Big interview: Tommy Cannon on going it alone for new role
He was born in Lancashire, now lives in Yorkshire, and his real surname is Derbyshire. “I know”, says Tommy Cannon, grinning from ear to ear. “It’s crazy, isn’t it? And, get this, my dad was a Geordie!”
For nearly two decades, Tommy and his stage partner Bobby Ball were the staples of Saturday night television. They were familiar regulars on the box, frequently pulling in audiences of 20 million and more. The show went out from what were then the LWT studios on the South Bank in London, just a few minutes from the Royal Festival Hall. The iconic ITV building is just about to be demolished, and Tommy was saddened to hear the news. “So many very happy memories”, he says shaking his head slightly. “I was back down there just the other day to do the Lorraine show, and it all came flooding back – how we had our own studio, a huge one, that we used from day one until it all finished… I got a bit emotional, I’ll admit that.”
Tommy now lives near York, in the quiet village of Great Ouseburn. He’s married to Hazel, and they have two daughters and a son – he has two other children from his first marriage. Hazel is his “rock, my certainty”, he says, and she’ll be going with him on a new challenge that he’s decided to pick up, with Cannon joining the cast of Seriously Dead (which also stars Billy Pearce and Chrissy Rock), a comedy drama that will tour the UK for many months ahead.
“All very different from what Bob and I do on stage”, he admits. “It’s meant learning lines, for a start – lots of them – and, of course, sticking to them. It’s been written by Leah Bell, who – full credit to her – is also in the cast and produces it. In fact, I’d be hard put to think of what Leah hasn’t done.”
They first met years ago in Jersey, when they were doing summer seasons together. “Then, earlier in the year, and out of the blue, I got a call from her, and I thought ‘It’s new, it’s a great script, and people love it, so… let’s go for it!”
He’s playing the small-time crook and ladies’ man Albert Blunderstone, who, says Tommy, “is best summed up as a bit of a northern Del Boy”.
That “try owt” attitude seems to just about sum up Tommy Cannon’s attitude to life, and his career in general. “If you don’t go for it, and give it your best”, he says, “what’s the point of going on? ‘Retirement’ is a dirty word to me. I’ve no intention at all of packing it all in – why should I?” he says.
“You know the two saddest words in the English language? They are ‘if only’. When someone gets to a certain age, and they look back and they sigh and say ‘If only I’d done this… or that’. Of course everyone makes mistakes, but you have to learn from them. That’s the way forward.”
Tommy Derbyshire met Bobby Ball (born Robert Harper) “more years ago than either of us care to recall. We were both working for a manufacturing firm over in Oldham, and I was the new boy – I turned up, and about five hundred blokes walked past me without a word. Until this little guy went across, and he said ‘Hello, cock, ‘ow are you?’ He was the only one who actually spoke to me and that was it, we became mates. I learned that he did a bit of singing in the local clubs, and he asked me to come and see his act one night at the Royton Oddfellows. I’ll never forget that name. So I did – and he wasn’t half bad. Next thing I know is that he asks me if I’d like to do a double act with him. The catch was that I would be playing the drums. Which meant that I had to learn how – and pretty quickly.”
Cannon and Ball’s act was forged in the working men’s clubs of the day and they learned ‘on the hoof’. “It was tough, but it was a brilliant way to learn your craft, what worked and what didn’t. I remember very early on we played a North-East audience, Sunderland way, and we were paid off.
“We were so broke that we actually picked the dog ends out of the ashtrays as we left. We stopped the car a few miles down the road, and we looked at each other and we thought over what had happened. We said to each other ‘Look, we have three more gigs left, we’ll do those, and if they are disasters, we’ll throw in the towel, call it a day. What happens? We stormed every one of them, they couldn’t get enough of us.”
Slowly the pair built up a reputation for an act that was original – and clean. Cannon and Ball were never the ones for risqué jokes or swearwords.
Their big break came just as the 70s slid into the 80s. “It’s an indicator of how tastes change”, says Tommy, “because one minute, every town of any note had at least one decent cabaret club that was thriving, and the big names played them all, and then, almost overnight, the audiences were deserting them, and they were closing. Just as that happened, we were offered a three-year contract by London Weekend… and we stayed for many years more. Fate was with us, and we couldn’t have timed it better.”
Tommy and Bobby have now been together for 55 years, and both these days go their own ways for parts of the year. They always meet up for a Christmas panto – for the last couple of years it has been at Crewe, and that’s the case for this year as well. There are many other gigs together. But it hasn’t always been calm sailing. There were three years when the lads were barely speaking to each other, “and you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. It was awful. I won’t say that we hated each other, it was just that there was... an unpleasantness. And neither of us, looking back, knows what brought it on. But… we resolved things. That’s what matters”.
Tommy and Hazel are not a showbiz couple. They live quietly and are content with their rural surroundings. “When you are on the road for so long, and after so many years, there are times when you just yearn to be at home”, he says. “We’ll be together for this stage tour, which is lovely – we like travelling together, and the kids are all grown up and can fend for themselves. Our son, Luke, the youngest, told us the other day ‘Mum, Dad, it’s your time now, go and enjoy it.”
He admits with a chuckle that he still gets one of the Cannon and Ball catchphrases shouted after him. “If I had a fiver for every time someone has yelled out ‘Rock on, Tommy’ at me, Hazel and the kids and I wouldn’t be living in Great Ouseburn, we’d be able to afford to live in style in Barbados...”
Cannon was always the abrasive one, next to Ball’s cheekiness. “I’m the only man in this business that has been consistently hated for over fifty years for what I do to Bob,” he laughs.
But that isn’t entirely true. When the pair went on the Lorraine programme Tommy got back home, had a good night’s sleep, and was woken by Hazel with a cup of tea, and her mobile. The call was from Luke, who told his dad that Twitter was “going crazy” with people saying how much they missed the fun of Cannon and Ball.
“Thousands and thousands of them,” he says, getting a little emotional. “Thousands. All saying wonderful things. I had tears in my eyes. I never realised that we were loved so much.”
* Seriously Dead, Civic, Rotherham, May 20.