Bobby Ball, who has died of Covid-19 aged 76, was the braces-twanging, permed and moustachioed half of the long-running double act Cannon and Ball, who at the height of their success in the 1980s commanded television audiences of 18 million.
Like most comic duos, their routine turned less on the quality of the jokes than on the nature of their relationship. The older Tommy Cannon, who exuded saloon-bar smoothness, was the straight man, while the chirpy Ball, who stood 5ft 4in, had a chippier edge.
If the sophistication of the family entertainment purveyed was closer to that of their contemporaries Little and Large than to the wit of Morecambe and Wise, their warm camaraderie was evident and lasted for almost 60 years. It had been forged during a decade of relentless touring of Northern working men’s clubs, although as it happened these were beginning to be decimated by the attractions of discos when the pair got their big break.
While it did not make the final cut, a slot they filled on a Bruce Forsyth show was seen by Michael Grade, then director of programmes at LWT, who gave them their own series in 1979. Another 10 followed for ITV, mainly on Saturday evenings, and by the mid-1980s the two were household names.
Where once they had been paid £20 per week as welders, now they reputedly earned £200,000 in the same time. They made a film, allegedly a police comedy, The Boys in Blue (1982), and played to record attendances at the London Palladium. In 1985, their summer tour outsold the British leg of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA concerts.
Their catchphrases had by then entered the public repertoire, notably Ball’s “Rock on, Tommy!” and “Deep down, you really hate me, don’t you?”
The irony was, as they later revealed, that for much of the decade the last was only the truth. For four years, the pair did not speak to one another offstage, subsequently blaming the rift on their rival entourages. Yet as Ball candidly admitted, by the mid-1980s he was also in the grip of alcohol and jeopardising his marriage by his womanising. Arguments with Cannon led to the two fighting one another.
Then, in 1986, Ball spoke of his woes to the theatre chaplain at the Bradford Alhambra, Max Wigley. “ ‘Let’s pray’, he said. I’d never prayed in my life but we prayed and it just changed my life – like that.” Ball became a born-again Christian, and seven years later Cannon followed suit.
Their faith proved a sure refuge in the early 1990s when they learned that their affairs had been mishandled and they owed the Revenue more than £1 million. Before tastes in comedy changed and their show was cancelled in 1991, they had thought nothing of buying matching gold Rolls-Royces and snapping up houses in the Canary Islands. When Ball spent £500,000 on acquiring a nightclub – Braces – in Rochdale, Cannon bought the town’s football club.
They were given three years to pay off the tax debt, which they did by returning to their roots and playing local clubs and theatres. As well as continuing to appear latterly in pantomime and on tour, Cannon and Ball subsequently published Christianity for Beginners together and regularly testified in churches.
“It’s a marvellous thing we’ve got,” reflected Ball of their long friendship. “He’s always looked after me in his own way. There was no need to, but he’s protective. We’ve become really like brothers now. It’s sad to say, but I’ll bury him, or he’ll bury me.”
Bobby Ball was born Robert Harper on January 28 1944 at Shaw, a village near Oldham. His father’s family had been fairground workers, while his mother was employed in one of the area’s many cotton factories.
Bobby made his bow in showbusiness with a song on Workers’ Playtime, the BBC radio programme, and by the age of six was in a double act with his sister Mavis. Billed as “Young and Happy”, they toured the Stoll & Moss circuit of theatres supporting acts such as Phyllis Dixey, the fan dancer.
After High Crompton Secondary School, he briefly studied shipping management at Wigan Mining & Technical College. Having temporarily given up performing, Ball took a job as a welder with Boden Trailers, the vehicle manufacturer.
It was there that he met Thomas Derbyshire, as he was, who had mild ambitions as a singer. With a pianist, they formed what was initially a jazz trio, graduating from local functions to an appearance in 1968 on Opportunity Knocks, the television talent show.
During the interval between their audition and performance, however, the duo had decided to trade music for comedy after noting that comics earned several pounds per week more from clubs. They recalled that the switch was inspired by the titter raised when they remarked that the silk shirts they were wearing – one red and one green – made them look like traffic lights.
The change nevertheless irritated Hughie Green, the programme’s compere, and they finished last in the contest. Even so, over the next decade they steadily built up a loyal following in the clubs, eventually graduating to theatres. By then they had settled on their catchier stage names. “Cannon” came from the American rocker of the 1950s, Freddy Cannon, with Ball naturally following.
After their star faded, to some surprise Ball reinvented himself as a comic actor. He featured for a year on the nostalgic police drama Heartbeat and appeared between 2005 and 2008 in Last of the Summer Wine. Ball was also seen in the sitcom Not Going Out, and in 2005 took part in I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here. He published a memoir, My Life, in 1993.
Bobby Ball married, first, in 1964, Joan Lynn. The marriage ended in divorce, and he is survived by his second wife, Yvonne, to whom he was married in 1971, as well as by two sons of his first marriage and a daughter of the second.
Bobby Ball, born January 28 1944, died October 28 2020