The canonisation of Cannon and Ball: Tommy and Bobby don't do blue any more. They say they're on a mission from God. What's so funny about that? Ask their fans

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
AT ABOUT 9.30 on Tuesday evening, the comedian Bobby Ball jumped from the stage in the ballroom in Butlin's Somerwest World near Minehead and struck a woman over the head with an overnight bag. After taking a second to recover from temporary shock, the woman broke up with laughter, as did the 900 other people in the ballroom. Her two-year-old child, however, sitting beside her, burst into tears.

'Look, Bobby,' said Tommy Cannon, Ball's double-act partner, who had remained on stage, 'you made that kid cry there because you started hitting his mother.'

'No, Tommy,' came the reply. 'He's crying because I stopped.'

Although they were dropped by the schedulers two years ago for this kind of behaviour (and for being terminally unfashionable) Cannon and Ball have proved there is life after television. Well, of a sort. Four nights a week the Rochdale double act are entertaining Butlin's holiday centres; playing to the people, thousands at a time. Families come to watch them, five year olds giggle at the pair's clowning, teenagers shout their catch phrase 'Rock on, Tommy', grannies sing along to Tommy's crooning. And, in 60 minutes of tomfoolery, nobody hears a four-letter word.

You see, Cannon and Ball are not simply out to make 'em laugh: they are on a mission, a mission from God.

'We have a moral duty to clean up comedy,' explained Bobby Ball as the pair sat in their dressing room between their twice-nightly shows. Ball is the funny one, with the Kevin Keegan perm and the moustache, a ringer for one of Harry Enfield's troublesome Scousers. 'It is our absolute responsibility. He agrees with me.'

'Oh aye,' said Tommy Cannon, the straight man with the nose, chin and perma-tan of an East End boxing promoter. 'It's very, very important.'

Unexpectedly, in the murky world of professional comedy, where vodka and golf are the presiding deities, Bobby Ball found God about seven years ago. Tommy Cannon converted within the past year, not at Bobby's insistence but of his own volition. Now, before they go on stage for every performance, they pray, together and out loud, for guidance.

'We've been together for 25 years, but now, since Tommy found the Lord, we're closer than ever,' said Bobby. 'We're like brothers.'

At Somerwest World, the Holy Fools were among their people. The Broadway ballroom sits in the holiday centre (they are not called camps anymore) alongside all the other things Butlin's folk need - the family diner, the Wild West frontier theme pub, the bookies. Ballroom is something of a misnomer for the Broadway: ballhangar would be more appropriate. It is vast: 2,500 people can sit at tables there, drink their lager and watch the acts. Round the perimeter are bars, food outlets and shops selling helium balloons. To compete with the persistent hum of drink orders and bawling children and raise a laugh at the back of a place like this you have to have comic presence.

Bobby and Tommy, or, as the hyperbolic compere referred to them, 'Britain's top comedy duo, the funniest men in England', managed it. By the end, the Butlin's crowd was oohing, aahing, cheering and shouting like it might at a pantomime.

And only once, when they said 'Good night and God bless', was the name of their mentor mentioned. Any evangelising was implicit rather than explicit. A fat man in the crowd, who looked like Bobby Ball would if he were attached to a garage air pump, hadn't spotted any hidden agenda.

'That were bloody great,' he said, wiping his eyes after the show. Did he know the pair were born again? 'Eh? You what? Boring? Never, no, they were bloody great.'

Back stage in their dressing room ('welcome to the glamorous world of showbiz,' said Tommy, clearing away the litter of paper plates and cold chips), the pair enlarged on their philosophy of comedy, in particular their intolerance of bad language and overt sexual references.

'We never, ever do blue,' said Bobby. 'If we couldn't let our kids see our show, then we wouldn't do it.'

'It's all down to morals,' added Tommy. 'We'd sooner be half-empty and have a family audience than do blue and be full. I don't think effing and blinding is funny. Anybody can swear.'

'It fascinates me, this swearing that the new young comics do, the alternatives,' said Bobby. 'I said to this young comic, quite famous, why do you say the f-word in your act? He said because his act's like the conversation you might have in the pub. I asked if he would you say it in front of his daughter? He said if she came to his show and heard him, then fine, he wouldn't change it. I said, OK, how would you feel if your daughter then told your mother, her gran, to eff off at Sunday lunch? He said he wouldn't like it. So I said if you're uncomfortable in any circumstance how can you use it in your act? We really have a responsibility to change things.'

It was not always thus. In the early days of their act, soon after they had met up as welders in a Rochdale factory, Cannon and Ball followed the conventional working men's club line and swore like troupers.

'In '68, '69 we worked Manchester,' said Bobby. 'Then you could play every night of the month and never play the same club twice. It were stripper, comic, stripper, comic. We watched other lads and thought that's what we had to do. But it didn't work. I'd say 'Rock on, Tommy' and he'd say 'Eff off, Bobby'. Well, what's funny about that?'

'In the end we did clean and you could see people, you know, there for the strippers and all, saying, phew, thank goodness for that.'

Nowadays, this is as risque as Cannon and Ball get.

Tommy: 'I'm in love with this lady here.'

Bobby: 'Pull her then.'

Tommy: 'I'm not going to pull her.'

Bobby: 'Tek her back to your chalet and show her your Calor Gas bottle. Mind you, it's half-empty.'

It was their childishness, their alternative to the alternatives, that attracted the comedian Simon Fanshawe to book them for next month's Brighton Comedy Festival.

'I was taken to see them under duress,' Fanshawe said. 'To be honest, I was scared of being seen there, they are so naff. But, despite my prejudices, all I could see was this fantastic relationship on stage. And it is good clean fun. Beyond the intellectual jibbery jobbery, our festival is for the whole town. And I don't think anyone would even notice the God bit.'

This is the point. Isn't Cannon and Ball's duty as evangelists not simply to clean up their act, but to use the opportunity to proselytise, to become the Cliff Richards of comedy?

'No. The folk out there have paid good money,' said Tommy. 'They don't want to be preached at. They want to be entertained.'

'You see, it influences every aspect of our lives,' said Bobby. 'Every thing you do, every gag you tell, you think, would He have told that. But we don't Bible thump. We're not like David Koresh, or anything. Well, Tom is.'

After their second show of the evening, Tommy and Bobby (who had changed into a T-shirt bearing the legend 'Reach Out for Jesus') climbed aboard their swish motor for the mighty long drive from Somerset to the Butlin's centre at Pwllheli, Gwynedd. They tried to find the exit, but found themselves instead driving into a dead end at the water flumes.

'I do not believe it,' said Bobby. 'We're lost. Lost in Butlin's'

They stopped and asked directions of a Red Coat. As they were talking, a party of drunken women lurched up to the car.

'You were great tonight, Bobby lad,' said one of the women. 'Fucking great.'

Bobby put up his thumbs playfully, then, when the woman had lurched away, rolled his eyes heavenward.

'That's what I like,' he said. 'A bit of class.'

(Photograph omitted)

Comments