Rock on Tommy: Tommy Cannon talks about going back on stage without his partner of more than 50 years Bobby Ball

He might be about to turn 85 but Tommy Cannon has nointention of slowing down. He talks to Phil Penfold aboutperforming despite losing his long-term partner Bobby Ball to Covid.
(L-R) Comedians Bobby Ball and Tommy Cannon attend the British Soap Awards at Media City on May 18, 2013 in Manchester.  (Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images)(L-R) Comedians Bobby Ball and Tommy Cannon attend the British Soap Awards at Media City on May 18, 2013 in Manchester.  (Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images)
(L-R) Comedians Bobby Ball and Tommy Cannon attend the British Soap Awards at Media City on May 18, 2013 in Manchester. (Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images)

A new single to promote, a tour that will take him up and down the country, and a long panto season at the end of the year. A schedule that would keep someone in their twenties on their toes. But Tommy Cannon celebrates his 85th this month. Apart from a touch of arthritis in his shoulder, he is as fit as a fiddle, and up for just about anything that is offered to him.

“The thing is, I still believe that I am 65 years young. I work out three times a week, I do my gardening, and the work keeps coming in. There’s no thought of any ‘retirement,’ whatever that may be. I’ll just keep on keeping on, for as long as I’m wanted.”

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And wanted is what he most definitely is. He’ll certainly rise to a challenge – he was over in his home county of Lancashire a little while back, appearing in an event where the featured choir were all members of the local Mind charity group. “They were absolutely wonderful, a joy to listen to. When I went over to thank them later on, I casually said that if they ever got a good arrangement made of the song Together We’ll be OK, the number that Bobby Ball and I did throughout our career together, I’d be delighted to be a guest soloist.

Tommy CannonTommy Cannon
Tommy Cannon

“Shortly afterwards, I was phoned up and asked if I’d like to record it with them. Of course, I said yes, and the result is out now, making money for the charity, which is wonderful. I was so proud to be asked. If Yorkshire Mind want me to do the same thing, I’m here to be asked – and the answer will be a ‘yes,’ without hesitation,” says Tommy who lives with his wife Hazel in Great Ouseburn, near York,

He still hasn’t got over the death of Bobby, one of the first victims of Covid. Articulating how he felt when his stage partner of one of the longest-ever double acts in showbiz history died, is still obviously very difficult. “Terrible. Just terrible,” he says quietly. “After everything we’d been through together. So many television series, live shows, and – you’ll not believe this – no less than 42 pantomimes over the years. Despite that ban on travel, there was no way that I couldn’t be at his funeral in Lytham St Annes. We drove over, and there were – as the rules dictated at the time – just 30 people there. When he was carried down the aisle in that coffin, I just burst into tears. I couldn’t control myself. I thought to myself ‘Bobby’s in that box, I shall never see him again’ and I was truly emotional. But I don’t apologise for that – it was my way of coping, and we all react differently, don’t we? There were so many jumbled-up memories, of so many things that we’d done. The chief one was of Bobby grinning, and snapping his braces, while I tried to keep a straight face!”

Times were not always merry, however, like so many of the great double acts, they did have a personal rift, which went on for something like three years. “I can’t explain how it was, or why,” Tommy says, “but for some reason or other, at the height of our TV success, someone decided that the two of us both needed help in making our lives run smoothly. We were given what was, thinking about it now, an entourage. Four people for Bobby, another four for me. They’d book the hotels, carry the bags upstairs, do everything. And then, inevitably, the eight of them would go to the hotel bar or the local pub, and they’d gossip about us. ‘Oh, Bobby said this about Tommy, and Tommy said so-and-so about Bobby. You could feel the atmosphere slowly changing. It wasn’t nice, and it was the strangest time of our career. Then one morning, we were having breakfast together, and I brought up the subject. I said that I felt that our relationship had changed, and that I could probably pinpoint the moment when. Bobby said that he felt the same way, and asked ‘At what point?’

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“I said, ‘When the eight of them moved in, that was the start of the poison’ and we agreed to make a big change. We got through that week, and they were fired on the next Monday. Normality returned almost immediately. And you know the funny thing? Now, I can’t even remember their names!”

After so many years of panto together, it took some time for Tommy to agree to appear in a new one, and as a solo act. “You see, pantomime is really very hard work. A lot of fun, but hard work. No-one can deny that. And if it isn’t hard work, you’re not doing it right. Bobby and I knew our lines and our routines, and we used to weave sketches from our shows into the panto. If I forgot a move or a line, he’d pick it up for me, and I did the same for him. We knew how to do it. So being alone was very difficult. I had to summon up something within me to make me go on, and somehow, I pulled it off. At the end, I went forward to the audience, and I told them how wonderful they’d been and how difficult it was to – at first – work without Bobby. I said, ‘It’s not just me who is thanking you, it’s also that little man, who is definitely looking down on us tonight.’ And they gave me a standing ovation. It was overwhelming, believe me.” He's back in panto again this year, at the same venue, the Empire, in Consett, in a production helmed by long-standing friend Leah Bell.

Bobby and Tommy worked very hard in the working men’s clubs before, in 1968, they auditioned for, and appeared on, Opportunity Knocks, the equivalent of today’s Britain’s Got Talent. “We used to be a singing act back then, and turned into a comic one later,” says Tommy. “There were times in the early days when we very nearly chucked it all in. Another time, he remembers an audition where there was a chap attempting to play the piano. He was just bloody awful. Bobby whispered to me ‘This is dreadful. Painful to listen to.’ Know who that would-be pianist was? Les Dawson. The incomparable Les. And it takes an awful lot of skill to be able to play a piano intentionally badly!” There are memories galore in a new show that Tommy is taking on the road this autumn. Rock On, Tommy (“What else could I possibly call it?” he laughs) will crisscross the UK for months, with several dates in Yorkshire. The evening will be full of reminiscences , performance, clips from the Cannon and Ball TV series, and a Q and A with the audience. “There may well also be a guest artist with me, but I can’t say who it is at the moment,” he says enigmatically. Tommy’s support in getting it all together has been his son Luke, who these days is also his manager. The other thing that he intended to do, he pledges, is to get to as many retirement and care homes as he possibly can. “I want to meet and to talk to the people who were our fans way back when, who were always so kind, loving, supportive. It’s a way of giving something back, I suppose, something that I need to do.” What does he think of today’s comics? “I think that the word is ‘vulgar’,” he says without a second’s thought. “Vulgar, and often crudely offensive. We all know that times have changed, don’t we? But, sadly, not always for the better, eh?”

Rock On, Tommy: Empress Ballroom, Doncaster, September 23. Leadmill, Sheffield, October 5. Hull, Stage Door, October 8. Alhambra Studio, Bradford, October 19.

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