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Cannon and Ball

Currently celebrating their 21st anniversary year in show business Cannon and Ball have become the biggest comedy stars of the 1980's. Indeed, their rise to fame during the past few years can only be described as phenomenal. The two former welders from Oldham were virtually unknown to the British public just five years ago, but now, in additino to their annual TV series and specials, they have starred in their first feature film The Boys In Blue, been voted Variety Club Show Business Personalities of the Year, and as live entertainers have continued to break box-office records wherever they appear.

Their 1984 schedule is indicative of the mass appeal generated by Cannon and Ball. Their Spring Tour comprised 57 concerts all over the British Isles, followed by summer season at the Princess Theatre, Torquay, before spending the Christmas 1984/85 season at Birmingham's top lyric theatre, the Hippodrome. More television, and the possibility of a follow-up film make it yet another successful year for Cannon and Ball.

So what is the secret of this phenomenal success, which has also included Royal Shows and a memorable 'double' when within the space of a few daysm they were featured as guests of Michael Parkinson, and as subjects of This Is Your Like?

Tommy and Bobby don't go in for self-analysis. Their present day success has evolved from an initial friendship between two Oldham welders who got together to form a singing act. And it is their genuine friendship and total respect for each other that is the very backbone of the Cannon and Ball story.

They began on a semi-professional basis some 20 years ago, supplementing their income as welders by entertaining in local clubs. By the time they turned professional they were already established in their native North of England, but their ambition was to achieve stardom - and no-one can doubt that they have now realised this ambition.

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The over-riding factor during all their years together has been their unique friendship. They don't try to kid anyone that they never argue. But their friendship - both on and off stage - is there for all to see. They were mates during their factory-floor days, and today, that is still the only way to describe them.

"We have no pretensions," says Tommy Cannon, "we're a couple of ordinary fellas enjoying what we do best of all - entertaining folk and making them laugh."

"I suppose it took a long time initially for us to make a major breakthrough, but we're glad that we have so much experience behind us. Our television shows have made an enormous difference. Suddenly we are known by millions, and at time still find it hard to come to terms with being recognised by the general public."

"We're not knocking it - we love it! The important thing to us as people is that we haven't changed in our attitudes. We're still Tommy and Bobby to everyone, and still get a kick every time someone shouts 'Rock On, Tommy' in the street."

The Cannon and Ball story is based on hard work, determination and real talent. Their TV series and specials have opened the doors to national stardom, but they are by no means the proverbial 'overnight stars'.

Indeed, Cannon and Ball have long been established as one of clubland's funniest double acts, and are the only entertainers to have won three seperate National Club Awards.

Their first award led to several TV guest spots, but real television success continued to elude them until London Weekend Television signed them for their first ever series.

Prior to this major breakthrough, Tommy and Bobby appeared to be dogged by bad luck when it came to TV exposure. It began when they recorded several guest spots in LWT's 'Bruces Big Night' series in 1978. Week after week they were billed to appear but failed to do so! Eventually they made a guest appearance in just one show, and their impact was enough for LWT to give them their own series. But, the bad luck syndrome continued.

After just two shows of their debut series had been screened, ITV was hit by a long running dispute, and it wasn't until the end of 1979 that Cannon and Ball were able to prove their popularity as TV entertainers. Since then they have starred in their own series and specials every year.

Tommy Cannon was christened Thomas Derbyshire and Robert Harper is the real name of Bobby Ball. Both are from Oldham where they still live with their respective families.

They initially met in early 1960's as workmates in an engineering factory. Both were welders doing repetitious and often boring work, but they formed a friendship that overspilled into their social lives.

The twosome shared a love for singing, and after a couple of impromptu performances at local clubs formed a singing duo called 'The Shirrell Brothers', and later 'The Harper Brothers'. And so, their lives were transformed. By day they continued as welders, but in the evenings they donned their best suits and entertained in local clubs.

However, it soon became evident that Bobby had a natural flair for comedy, and this was complemented by Tommy's ability to remain straight-faced and act as the perfect foil to him. Soon, the serious singing was spiked with the type of hilarious humour which has now become a Cannon and Ball trademark.

One minute Tommy would be singing a romantic ballad, and the next Bobby would be interrupting with a gag or fooling about behind him. Audiences were quick to respond to this new twist in the Harper Brothers act, and gradually the comedy content became stronger - as did their popularity.

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After just a couple of years of thier dual lives, Tommy and Bobby were getting more club work than they could cope with. Often they turned up late for work, or were too tired to concentrate.

They had reached the period that calle dfor a crucial decision. Should they retain the comparative security of their factory employment, or take the plunge and turn fully professional?

"It got to the point where we were rehearsing our act on the factory floor," says Bobby. "Our workmate loved it, but we were being constantly reprimanded by our foreman. If we hadn't decided to turn professional, I'm sure we would have been sacked!"

The turning point came when Bobby's cousin Wally Harper - also a professional comic booked them for a week at a club in Wales.

"You know, I still can't remember where the club was", adds Bobby, "but Wally did us a great favour. Prior to that we had never entertained outside Lancashire, and we didn't know what to expect".

"The response was so terrific that we came home and handed in our notices at the factory. It was still a tough decision to make, because we had absolutely no work, and were still unknown outside our immediate area!"

But the decision did pay off in more ways than one. The Harper Brothers went on the road and built up a steady following, but both Tommy and Bobby realised that 'something' was missing.

"We were doing all right as the Harper Brothers" adds Bobby, "but the name was a drawback. It had little appeal and certainly didn't convey the fact that we were a comedy duo. We needed something catchy. Something to attract attention and make the public sit up and take notice".

So, Bobby and Tommy sat down and thought of as many names as they could. Tommy had always admired Freddie Cannon, the American singer, and both agreed that Cannon was an acceptable name. Finding something appropriate to go with it was far more difficult!

"Ball is the obvious pairing with Cannon" adda Bobby, "but to be honest I thought it was a bit daft to call ourselves Cannon and Ball. However, the more we kept saying it, the better it sounded and the combination offered everything we wanted: names that would be noticed, with the added bonus of being funny in their own right!"

And, Tommy and Bobby's choices could not have been more appropriate, because their success relies on the firepower of Tommy Cannon and the sheer comedy ammunition of Bobby Ball.

Their styles both contrast and complement each other. Tommy is the smart one with a good singing voice, immaculate dress sense, and comedy abilities which make him much more than a convential straight man. He's Bobby's foil, adviser and friend all rolled into one. In contrast, Bobby has a penchant for baggy suits, shaking legs and twanging braces - allied to a daft sense of fun that is totally infectious.

Collectively, Cannon and Ball offer a unique blend of comedy, pathos and singing talents that readily make them one of the top attractions in the country. This blend, and their undoubted warmth and appeal as personalities, make up a Cannon and Ball pedigree that undoubtedly puts them in a class of their own.

Having initially built up their popularity on the huge northern club circuit, the fame of Cannon and Ball spread to other parts of the country until they were voted Top Comedy Act in clubland.

That award became a lucky charm to them, because it led to their debut TV appearance in Granada's Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, where Cannon and Balls hilarious brand of humour was seen by viewers for the very first time - since when TV has become their most successful medium.

Their series and specials are always in the top TV ratings, but they are not the types to sit back on their laurels. Indeed, Cannon and Ball remain top club attractions, and their theatre successes speak for themselves. Their debut on the West End stage, at London's Dominion Theatre, was assured of success even before the curtain rose on their first show - with advance tickets sales setting yet more records for Cannon and Ball.

Their professional success is also mirrored in their private lives. Both Tommy and Bobby are happily married and still live close to each other in their native Lancashire. Tommy is married to Margaret, and they have two daughters, Janette and Julie, and a grandson Ben Thomas. Bobby's wife is Yvonne and they have a daughter Joanne. Bobby also retains close links with his sons, Darren and Robert from his first marriage.

In their increasingly rare off-stage moments, both Tmmy and Bobby like to keep fit, and while Bobby prefers to sit on a river bank fishing (he enjoys the solitude) Tommy is at his happiest on the nearest golf course.

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Support Acts

Mike Ryal Orchestra Orchestra
Jeff Richers First Edition Dance Troupe
Jean-Claude and Yvette Foot Juggling
Brian Marshall Singer/Comedian
Marti Caine Singer/Dancer