William Cook goes to Skegness and watches Cannon & Ball attract an adoring audience
It’s August and Edinburgh is full of fashionable young comedians, but here in Skegness the Festival Fringe seems a million miles away. With its amusement arcades and fish and chip shops, this unpretentious place feels forgotten by the metropolitan arts establishment. There are no TV producers on the windswept promenade, no theatre critics in the bingo halls. Yet Skegness boasts a theatrical heritage far older than the Edinburgh Festival — traditional seaside entertainment. And this summer it’s playing host to Britain’s most seasoned seaside entertainers, Cannon & Ball.
Throughout the 1980s Cannon & Ball were one of the biggest acts in Britain. Eric Morecambe called them the next Morecambe & Wise. Between 1979 and 1990 they starred in ten series on ITV, playing to audiences of 15 million. But then television lost interest, and Cannon & Ball disappeared. Yet like the Variety circuit that spawned them, they never went away. They still do pantomime every winter, and every summer they tour the seaside towns, honing the act they’ve performed together for nearly 50 years.
Tonight the Embassy Theatre in Skegness is only half full but Cannon & Ball come on to a mighty cheer. As they warm up this draughty room, chatting to their punters like old friends, you can see the big difference between modern comics and old-fashioned acts like these. Modern comics are far smarter, but their humour is often cold and clinical. Cannon & Ball aren’t admired — they’re adored. Bobby Ball is a big kid, Tommy Cannon is his exasperated elder brother. ‘When are you going to grow up?’ he asks Bobby. Oliver Hardy used to ask Stan Laurel the same question. They’re part of the same tradition, a seamless lineage that stretches all the way back to Music Hall.
‘D’you know the difference between a comic and a comedian?’ Bobby asks me backstage before the show. ‘A comedian’s a man who tells funny stories. A comic’s a funny man.’ ‘That’s the difference,’ concurs Tommy. There are lots of comedians nowadays, but most of the comics are long gone — Tommy Cooper, Les Dawson, Frankie Howerd …Cannon & Ball are the last of a dying breed. Bobby is a classic comic and Tommy is the archetypal straight man — a selfless artist who sets up the gags for just a fraction of the glory.
Thomas Derbyshire (aka Tommy Cannon) was born in Oldham in 1938. His dad was a miner who liked a drink — he left home when Tommy was six, the year Robert Harper (aka Bobby Ball) was born. Bobby was raised in a loving home, though they had no electricity or hot water. ‘It doesn’t matter how poor you are,’ says Bobby. ‘If you’ve got love, it’s not hard.’ Their mothers both worked at the local cotton mill. The boys met at a nearby factory, where they worked as welders while moonlighting as pub singers. ‘We couldn’t afford a telly, so we made our own entertainment,’ explains Bobby. After a couple of turns together they formed a musical duo, but the banter went down better than the songs. They finally packed in their day jobs after a week’s booking at a club in Wales. It was the first time they’d left Lancashire. ‘Anything were better than welding,’ says Tommy.
In 1978, a booker spotted them in a provincial nightclub and put them on The Bruce Forsyth Show. Tommy was already 40. Bobby was 34. They didn’t yearn for stardom — they were earning two grand a week in cabaret — but after 15 years in clubland, they were ready. ‘We never dreamed we’d get on TV,’ says Tommy. Watching their first series again today, they still look like a couple of chancers who can’t quite believe their luck. That series was a hit (it’s re-released this month on DVD) and for ten years they never looked back. The 1980s was supposed to be the era of ‘alternative’ comedy — left-wing stand-ups lambasting Margaret Thatcher — but the audiences these right-on wags attracted were tiny compared with Cannon & Ball. In 1980 they sold out the Blackpool Opera House — 3,200 seats, two shows a day for 18 weeks.
Of course today’s numbers don’t compare — like a lot of working-class culture, live Variety has withered beneath a barrage of multichannel TV — but 20 years since their last series Cannon & Ball still fly the flag for family entertainment, building a devoted audience by word of mouth alone. Modern comedy is a niche market for single young professionals. Bobby and Tommy cater for a demographic you rarely see in modern comedy clubs: grandparents and grandchildren, mums and dads. British comedy has always been a classbound business — toffs at the Edinburgh Festival, plebs in seaside towns like Skegness. Yet there used to be some common ground, some shows the whole nation watched together. Despite its egalitarian pretensions, alternative comedy has made this class divide even more pronounced, not less. ‘We’re the new alternatives,’ says Bobby, and in a way he’s right. The radical comics of yesteryear have become the new mainstream. Cannon & Ball’s audience — the white working class — are the new voiceless and dispossessed.
Like Cannon & Ball, Skegness has had its share of hard knocks, and last time I came here, four years ago, I feared for the future of this historic holiday resort. Like a lot of seaside towns, Skeggy was a product of the industrial revolution, a place for factory workers to let their hair down. Now those factories had vanished, it seemed to have lost its raison d’être. The place where Tennyson and D.H. Lawrence sought sanctuary had clearly seen better days.
Yet returning here last week, I was pleasantly surprised. The donkey rides were doing brisk business, there was a brass band playing on the bandstand. There were pavement paintings on the prom. The seafront has had a spring-clean, and visitor numbers are up by more than a quarter on last year, to nearly a million overnights — not bad for a town with barely 20,000 inhabitants. The recession may be bad news for chic resorts on the south coast, but here in cheap and cheerful Skegness hard times may actually be a blessing. It’s no coincidence that Billy Butlin founded his first holiday camp in Skeggy, offering working families a week’s holiday for a week’s wage. Most of the B&Bs along the front display signs saying ‘No Vacancies’. Despite the lure of cheap flights to warmer foreign climes, Skegness has survived.
Back at the Embassy, Bobby and Tommy wind up the show with a rousing duet, revealing their surprisingly good singing voices. There’s been no bad language or obscenity (unlike a lot of modern comics) and no racism or sexism (unlike a lot of their traditional forebears). You can see why Eric Morecambe liked them. Like Eric and Ernie, there’s something strangely childlike about them. Sure, the jokes have beards — but their comedy isn’t about the gags, it’s about the relationship between the two men. Like Eric and Ernie, you can tell they really love each other, and that’s why Skegness loves them back. ‘Thank you, Skeggy,’ shouts Tommy, as the curtain comes down and the audience rise in a standing ovation. You can tell he means it, too.
In the dressing-room after the show, Bobby and Tommy are beaming like a couple of kids on Christmas Day. You’d never guess they were both OAPs. ‘We don’t even contemplate retiring,’ says Tommy. ‘It doesn’t even come into our heads,’ adds Bobby. Live Variety may be on its last legs, battered into submission by TV and the internet — but as long as Cannon & Ball are going strong, it’s probably a bit too soon to sound the de
ath knell just yet.
Cannon & Ball are on tour until 3 September. The Cannon & Ball Show — The Complete First Series is released by Network DVD, price £12.99.