Is there anything quite so melancholy as a bereaved straight man, soldiering on as a solo turn after the funny half of the double act has died?
Ernie Wise cut a lonely figure after Eric Morecambe died – and Tommy Cannon, without Bobby Ball beside him, I feared might be much the same.
I needn’t have worried. It’s nearly three years since Bobby died, aged 76 (a cruel combination of pulmonary disease and Covid). Though Tommy still misses him terribly, he seems content and self-assured. His bright eyes twinkle with fun and laughter – he wears his 85 years lightly.
Still, it’s impossible for me (and countless other Cannon & Ball fans) to meet him without thinking about Bobby. I’ve met Tommy twice before, both times with Bobby, backstage in Blackpool and Skegness, and both times they were hilarious. Bobby was like a big kid; Tommy was like his elder brother.
Meeting him this time in York (where he lives with his second wife, Hazel – the mother of three of his five children), I find he’s still terrific company. But I can’t help staring at the empty space beside him where his double-act partner ought to be. ‘Sixty years together – it’s like a marriage,’ he tells me.
Tommy always thought he’d be the first to go, simply because he was six years older. ‘I can never forget him. He’ll always be in my mind. I’ll always be thinking of him.’ Sometimes he watches old clips of their act on YouTube. ‘I sit there, and I think to myself, “My God, you were so damn funny.” ’
He’s currently preparing a one-man show – quite a challenge for someone who spent over half a century as half of one of Britain’s best-loved double acts.
He’s not a natural comic, like Bobby (‘He’s always had funny bones,’ says Tommy, slipping into the present tense), but I’m sure he’ll make a success of it. You’d want to spend an evening with him – and from September you’ll be able to, in An Evening with Tommy Cannon.
‘When Bob passed away, I was sort of at a loose end,’ he says. ‘And then suddenly I thought to myself, “I can do the life story of Cannon & Ball.” How we met, how hard it was in the early days…’ It sounds like a great idea for a show.
Thomas Derbyshire was born in Oldham in 1938. ‘It wasn’t the best place – it wasn’t the worst by a long way,’ he says, stoically – but to me his childhood sounds positively Dickensian. His dad was a miner – he left home when Tommy was six. His mum worked in the local mill, ten hours a day. ‘The noise in the cotton mills was horrendous – she was stone-deaf,’ he says. ‘They were hard days.’
Tommy was an only child. Their house (‘a one up, one down’) was next door to the Yorkshire Penny Bank. ‘Don’t worry, Mum,’ he told her. ‘I’ll rob the bank some day and we’ll be rich.’
When his mum remarried, his stepfather moved in, bringing four children with him. ‘Tin bath, outside toilet – all them people in that house was a nightmare.’
Kind neighbours used to give him broken biscuits. ‘Everybody was an auntie or an uncle – there was a lot of lovely, warm people, but there were also a lot of people who were hard, because they had to be.’
Education was no respite. ‘I was Tommy Thicko at school,’ he says. ‘I had dyslexia, which was unheard of in them days – the only thing that saved me was sport.’
His PE teacher predicted he’d be a professional footballer, but it never happened. He left school at 15, drifted from job to job (‘I went down the pit for two weeks – it petrified me’) and ended up welding in a local factory, where he met an infectiously funny bloke called Robert Harper.
Bobby had always been an entertainer. When he was a kid, he appeared on the hit radio show Workers’ Playtime, with his sister. Now he was playing local pubs and clubs. He asked Tommy along, they hit it off, and Bobby asked him to join him and form a double act.
‘Aye, all right,’ said Tommy. He didn’t take it too seriously. He thought it might be a way to earn a bit of extra brass.
Unlike Bobby, Tommy had never considered a career in showbusiness. Before their first gig together, he was so nervous that he threw up in the dressing room. He never could have done it on his own, but Bobby’s confidence sustained him, and he soon discovered, to his surprise, that he had a lovely singing voice. Playing the northern clubs night after night with Bobby was a great way to learn the ropes.
They started off singing ballads, but the banter went down better than the songs. So they ended up as comics – on the club circuit, comedians got more money. Tommy’s deadpan delivery made Bobby’s clowning twice as funny. Renamed Cannon & Ball, the act finally took off. After a week’s booking at a club in Wales, they decided to give up welding and go full-time. It was the first time they’d left Lancashire.
Playing those working-men’s clubs was the toughest (but by far the best) apprenticeship.
‘They were hard men,’ says Tommy, but if you could please them, you could please anyone. ‘You’d have an audience come in at lunchtime which would be men only – they’d be very judgemental.’
If they came back in the evening with their wives and girlfriends, that was always a good sign. ‘But there were many, many times when we didn’t even see the evening performance, because we got paid off.’ They died loads of times but, as Bobby used to say, if you don’t die, how are you going to learn?
They finally got their own TV series in 1979, after 16 long years in clubland. Tommy was already 40. They both had wives and children. By now they were earning two grand a week playing the clubs – so they weren’t desperate for stardom.
They came across as two old friends having fun together, and the punters lapped it up. In 1980, they sold out Blackpool Opera House: 3,200 seats, two shows a day, for 18 weeks. There was nothing innovative about them, but they understood their audience and they had the common touch. ‘We termed ourselves as a working-class act.’
Cannon & Ball were peak-time TV stars throughout the 1980s. ‘Twenty million viewers, every Saturday night – there weren’t a lot of stations, the way there is now.’
When the TV career tailed off, Tommy and Bobby went back on the road again. I saw them live a couple of times and they were fantastic. The jokes had beards, but no one cared. Like all good double acts, it was about the relationship between them.
The thing that made them so popular was their empathy with their audience. ‘Most of the people who grew up with us came from a similar background – there was always a warmth from an audience for me and Bob.’
Like Morecambe & Wise, their act was fuelled by affection – for their fans and for each other. Viewers felt they knew them. They were the last sentinels of a bygone age, when comics could still draw on a common pool of shared experience. We shall not see their like again.
Of course, seeing Tommy performing on his own won’t be the same, and he isn’t pretending otherwise. ‘I haven’t got funny bones – I haven’t. I wish I had, but I haven’t.’
He’s too modest. It will be an uplifting, life-enhancing show and, in these fractious times, that’s a blessing. I’ll be in the stalls, loving his happy memories of Bobby. See you there.
An Evening with Tommy Cannon is touring, 21st September 2023 to 11th May 2024