Sunday magazine, March 1983

Sunday cover 

Rock on Bobby!

TSunday articlehere’s a porker on a bike and a man with his face in a cow pat. And, at the heart of it all, are Cannon and Ball in tonight’s world premiere of their first full-scale film The Boys in Blue.

‘Ello. ‘ello. ‘ello! What’s all this, then?

Any member of the Dorsetshire Constabulary on routine patrol around Lulworth Cove, the legendary night-time haunt of smugglers, would have found some strange goings-on going on at this particular midnight.

Not to say highly irregular ones.

Blowed if two of their men-in-blue didn’t come crashing down the cliff-side, shiny boots slithering over wet tufts of stout Dorset downland and uniforms ripped by spiky clumps of gorse, before plummeting into sea-water puddles at the foot. You could hear the oaths and splashing way above the rollers throwing spumes of spray into the cold night air…

Hanging on to the coat-tails of Sergeant Thomas Cannon is a small, anguished-looking constable with a moustache – P.C. Robert Ball.

Who said Rock on, Tommy?

It’s more like Tommy on rock as they slip and slide over seaweed-covered stones, in mortal danger of spraining an ankle, getting washed out to sea by the tide, or maybe catching a crab in their turn-ups.

These are the same two (in fact, there are only two) members of Little Botham (pronounced Little Bottom) Constabulary who earlier that day had been seen hurtling around the country lanes on a motor-bike and side-car with P.C. Ball clutching a live pig in his lap …

“No. I don’t quite know what we’re doing here.” jokes a bemused Sgt 471 Tommy Cannon in the bar of the Lulworth Cove Hotel an hour later, as he downs a warming Scotch and wonders if he’ll have to clamber up that cursed cliff for the fifth time.

But of course he does know. Cannon and Ball, the double-act phenomenon of their decade, are making their first feature film, taking the cuffs off their own humour to move into an altogether bigger dimension.

“Life screwing you up, that’s what we’re about. The chord we touch in people is simple, and so we’re every-man’s sounding-board.”

In this case, what he means is: there but for the Grace of God and the Chief Constable go the rest of us.

The film is called The Boys in Blue, and it’s premiered in Manchester on March 23. “It’s a totally new vehicle for us.” continues Cannon, relaxing against the bar. his graven-image features slipping into an optimistic grin. “It’s not a slap and a tickle and a rollicking. It’s a situation comedy with a beginning, a middle and an end.

‘There’s still a body of people who don’t know who we are, let alone find us funny – it takes time to get embedded in the public mind. This way we might reach that market. You’ve got to go for what counts, and that’s bums on seats…”

The number of bums jostling for seats at a Cannon and Ball show has surprised even hardened observers of live entertainment. Their Christmas show at the Dominion Theatre in London, one of the biggest and most challenging arenas in the country, broke its all-time – and that means 100 years – record with the extraordinary figure of �650,000 in advance bookings and queues right round the building. Last year’s summer season in Bournemouth was a reported sell-out and things are looking bright for this year’s season at the Futurist, Scarborough, from July 9 through to September 10.

So what accounts for the explosive success of Cannon and Ball?

Bobby – in the film he’s P.C.333 Ball – has his own answer. “Me and Tommy are visual. We’re not clever-clever, but we’re not just slapstick, either. Slapstick is custard pie in the face, banana skins on the floor. That’s when the punters laugh at you, not with you. Me and Tommy, they laugh with us. Audiences can warm to us.

“We’re at home with ordinary people, even though we both got Rollers.” Cannon and Ball have bought two-tone gold and pale yellow Rolls-Royces. “And I still go back to meet up with my old friends. They still take the mickey out of me, and I take the mickey out of them.”

The fact that they’ve kept their feet firmly on the ground is in no small part due to their upbringing. They were both sons of hard-working mill girls, whose idea of a night out was a light ale down at the local before getting up on to their feet for a good sing-song. “My Mum was a really lovely, powerful singer.” says Tommy affectionately.

He well remembers life before the comedy gravy-train sped off. “I had dozens of jobs. I drove lorries. I was down the pit in the brickyard, at the mill, anything to get a few pounds in my pocket. And then I worked with Bobby at a welding works.” After hours they worked out their act.

But even then, things didn’t go smoothly. While the boys were doing the rounds of pubs and clubs, changing their togs in the toilets and getting a fiver for an hour’s work. Tommy’s wife Margaret was doing hair in her front room to help make ends meet. “She was tremendous, always has been.” says Tommy gratefully. “We’ve been married 24 years now. and she’s always been 100 per cent behind me…”

They’ve needed that support. They’ve had years of facing aggressive audiences, winning them over, getting away with murder…And so the act evolved from a singing duo called the Harper Brothers – Bobby’s real name was Robert Harper, while Tommy was christened Thomas Derbyshire – into a quick-fire comedy routine. Tommy’s the straight man. Bobby’s the fool, the one with the braces.

“We do sketches, though.” says Bobby. “We don’t stand up and lean on a mike and tell gags. Every time I walk out on stage it’s a situation comedy. And this film is just an elongated version, that’s all. And I must tell you, it’s been an education.”

The education began when bright young producer Greg Smith spotted Cannon and Ball’s Bournemouth figures. Smith, who made his name in films with the Confessions comedies and Virgin Soldiers, and on TV with Shillingbury Tales and now Cuffy, counted the noughts and assigned comedy-film making veteran Val Guest to write and direct a movie for them.

And so the education continued. “When the film idea came up.” says Tommy, “they asked me: ‘Oh, by the way can you ride a motor-bike?’ I swallowed hard and muttered: ‘Er. yup!’ …I’d never been on a motorbike in my life.

“As soon as they’d gone. I rushed to the phone, gave the local police a call and asked if they knew someone who could give me lessons. I learned in five days!”

The plot of the film puts them in charge of a village police station that has never seen a criminal, or an arrest. It’s therefore threatened with closure. Thinking fast – well, reasonably fast – the boys-in-blue decide to stage a series of art robberies. This gives ample scope for dreadful headlines like “CONSTABLES FIND CONSTABLES”.

Back on Lulworth beach, Val Guest, whose comedy experience goes back to Arthur Askey’s Bees in Paradise in 1943, radiates optimism from the depths of a cardboard carton of steaming coffee. “I’ll tell you what these boys have got that a lot of other comics haven’t: an enormous amount of basic warmth. There’s a great screen potential for them. We can do with a good double act in British films, and they could be it.” His clipped moustache positively bristles with excitement.

Mr Guest, above all. knows how household names from radio and TV have come to grief the moment they tried to emulate their success on the big screen – from Tony Hancock to Charlie Drake and even Britain’s comic institution of Morecambe and Wise.

“I told Cannon and Ball: play to each other and not to the front,” Mr Guest confides. “The screen magnifies everything, every word, every expression. That bloody camera looks into your soul!”

The boys have reacted like twin pilgrims at the feet of a guru. But even so, during the initial week at Elstree Studios, when there were 11 takes on one crucial scene, the humour started to flag. He had to plead with them: “Come on boys, don’t die on me!”

These two have known what it’s like to die the death. To this day, they both shudder at the memory of their appearance on Opportunity Knocks! Their act was so bad that the audience applause Clapometer failed to register.

One of the gags that caused the resounding silence that night was where Bobby says: “I dreamed last night I was out playing golf with Jack Nicklaus.”

Tommy responds: “I had a better dream than that. I dreamed I was in bed with Elizabeth Taylor and Raquel Welch.”

Bobby: “Why didn’t you call me?”

Tommy: “You were out playing golf with Jack Nicklaus…”

They still only use that one when they’re feeling particularly brave!

“I don’t think I can tell you why people laugh at us.” Bobby admits in his direct way. “I don’t think I really want to know. Once I do. I’ll lose it. I’m just me. Sometimes I’m surprised that people laugh at us at all…”

But people do. And they like what they’re laughing at. It came as very little surprise when this amiable pair, who still can hardly believe their good fortune, were voted Showbiz Personalities of the Year last month.

Back in Oldham both the boys’ families – Tommy’s wife Margaret and daughters Janette (22) and Julie (18), and Bobby’s wife Yvonne, Joanne, their 10-year-old daughter and his two sons by an earlier marriage, Robert (17) and Darren (13) were simply pleased as Punch.

Cannon and Ball are next on screen when LWT’s 60-minute special Cannon and Ball at the Pictures is broadcast at Easter. Part of it will be behind-the-scenes fun footage of the making of The Boys in Blue. Not all the film’s laughs, it turns out. were intentional…

Bobby’s favourite moment in the film comes when he is dressed as an S.A.S. soldier, blackened face and all. “I’m running across this field in a raid on a house, and I fall flat on my face in a cow-pat. Being an S.A.S. man. of course. I can’t move … so I just have to stay there, face down. That day I got to know who my friends were!”

The action is pepped up by a karate fight in a chicken coop, where more feathers fly than a split mattress. While the script, if you can bear it, is peppered with gags like co-star Suzanne Danielle dropping her shopping bag on the floor, allowing smooth-talking Tommy to order P.C. Bobby: “Answer that phone while I attend to the lady’s coconuts!”

In cinematic terms they don’t make ’em like that any more. And if it turns out to be the family film of the year, or the floperoo of the Eighties, then remember Tommy Ball’s philosophy.

“One night they’ll laugh, the next night they don’t. My wife says: ‘Give it a rest’ when I get home, but I can’t. I’ll lie awake churning it over in my mind: that was great, how did it work so well? Or: what went wrong that time?

“But you can never blame the audience. They’ve paid to see you. They deserve entertaining!”

Either way. it’s rock-on time for Cannon and Ball.

William Hall