Still rocking on... | Tommy Cannon interview

Still rocking on...

Tommy Cannon interview

It is the sort of story that a Hollywood hack could have come up with. Two Oldham welders form a comedy double-act. They hit the big time, revelling in the spoils of fame with their Rolls-Royces and boats, only to find success drives them apart. Onstage, they are all smiles and laughs – but once the curtain comes down, they sulk off to their separate dressing rooms, not speaking until next showtime.

This is the story of Thomas Derbyshire and Robert Harper – aka Cannon and Ball – so it’s incredible to think they are still together, pinging braces and mucking about, after 47 years on the road. The offstage tension lasted three years, but they made their peace in the mid-Eighties, after Bobby Ball found God, and started looking at his partner in a more sympathetic light.

It’s water under the bridge now. As Tommy tells Chortle: ‘We had a three-year blip. Everyone had their ups and downs.’

‘Even when we weren’t talking to each other proper; even then, once we got on stage and we had to do our show, it became Cannon and Ball. Nothing else mattered and during that hour it was just like being best pals.

‘Then the strangest thing of all – I’d go to my dressing room, Bob would go to his dressing room and that’d be it. We wouldn’t see each other till the following day. Which is sad.

‘The problem was that from being two working-class lads, we were thrown into stardom. Suddenly we had an entourage each. I had a driver, Bob had a driver, we had someone to carry our bags to the hotel and all that.

‘It was alien to us, and then we started listening to idle gossip: Bob’s entourage said to my entourage, "Ooh, you won’t believe what Bob’s saying about Tom" and then the other way around. Silly daft beggers, we believed it rather than going to each other and saying, "What the hell’s going on."

‘It went to out head. I’ve thought about it a lot and, to be honest with you, I had a few tears about it all. I couldn’t work out what had gone wrong. I think we were on that merry-go-round, you know, summer seasons, TV shows, pantomimes, winter tour, spring tour, we were just round the clock.’

That fame affected them so much might come as a surprise, given that they achieved it relatively late in life. Cannon was 40 when the act they had been hauling round the working men’s clubs hit the big time, thanks to appearances on Wheeltapper and Shunters Social Club and Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night. They led to their first ITV series, just released on DVD, and even the process of making the show was an eye-opener.

‘We were used to the cabaret club where you were fighting the drink and the food being served and the waitresses wandering around,’ Cannon said. ‘We went into the TV studio doing the same sort of thing. Bob was at one side of the stage I was at the other. The director said, "You can’t do that, we can’t film you".

‘In the studio there were 500 people behind the camera. Because we are people’s comedians, we like to get the audience involved. We were playing over the camera to the audience. They told us, "You’ve got to look straight into the camera lens and ignore the audience." To us that was unheard-of, ignoring the audience, but you had to learn it. It was a massive learning curve for the first series. In the second series we go a bit more comfortable.

Though Cannon is 72 and Ball 66, they still stick to a vigorous schedule, and this weekend finish touring a Rock With Laughter show, featuring a Blues Brothers-style band, and they say they have ‘massive plans’ for their 50-year anniversary in 2013. ‘We’re already planning that,’ Tommy says, though he won’t be drawn on details: ‘I’m not telling you nothing.’

Their career received a shot in the arm five years ago, when they make an unlikely appearance on I’m A Celebrity…. Get Me Out Of Here! ‘It was one of the only reality shows we said we’d have a go at doing,’ Tommy says. ‘We would go back tomorrow. It was immense, actually having to sleep out in the jungle and do things to get food. It was just a challenge every day. I thoroughly enjoyed it and so did Bob. I think we both became a bit like Rambo.’

Their classic straightman, funny-man act hasn’t changed over the years, with Ball the child always playing up and Cannon the voice of authority. But he’s not concerned with forever being the humourless butt off the gags. ‘I’m the only person in showbiz who goes on stage and am hated for an hour,’ he says. ‘But when they’re booing and saying, "Leave him alone", I’m doing my job. It’s a partnership, it’s 50:50 and we’ve always looked at that way.’

And, unlike many of comics of their generation, they accept that comedians who come after them have something to offer. Although Cannon paraphrases Groucho Marx in saying: ‘I find TV very educational. Every time someone turns it on, I read a book’, he accepts: ‘There’s some good lads on it, some very funny boys: Lee Evans, Peter Kay, Alan Carr – he’s doing what Larry Grayson used to do. I love them

‘Comedy’s got to move on, we’ve had out time we’ve had a great career, we’ve still got a great career; we’re still drawing audiences in, and that’s what it’s all about. 47 years and Canon and Ball are still remembered with "Rock On Tommy" and all the catchphrases we had, and I think that’s absolutely marvellous.’

  • Cannon and Ball Series 1 is out on Network DVD priced £12.99. Click here to buy from Amazon at £7.99. Here is the opening sequence and first sketch:

Interview by Steve Bennett

Published: 3 Sep 2010

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