They don’t make comedians like Bobby Ball any more. They didn’t really make them in the Eighties either. That was when Ball, who has passed away from coronavirus at 76, and partner in belly-laughs Tommy Cannon blazed a riotous trail on their ITV variety show.
Cannon and Ball were unique and timeless. They packed in more chuckles per minute than rival double acts such as Morecambe and Wise and The Krankies. They were a good deal more anarchic too, with much of the magic of the partnership flowing from Ball’s talent as an improviser. He was a Duracell Bunny of gut-level gag delivery, with a Kevin Keegan perm constantly quivering, eyes dancing, his diminutive frame a bundle of rascally enthusiasm.
There was, of course, a catch-phrase – “Rock on, Tommy” – and a trademark “costume” of a baggy black suit. The real wizardry owed nothing to gimmicks, though. Ball, real name Robert Harper, was an all-singing, all-joking human gyroscope, with a supremely sharp instinct for knockdown banter and whip-smart asides.
He was the agent of chaos to Cannon’s straight man. Watching old episodes of The Cannon and Ball Show, which ran in its original incarnation from 1979 to 1988, it’s his physicality that shines through.
There was always a sense he was operating without safety wires. Ball didn’t require a repertoire of zinging one-liners; he made you laugh simply by being himself. That is obvious in an early Cannon and Ball sketch featuring Jimmy Tarbuck which is really just an excuse for these three behemoths of ITV light entertainment to shoot the breeze.
Ball, wearing short-trousers and a silly hat, soon has his fellow stars in stitches. “He’s my straight man,” he says of Cannon, who just stands there trying not to laugh and failing terribly.
He was an Olympic-class pratfaller, then. Even when the material was average Ball somehow made it hilarious, simply by mugging for all he was worth. He wasn’t an absurd figure. But just to look at, he was funny.
That comedic edge had been hard-won. Cannon and Ball had met as factory welders in Sixties Rochdale. They began as a musical duo but noticed that the banter was better received than the tunes.
“We used to do six songs with gags in between,” Cannon told the TV Times in 1982. “Then after a while I realised the gags were going better than the songs. But the problem was getting Bobby to change. He’d always thought of himself as a singer, you see.”
Still breaking through was a slog. They laboured in obscurity for nearly 20 years. Among the humiliations paving their way to prime time was a last place finish on Opportunity Knocks and a spot on Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night that was cut at the last minute.
So it was ironic that success should pose the biggest threat to their friendship. By the Mid-Eighties the Cannon and Ball Show was drawing 12 million viewers each weekend. Off-stage, however, the pair had stopped talking.
“We started on the shop floor as welders, we went through 18 years in the clubs and then we got big …” Ball later reflected. “We were surrounded by all these people who were gossiping. They wanted to divide and conquer and instead of sitting down and saying, ‘What’s wrong?’, we stopped speaking.”
They did eventually mend their differences and both later converted to Christianity But regardless of their real life relationship, under the spotlights their chemistry never lost its manic crackle. And if TV turned its back on them as edgier comics came to the fore in the late Eighties, on the live circuit they remained hugely beloved.
With success came excess. A profile of the duo in 1982 paints an amusing picture of them trekking from regional theatre to regional theatre across the North of England in a gold Bentley. Three years later, on a 10-week summer tour, they shifted more tickets than Bruce Springsteen.
This was a long way from the £20 a week they had earned as welders. And once they had it, they spent it. Ball lavished £500,000 on a Rochdale nightclub called Braces – named after his favourite fashion accessory. Cannon, going one better, bought Rochdale FC – and a cruise liner.
“A 33-foot gin palace called the Sea Princess,” he explained. “I was okay when it was moored up in the harbour and I was posing on deck. But as soon as I got it out to sea, I started spewing my guts out. I remember thinking to myself, “What the hell am I doing with this?””
“Looking back, they were just toys really. Things to pass the time and impress people with. It was the same with Bob and his American cars. All just toys.”
“We were arrogant, full of ourselves," said Ball. “We'd walk into a theatre, take a look at the dressing rooms and say, “I don't like this, this and this, I don't like the colour of the walls, get that ripped out, get that put in, and do it right away.” We did it for the sole reason that we knew we could get away with it.”
There was attention of a different sort too. “Oh aye, there were plenty of women," Ball said in an interview in 1999. “As many as you wanted. You'd go to a club and stand by the bar and in seconds they'd be around you in droves.” How many did he sleep with? “Dunno…Far too many.”
His wife, Yvonne, considered leaving. But in the end she remained. “The fact that she stayed with me after all I put her through was something I didn't deserve,” he reflected. “But I'm so very glad she did.”
Behind the smiling exterior darker emotions were coming to the surface. “I went completely off the rails,” Ball said in 1999. “I was drinking too much and I was womanising. Whenever I did get home I wasn't a proper husband or father. It was me, me, me. That's all I ever thought about.”
“I was getting violent, too. Not at home, but fights in nightclubs, picking on anyone. I didn't know what was happening to me. I had this terrible empty feeling that all the money and all the fame couldn't fill.”
Inevitably it all came crashing down. ITV cut-ties with them in 1992, amid changing comedy tastes. A few weeks later, the taxman, as if smelling blood, paid a visit.
“A chap came and knocked on my back door,” Cannon told the Express in 2014. “He was with our accountant. I said, 'Yes, can I help you?' He said, “I hope you can because you owe a million pounds to the taxman.
“I walked into the kitchen to tell my wife Hazel. I was that incensed that we had been led down this path and not known that I smashed my foot into a radiator on the wall and knocked it off.” It turned out they owed £1.9million. Which was awkward as they had by then blown their fortunes.
As with any popular entertainment from 40 years ago, the material hasn’t always aged well. In one Cannon and Ball sketch, for instance, Bobby keeps contriving excuses to look down the blouse of a member of cabin crew.
And yet, as a physical comedian, he was peerless. His love of performing never dimmed and for all his on-off disagreements with Cannon, he never fell out with his audience.
He had a genuine comeback too. In the 2000s he had long-running parts in Last of the Summer Wine and Heartbeat. Perhaps his greatest post-Cannon and Ball triumph was playing the father of Lee Mack’s character in Not Going Out.
“I love people,” he said while promoting another sit-com, UKTV Gold’s The Cockfields, a few years ago. “When they come for autographs I don't refuse anyone - that's our job. What are you in the business for? These people have paid their money to keep you in the business, to pay your wage, so I do all of that.”