In The Limelight

In The Limelight cover

Subtitled ‘Stage and TV people who face the most exciting challenge of all’, this book features showbusiness personalities who have become Christians.

Marshall Pickering; 1993; ISBN: 0551027061

Cannon and Ball profile

A loud drumroll is followed by the recognized signature tune of Cannon and Ball. Feet are already tapping, and as the curtain rises a row of beautiful girl dancers slowly smooch on with Tommy and . . . “Where is he?” screams Tom. From the back row of the stalls comes the pitiful cry of “Sorry! Sorry!” Walking down the gangway and sitting on fat ladies’ laps comes Bobby Ball, eventually climbing on stage to stand next to his buddy.

The packed audience is laughing already, even before Bobby’s said anything remotely funny. Tommy looks at him sternly, accusing him of ruining the start of the show, and all Bob can do is stand there with one leg twitching like a small frightened schoolboy.

The laughter carries on, though it’s hard to know what started it all off. Maybe it’s because of this image of the tough man bullying the little man, knowing that the little one will get his own back in the end. Or is it Bobby’s costume? Are they short longs or long shorts? The hat on his head has a pair of hands that clap all by themselves. But he doesn’t need to encourage us, the applause comes spontaneously throughout the next hour or so.

Cannon and Ball recently celebrated twenty-five years in show business together with a twenty-five week summer season at Blackpool’s North Pier. Looking back over a career which started in the clubs and looks to live right through a period when variety otherwise seems to be dying, it’s easy to see why they have been so popular. Their audiences love them, and always shout for more.

Bobby and Tommy met whilst working for the same firm in Rochdale. They were both welders, but it was their relationship that welded the strongest when they discovered a joint desire to sing.

Bobby had been quite a tinker at school, in more ways than one. “I used to sell all sorts of things in class. I had quite a nice little business running actually.” Jammy Dodger biscuits were bought for a penny and resold by the small businessman for a penny-halfpenny at playtime. He is proud of the fact that he was the first person to take records in to sell.

“I broke a window one day, and the joinery master said we had to put the window in, and pay for it ourselves. So I did. I also realized I was onto a good thing, as only I could put windows in. So I made all the little freshyear kids break windows, so I could spend all the time at school putting them in again.”

Bobby’s desire to be in show business seemed to have been there almost from birth. Explains Bob in his strong Yorkshire tones, “As a kid I sang at all the clubs in our village from when I was four years old. Me and our Mavis started singing together, we got lots of bookings and a licence to work from the Education Committee.” So Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday evenings were spent entertaining the locals.

His parents weren’t in show business, but his great grandparents were. “One was a music hall comic, and the other was a snake charmer in the circus,” he recalls.

Having left school at 14 he got a job in a local cotton mill. “I worked as a labourer in part of the factory called the devil hole where the bales of cotton would come through. It used to fascinate me as a kid because the cotton was baled by convicts in America. My job was to undo the bale and feed it into a big machine. It was a good job really.”

Not content to stay in one place, the seventeen-year-old Bob left to take up another role as a builder, going to night school to get a City and Guilds certificate in welding. It was then on to the engineering firm where he met Tommy.

“I had carried on working the clubs at weekends, and when I met Tommy it was the perfect chance to get together. Tom would come round the clubs with me so I told him to get some drums and I would teach him to play them. So he did, and the double act started from there,” Bobby explains.

Tommy and Bobby worked together through the toughness of the working men’s clubs, and soon found themselves doing the two-thousand-seater nightclub circuit. By then it was decided to “give up the day job” and go all out for it. “At the time we were earning an average of £2,000 a week, but when we made the change from clubs to theatre, it dropped to a hundred pounds between us. We wanted to do it though to broaden our appeal, and learn our craft. Some acts still just work the clubs, preferring to stay there because of the extra money.”

The first television break came in the late seventies on LWT’s club-based variety show The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club with Colin Crompton and Bernard Manning. “Nothing came of it, but a TV drama director spotted us at a club in Nottingham and asked us to appear on Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night Out. The weekly show was three hours long and ran for six weeks. We had a twelve-minute slot to do on each one. But the whole show was a failure and the series never got shown,”

All was not lost though as the press, seeing it advertised each weekend then being cancelled, started asking when the new double act was going to be seen. Michael Grade read the demands in the press and suggested that the duo be given their own TV series. They were given a three-year contract and were over the moon, not really knowing what was going to happen next. It had taken them fifteen years.

“I didn’t really have any ambitions about being a ‘star’,” admits Bobby. “So long as I kept working I was quite happy. Sometimes I had even thought of giving up altogether, especially on those bad days in the clubs where you would either get booed off or paid off. They would come into your dressing room and say, ‘Get out, you’re rubbish.’ We got paid off four times. It was quite depressing really, but I think any act needs to go through that to learn from it.

“The first TV series was quite frightening. We’d gone from playing to audiences of two thousand to between thirty and fifty million viewers every week!” The duo’s first summer season topping the bill was at the Wellington Pier Theatre in Great Yarmouth. Everywhere they played, they were mobbed by crowds queueing right round the venues. Once asked to turn the lights on at Blackpool, the pair couldn’t get down the pier because of the crowds. Never having allowed a car to drive down the pier before, they had to arrange a police escort to get them safely through. “Even then the car couldn’t get past, and some heavy blokes had to move people out of the way as we were driven through,” remembers Bobby. It was reminiscent of a scene by a visiting major pop star.

“I thought I had coped all right emotionally, but I hadn’t. I believed in the fantasy of it all, thought that that’s all there was, and that it would never end. That’s what started to change my life. The money was phenomenal, and there was nothing I couldn’t buy.

“There was nothing I couldn’t do either. Money talks, and I had all the friends I thought I needed. Pulling birds was no problem, and became a sort of hobby for me. If I threw a tantrum or shouted at anybody I was told it was OK, because that’s what stars did. People would run around after us, and do anything we wanted. There was an enormous sense of power. I only shouted at people because I was concerned to get it right, and didn’t hold any grudges.”

Robert had married Yvonne by this time. “The change in Bob when he first hit the big time also affected his private life and was very difficult to take,” she recalls. “At times it was like living with a volcano, you never knew when he was going to erupt. He would order us all around until I had to remind him that at home he was not Bobby Ball, but still Robert Harper. He changed quite quickly after that.”

Though angry, Bob was never aggressive at home. But after a bad show, or a row with someone in the cast he would often drift towards a pub looking for a good fight. Often it would be someone who happened to look at him in the wrong sort of way. Yvonne wouldn’t go out with him because it occurred nearly every time. Surely a great excuse to be picked on would have been if you started to talk to Bob about God. “If someone had suggested that,” promises Bob, “I would have sat down and had a great discussion with them, because I had been searching for God for a long time.”

Having looked into Buddhism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even Christianity, he had almost given up. “I used to read the Bible, and found the Old Testament very interesting. I read bits about what they ate, thinking that this is what you did if you’re a Christian, so I didn’t eat any bacon for two years! I used to love bacon sandwiches, but when I ate one again, it made me sick!” Bob describes reading the New Testament then as seeing a lot of fables or fairy stories strung together which seemed to have no relevance to his life. “I did pray though. I had really bad toothache once, which just wouldn’t go, and I’m terrified of dentists. So I went and sat in a churchyard and prayed. It went straight away, and I rushed home to tell Yvonne. But I didn’t give God the credit, I thought it was my prayers that had done it!”

More and more money arrived, a nice house, stays at the best hotels. “I even spent £40,000 on a boat to go out in during a summer season at Torquay. I had everything I wanted and more, apart from one thing. I still hadn’t found God.”

Arriving for a panto season at the Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, Bobby realized he was now drinking heavily, but was looking forward to meeting the theatre chaplain again. “Max Wigley had told me about God fifteen years before when we were there as fourth support act to Charlie Drake. One night Max asked if he could come out with us for a laugh. I was a bit taken aback, but said he could if he took his dog collar off, as it would spoil my chances of pulling a bird. He removed it straight away and came with us to the local nightclub. I liked him for it, and was very surprised, having thought that all Christians were very stodgy.’

But it was during that panto season in 1986 that Bob realized he really didn’t like himself. He knew he had to get in touch with God but had built up an enormous guilt complex over the number of one-night affairs he was having. “I loved Yvonne very much, but I loved myself more. Yvonne had accepted the lifestyle with my temper, my drinking, my heavy swearing and my not coming home at nights. There was a lot of lust involved. I wanted some sort of forgiveness, to be free from the guilty feelings, but I didn’t want to stop what I was doing,’ he admits,

“Looking back, I can see how God was putting His finger on me, showing me the solution, and then giving me a choice. I had always imagined God to be the one sitting on a cloud who is there at the end of your life. I knew I now had the choice of whether to draw close to God right away, or just walk off. I was afraid of making a commitment to God, because I wasn’t sure I could stop what I was doing, but if I carried on I would be letting Him down. I didn’t want to be guilty of that too, so I was in quite a quandary.

“I decided to ring Max, and went round to see him. After explaining how I felt, Max said that before I start trying to stop anything I needed to pray for forgiveness for what I’d already done. I told him that was fine, but that I didn’t want to be a Christian, because they were boring people. Max suggested that I find forgiveness first, before I decided what I wanted to be.

“This all seemed quite logical, so we knelt down and I prayed. I’d prayed often in the past, but this was eyeball to eyeball with God. I told Him hem’ I felt, how sorry I was, and would He please forgive me. I found it quite frightening at first, as I’d never been able to look God in the face before. But as I prayed I felt God’s Holy Spirit come into me, God became very real, and I knew I had been born again as a Christian. I also knew I wasn’t boring.”

When Bob got up off his knees, he knew that those things that he was worried about stopping had already stopped. “It was like starting all over again with all my past cleaned away. I didn’t swear, I didn’t fight, and I didn’t want a woman, and I loved Yvonne as if I had only just met her.”

“When he came home he was crying, and I didn’t know where he had been or what had happened, “says Yvonne. “After he told me what had gone on I presumed that this was just one of Bob’s fads, dismissing it soon afterwards. Three months later, I could see an incredible change taking place. It was like living with a totally different man, there was such a peace that was around him. I was so impressed, I told Bob that I’d like a bit of what he had too.

“So Bob rang Max again and asked if he could help me become a Christian too. Max kindly explained that you couldn’t just turn it on like a tap, but agreed to come over to where we were staying. We prayed but I felt absolutely nothing, and no different than before. Obviously my heart wasn’t ready. It was during a get-out (when the show is dismantled and loaded into the truck) on the next tour that I suddenly felt I needed to pray with someone. Mike Spratt, a sound man and a Christian, was with us at the time and Bob called him over to the side of the stage right in the middle of everything, to pray with me.

“It took us ages to find a free dressing room, but when we did we sat down and talked and prayed. I felt the Holy Spirit come in and both Mike and I burst into tears. Embracing each other afterwards, a musician suddenly burst in and thought we were having an affair!”

Since becoming Christians and being baptized, Bobby and Yvonne are aware of the changes that God continues to take them through. “Often you don’t realize the trouble you’re in and the healing you need until you find God,’ says Yvonne. “We’re still learning all the time.”

Their show business friends and colleagues found this change a bit confusing at first. “They thought we’d both gone a bit crackers,” says Bob. “Now some back off a bit, but lots of people are intrigued and often ask me lots of questions. I still like a good discussion about it all. Tommy was very glad for me and very supportive. He even suggested that we change some of our material now that I was a Christian. But I have to remember it is a double act, and I can’t always do exactly what I want, there has to be some give and take. Interestingly, we are now banned from several clubs because we are not ‘blue’.” Intrigued by Bobby’s faith, Tommy himself has since become a Christian too.

It was on 5 December 1992 that the news broke. “I’m born again 2!” was the headline in The Sun. Tommy Cannon had become a Christian, and Bobby was over the moon with joy. The fact that Tommy found Christ was kept secret for as long as possible. A new Christian in the public eye is so often under immediate pressure to know all the answers, and live the perfect lifestyle whilst everyone watches you. Protection and privacy are important, allowing time for faith and a relationship with God to develop and mature.

Bob and Tom now pray together before each show, and with Bible studies in their dressing room, provided by “Christians in Entertainment”, are growing fast in their faith. “I can now see someone else’s point of view,” continues Bob. “But it’s very difficult to get Christian fellowship when you are on the road so much. When we do go to church we are often stared at while we are trying to worship God. It’s very difficult to be anonymous which is why the Bible studies in my dressing room are so important. They keep me going. I’ve also got a family of true Christian friends who would give me the shirts off their backs if we needed them. They’re not there because I’m a ‘star’, but people I can trust to have a laugh and a good time with, without being ripped off.”

Often Bob has gone down to the local church in order to sit quietly and pray, only to find it securely locked. “I know that some churches are worried about vandalism, but if thieves walk in and steal a gold cup, maybe we should let them. A gold cup’s got nothing to do with Jesus really. Suppose someone wants to come and find Christ at three o’clock in the morning, as I have in the past, and they find the doors closed. Where do they go then?” he asks.

“Many churches seem to be killing the message of Christ by their pomp and ceremony. They treat Christianity as a very sombre thing when the Bible says it’s a very joyful thing to know God, I like the Psalms where David talks about praising God with stringed instruments,  drums, cymbals and trumpets, but often the church is so dead quiet, no one can hear it! There are some churches that don’t allow God’s Holy Spirit in, because it would disturb all their man-made traditions and meetings. The Rev. David Watson once described it like having a desk full of neatly piled papers, and then opening the window. The wind blows the papers where you hadn’t planned them to go.”

After finding God, Bobby’s Rolls-Royce was still outside his home. “I didn’t feel guilty about all my possessions, just very blessed,” says Bob. “I could appreciate what I had now, and acknowledge that it had all come from God. After all, King David and King Solomon were well blessed by God. Money is not important, it’s what we do with it that counts. Sometimes having more money than most is a bigger problem, because there are many more demands.

I think the devil has realized that he’s lost a good disciple, as things have not been easy since becoming a Christian, but I do have a real sense of peace still, and that everything is always in God’s hands. The devil keeps attacking us but we know that Jesus is stronger. Me and Yvonne help each other. When one is a bit low the other is strong, and vice versa. I still go to pubs and clubs, because that’s where Christians should be, in the real world. Christianity is the most exciting thing there is, and I enjoy show-business more than ever now.”