Bobby’s having a Ball back on tour

Variety theatre is back with a bang as some of the best acts in the business have got together for a tour this summer. Bobby Ball - one half of Cannon and Ball - talks to LYNNE MORTIMER about the show.

Lynne Mortimer

Variety theatre is back with a bang as some of the best acts in the business have got together for a tour this summer. Bobby Ball - one half of Cannon and Ball - talks to LYNNE MORTIMER about the show.

THERE are more catchphrases in The Best of British Variety Tour than you can shake a stick at.

Frank Carson (It's the way I tell 'em, It's a cracker), Paul Daniels (You'll like this, not a lot), Cannon and Ball (Rock on, Tommy), Jimmy Cricket (And there's more), The Krankies (Fandabidozi) and singing group Brotherhood of Man are off on a two-month jaunt of music, comedy and sleight of hand.

The show comes to the Ipswich Regent on Saturday, September 6, with its only other local stop-off at Lowestoft on August 8.

Bobby is the Ball of the double act. He's the mischievous short one with a mass of curly hair and braces holding up his trousers. Tommy, meanwhile, is the stern one without curly hair and braces.

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At home in Lytham St Annes, Bobby is on top form as he chats about the show in his warm, instantly recognisable Lancashire accent - it's like having a gossip in the snug at the Rovers Return, except funnier.

This is the first time Cannon and Ball have undertaken such a tour and Bobby is enthusiastic: “I would love to think it was the return of variety.

“Particularly with names like that, they're all big names really from the variety era,” he says, reeling off the list of stellar names from the silver age of TV entertainment.

“Tony Denton Promotions approached our management and said would the lads be interested in doing this. We said well, who's on it and they named the people and we said oh yeah, we'd love to do that. We knew all these people, me and Tom, before they were famous.”

All of them? Bobby promptly lists them: “Paul Daniels, we stayed in pro digs (lodgings used by entertainers) with him - when there were pro digs - in South Wales. Carson we've known for years, Jimmy Cricket grew up round the same area as me and Tom - he was in clubs in the Seventies with us. In the Seventies Tom and I were the support act on the Brotherhood of Man tours. Janette and Ian, The Krankies - we've known them for years.”

The show is starting to sound as if it might turn into a bit of a party.

“Oh yeah, when the acts are on we're goin' to be 'eckling from the wings, It'll be a lot of fun. I can't wait myself and I hope it really works. It'll be great.”

He agrees the renaissance of variety theatre is long overdue. Cannon and Ball were a sell-out at the Ipswich Gaumont (now the Regent) for two nights in 1983.

It's good to see them back - and Bobby is still stretching the braces.

“I can't get rid of them. If I try, they say 'where's yer braces'?”

Although they are one of the most enduring double acts in the business they did fall out for a time in the '80s.

Bobby says: “What nobody realises is this, not many double acts have got on, you know… if you go back and really delve in. Me and Tom have been together 44 years and in all that time there were only three years when we didn't really get on.

“All the rest of the time we were best mates, no problems. It was only the pressure of fame that got us like that. We came out of that and we're closer now than when we started, really.”

His affection for his comedy partner is genuine and it goes deep.

The two men met when they were both working as welders in Oldham. Bobby takes up the story.

“Well, don't laugh, we actually started out as a jazz trio…”

What, the two of them?

“Exactly. There was Tommy on drums, me singing and Stan on piano. He packed it in, Stan, and me and Tommy, we said 'Ok, we'll do a singing act'. And we did that and we were doing all right, but we realised the comedians in the clubs in them days - the '70s - were getting three quid more than singers so that's why we tried a bit of comedy.

“We used to be both like Jimmy Tarbuck in the mohair suits, you know, waistcoat with a little fob on it and I said 'Wait a minute, Tom. I'm going to come from the back of the audience and ask for your autograph and heckle you'. And we tried it and it worked. But second night, Tommy said 'Put some braces on cos your pants are dropping'. That's what I did and that's how it started.”

The double act was born and the rest is history.

Bobby, a grown man with all the adolescent angst of a naughty 13-year-old.

“All that comedy I got from the children. The mannerisms I got from me kids.”

And there was Tommy, the censorious adult, not amused by Bobby's silliness.

“Tommy used to come out of theatres and - this is a true story - for years he'd say 'Bob, I hate being hated; they're booing me, man.'

“And I'd say 'Well, the act's working, Tommy'. And he'd say 'Well I don't like it. Everyone likes to be liked'.

“We used to come out of the theatre and women used to hit him with umbrellas. I'm telling you - ask him. He was hated. We did America and they used to shout from the audience 'Hey, leave the little guy alone'.

“'It's an act!'” Bobby reminded them. He laughs at the recollection.

He now lives in Lytham St Annes, just 50 miles from where he was born, and Tommy now lives in York.

“We lived in Oldham. If you live up here and get a bit successful you go to Lytham St Annes. That's the posh bit - all the shop windows are bi-focal.”

“I'm the only one living here with me own hips,” he jokes. “I'm right across the road from an old folks' home so it's

brilliant for me cos when I get older I can just walk across the way.”

The comedian is in his early sixties and a glance at the ages of the rest of the tour doesn't do much to push the average age down.

Bobby is wickedly gleeful: “We're all geriatrics. I just hope all of us make it. I told Paul Daniels, you'll be all right, you've died many times.”

A supreme joker, Bobby leaves the gags aside for a moment to talk with great sincerity about his faith. How did becoming a Christian change him?

“I became a Christian 24 years ago. I found that showbusiness was very shallow,” he says, quickly adding: “It's lovely, don't get me wrong (but) there's more to life.

“It was just a guy speaking to me really and he made me realise that I needed something in my life. I did. I prayed to God and I became a Christian.”

He says it made him centre on his family rather than himself. “I lost my ego really.”

It had been “massive” he says. “I think you've got to have an ego really. Anybody in showbusiness is a show off. Otherwise they wouldn't be in it.”

Is it true he used to drink a bit?

“I drank a lot.” And that he was a bit of a womaniser? “I was that too.”

“Becoming a Christian turned that all around for me - me marriage and everything. It's been fantastic for 24 years.”

Tommy, too, is a committed Christian and, if anything, Bobby says their stage act has become stronger over the years.

Who would have thought, all those years ago, that they would become one of the funniest and best-loved comedy double acts of all time - especially when you consider their early appearance on talent show Opportunity Knocks.

“We came last,” Bobby confirms.

Were they bad?

“Yeah, we were terrible. We had two bookings in Wales and they got cancelled.”

“When we went for the (Opportunity Knocks) audition, a fella came in and played the piano out of tune and he was terrible. Everyone was laughin' at him. And I said to Tommy 'He's terrible in't he… He's playin' out of tune'.

“It was Les Dawson.” He chortles at the memory.

Hugely looking forward to the Best of British Variety Tour he signs off with a cheery “Tara luv” and you can't help wishing he was back on the telly.

The Best of British Variety Tour 2008 is at the Ipswich Regent Theatre on Saturday, September 6, box office 01473 433100; and at the Marina Theatre, Lowestoft on Friday, August 8, box office 01502 533200 booking now.