Funnyman Bobby had a Ball in Shropshire

Throughout the 1980s, Cannon and Ball was one of the hottest double acts in town. A permanent fixture of Saturday night television, they packed out seaside piers in the summer and topped the bill at pantomime during the winter.

Yvonne(left) and Bobby Ball meet stall holder Lin(cor) Tisdale at her flower stall in the new look Market Hall in Shrewsbury. XXXX
PICTURE BY ED BAGNALL 12/9/03.
Yvonne(left) and Bobby Ball meet stall holder Lin(cor) Tisdale at her flower stall in the new look Market Hall in Shrewsbury. XXXX PICTURE BY ED BAGNALL 12/9/03.

What their millions of fans didn't realise was that behind the cheeky chappie facade, the pair were barely on speaking terms the moment they stepped off stage, 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, spreading the word of God across the country.

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.

Cannon and Ball at Oakengates Theatre, with Bobby's sons Darren and Robert Harper, right.

"He came in late for work and said, 'Hiya, mate'. Maybe he felt sorry for me. 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.

Cannon and Ball at Oakengates Theatre

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. I was lost – I didn’t like myself.”

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. Greg Dyke, who would become director of prgrammes at LWT, also questioned whether northern humour appealed to southern viewers.

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. Bobby performed the opening ceremony at Shrewsbury Market Hall in 2003, following a revamp.

Trader Noreen Maddox who helped organise the event, remembered Bobby as being something of a livewire.

"Bobby drove us mad," she recalled. "He loved to play the idiot – even off stage. He’d fire off questions. As you were answering one, he’d ask another. It was annoying, but hilarious really. They were brilliant fun."

Crowds turn out to see Bobby Ball at Shrewsbury Market Hall in 2003

Bobby returned to Shrewsbury with his comedy partner in 2007 for a show at the town's Music Hall. The year before Cannon and Ball had also performed at Oakengates Theatre in a show which also featured his sons Darren and Robert Harper.

While not quite the draw they were in the 80s, they continued to make TV appearances, starring as two bungling security guards in the sitcom Plaza Patrol, and also in adverts for Lada cars and Safestyle double glazing. They appeared in the 2005 series of I'm a Celebrity, with Bobby looking visibly saddened when Tommy was evicted before him. More recently, the duo appeared in Last of the Summer Wine.

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 Shropshire. In 2004 he appeared at The Barnabas Centre in Longden Coleham, where he spoke openly about his battle with alcoholism and extramarital affairs. He also gave a talk at The Church of the Holy Spirit in Sundorne.

In 2015, Bobby was a guest speaker at a training session for clergymen at Birmingham's NEC, offering tips on how to engage with their congregations.

“I want to show people that being a Christian is not boring,” he said. “In fact, it’s the opposite. God wants us to have fun, laugh and enjoy this wonderful life he has given us.

“Standing up for Jesus, whether you’re a stand-up comedian or a stand-up clergyperson, is not an easy option but having the resources to do it better can make all the difference."

Cannon and Ball were due to appear at the Civic Theatre in Stourport-on-Severn in April, but the show was postponed until next year due to the coronavirus.

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