommy took the stage name Cannon from US rocker Freddy Cannon; the Ball naturally followed.
Early working men’s club gigs weren’t always friendly. “We did the Dial House in Sheffield which had just had new curtains fitted. We were singing and every time we walked backwards the curtains would start to close, so we’d walk forward and they’d open.
“But when we walked back, they came in again. Afterwards, we complained to the club secretary and he said ‘Nowt wrong with our curtains, we were trying to get you off – you were crap’.”
Ouch. Tommy laughs. “You had to learn your craft and you learnt it quickly as possible.
“It was all men at lunchtime shows, working men – a lot of the lads were from the pits, a tough audience. If you were good, they came back at night and brought their wives. If you were paid off at lunchtime, that was it.”
The switch to comedy was financially motivated. Getting paid at a Yorkshire social club, they saw the comedian pocket £12 compared to their £3 each.
“He told us, ‘Do a little comedy and get paid more’. So that’s what we tried… and we died and got paid off.”
They’d auditioned for Hughie Green’s TV talent show Opportunity Knocks as singers, but by the time they were called back for the 1969 series they’d decided to give comedy a go.
“We were rehearsing our spot and Mr Green – as you had to call him – asked what we were doing. We explained and he said, ‘But when you auditioned you were singing’. I said, ‘Yes, two years ago, this is what we do now’.
“He said ‘Be it on your own heads’, and we came last. He was very much in control.”
They kept at it. Early TV appearances on The Wheeltappers & Shunters Social Club showcased their natural comic chemistry.
LWT boss Michael Grade pronounced them “sure-fire stars”. The Cannon & Ball Show ran from 1979 to ’88 with spinoff specials.
“Fifteen years of clubs and then our life changed… it took a long while but Bobby always had funny bones.”
Brace-twanging Ball and the “Rock on Tommy” catchphrase became part of popular culture, along with “piggin’” and “You little liar”.
Bobby and Tommy back in 1976
In the summer of 1985, their Blackpool summer season put more British bums on seats than Bruce Springsteen. Their 1988 pantomime broke London Palladium box office records.
They did Royal Commands, a Children’s Royal, and a Royal Albert Hall show for then Prince Charles.
“It was an absolute joy to go to work,” says Tommy. “The public treated us as part of the family. They didn’t use to say a right lot, they would give you a hug.
“It felt like the world was our oyster. Lordy. We had such a wonderful relationship with our audiences. It always felt like you were going on in your front room. And that were all over the country.”
At first, the South resisted. “Our Lancashire accents were so strong they couldn’t pick up what we were saying but that changed with TV.
“I remember one agent, a lady, saying to me ‘You didn’t do very well, Thomas, I think you need elocution lessons’. We laughed our heads off after she’d gone.
“Can you imagine me talking like this [adopts plummy, Downton Abbey accent] ‘Oh Robert, what are you doing?’.”
Tommy played the stern straight-man foil to the disruptive comic energy of Bobby’s anarchic nitwit. It made him the bad guy.
“I used to literally throw Bob on stage – he had a hold-all he used to land on. The audience gasped, they thought I’d really hit him.
“When I got booed, Bobby would say ‘Tommy, that shows you’re doing your job’. I said, thanks for that Bob.”
But their knockabout stage act closed warmly with Tommy crooning The Wind Beneath My Wings and carrying sleeping Bobby offstage in his arms to standing ovations.
The duo went from £20-a-week factory workers to national fame and a pools’ winner lifestyle – splashing out on matching gold Rolls-Royces and cabin cruisers. Bobby bought a Rochdale nightclub, Tommy snapped up Rochdale FC.
Bad times ensued. Bobby later admitted that he lost himself in an orgy of alcohol-fuelled affairs. The two pals fell out so badly they barely exchanged a word off-stage for years.
Salvation came through faith. Bobby was born again in 1985; Tommy found Christianity seven years later but treats it as a private matter.
As TV fashion turned against old-school comedy, they continued to tour successfully, selling out pantos and gospel shows.
More recent memorable TV appearances include Last Laugh In Vegas, Coach Trip and I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here. Bob played Lee Mack’s father in Not Going Out.
Twice-married father-of-five Tommy lives near York with his second wife Hazel, an ex-dancer, and is philosophical about modern TV comedy.
“Change is good if change is for the better,” he says reflectively, pointing out today’s comedies are deemed successful with two million viewers.
“I love Peter Kay, a great comic in the variety style,” he adds.
Lovers of that tradition will enjoy his Legends Of Variety tour. “We did it a few years ago with the Krankies and Frank Carson and all the theatres sold out.”
With Robbie Williams
This year’s cast includes Billy Pearce, Bernie Clifton, Freddie Davies and the Grumbleweeds.
“We’re doing matinees for the elderly. It’s the comedy they grew up with. It’ll be lovely.”
Tommy’s last show with Bobby was at Blackpool’s Viva club. “Bob said he wasn’t feeling too special and within two weeks he’d passed away. An unbelievable shock.
“I visited him in hospital on the Monday and thought he’d be all right. He had six nurses around his bed. He said ‘These nurses want to wave to you’. That was the last time I spoke to him.”
He pauses and adds. “I’ll never forget Bob. I’ll always miss him but time doesn’t stand still for anybody.
“You’ve got to move on.”