What their millions of fans didn’t realise was that behind the cheeky chappie facaded, the pair were barely on speaking terms and even came to blows. If ever there was proof that money and success don’t buy happiness, Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball were it.
It was only as their careers began to fade, and Bobby sought the help of a theatre chaplain, that the rift was healed and their friendship rekindled. And they formed a new double act, as born-again Christians.
Bobby Ball has died aged 76, after testing positive for coronavirus. Tommy Cannon, his comedy partner for more than half a century, spoke of his heartbreak at the news: “Rock on, my good friend, I can’t believe this, I’m devastated.”
Bobby’s wife Yvonne added: “I will always miss him, he was so joyful, full of fun and mischievous.”
Like many comics of their generation, they learned their trade the hard way, performing in the unforgiving arena of the northern club circuit.
Ball, born Robert Harper in Oldham in January, 1944, worked as a welder at a factory in his home town. In 1961, a man called Thomas Derbyshire came to work at the factory, and Bob and Tommy hit it off from the start.
“He was the first person who spoke to me out of 500 men,” Tommy later recalled.
“Bob used to sing at the weekends, and one night he said, ‘I’m singing at a working men’s club, would you like to come along?’ Perhaps in my younger days I wasn’t bad looking. I don’t know if I had that good a singing voice. We ended up as a trio, with a guy called Stan on the keyboard. Stan didn’t want to take it on full time though. Perhaps if we’d all three stayed together we’d have kept going as a singing act.”
But with Stan out of the picture, the pair quickly cottoned on to the fact that they could earn £3 a night more as comedians and decided to reinvent their act. Cannon and Ball would see Tommy, the tall, good-looking one take on the role of the suave sharp-suited straight man, while Bobby, the short one with the straggly hair, became his child-like side-kick who would twang his braces to the catchphrase ‘Rock on, Tommy’.
They weren’t an overnight success, though. They went on Opportunity Knocks in 1969, and came last.
They thought they had their big break in 1978, when they were given a slot on Bruce Forsyth’s big-budget new variety show Big Night.
But the show proved to be a massive flop, and producers – deciding that the best way to arrest the slump in ratings was to give more screen-time to Bruce – edited Cannon and Ball out of every single episode.
Yet their efforts on Big Night proved not to be wasted after all. Michael Grade, director of programmes at London Weekend Television, watched the clips which had been edited out of the programme, and decided to give the pair their own show. The Cannon and Ball Show launched in 1979, and ran for nine years, and the pair became some of the biggest names in showbusiness.
Their 1985 summer season outsold Bruce Springsteen’s tour, and fans queued round the block for autographs, while the pair cruised Blackpool’s Golden Mile in their matching gold Rolls-Royces. Bobby spent £500,000 on a nightclub called Braces, while Tommy bought Rochdale Football Club.
“We got arrogant and full of ourselves,” Bobby admitted in a 2018 interview. “I was drinking too much and womanising and went completely off the rails. I liked to get into a fight and I even fought Tommy.”
By the 1990s, their star was on the wane, as their simple music-hall style of comedy fell out of fashion with the rise of the edgier, alternative comedy movement.
But while their days of prime-time entertainment may have been over, the pair continued to carve a career on the theatre and variety circuit.
They became regulars at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre and Dudley Town Hall, playing Chinese policemen Pc Wishee and Sgt Washee in the Grand’s 1997 production of Aladdin, and pirates in its 2003 production of Peter Pan.
They headlined the annual Dudley Show in Himley Park in 1999, and have also performed at Cannock’s Prince of Wales Theatre and Stafford Gatehouse.
Bobby became a born-again Christian in 1986, with Tommy following six years later, and they published a book called Christianity for Beginners.
In later life, Bobby used his comedic talents to spread the Christian message, drawing in large crowds to church groups, including many across the Black Country.
The duo were due to appear at the Civic Theatre in Stourport-on-Severn in April, but the show was postponed due to the coronavirus.