Remembering a proper Bobby dazzler
Steve Legg pays tribute to the late, great Bobby Ball.
I’ll never forget standing next to Bobby Ball, in just our underwear, looking at a crowd assembled for our show. We thought no one could see us. It turned out they most definitely could, and a new double act was almost formed, ‘The Spy-Fronts’. More of that later.
Bobby was one half of comedy duo Cannon and Ball. Together with his friend and colleague, Tommy Cannon, they started their career in clubland, before becoming mainstays of TV in the early 1980s with their own top-rated show. In 1982, they even made a feature film: The Boys in Blue.
In later years, Bobby starred in sitcoms such as Last of the Summer Wine, Mount Pleasant, Benidorm and most recently, Not Going Out, where he played Lee Mack’s unreliable dad, Frank.
Cannon and Ball both took part in I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here in 2005, with Bobby making it to the last five. So it looks like he wanted to stay more than the title suggested.
Their story began when the ex-welders, who clearly sparked off each other, made their first TV appearance in 1968 on Hughie Green’s popular talent show, Opportunity Knocks. They came last, but some years later, against the odds, LWT supremo Michael Grade saw their act and insisted they were given their own series.
They hadn’t made the grade, but Grade made them. The rest, as they say, is history.
Cannon and Ball were my childhood heroes. As a kid, Saturday evenings saw me sitting in front of the TV to watch Bobby winding Tommy up. Their daft sketches, great guests and musical numbers saw the show fast become ITV’s most successful series in the 1980s – pulling in a staggering 20 million viewers at its peak.
Apart from the regular Saturday night shows, there were Christmas and Easter specials, musical albums, pantomimes and, in 1985, their summer season theatre performances out-sold Bruce Springsteen’s British tour. While ‘The Boss’ made records, Tommy and Bobby broke them everywhere they went. That year, it turns out, it was the boys who were on fire.
At the height of their fame, they bought identical gold Rolls-Royces, beachfront homes in the Canary Islands, and even boats. When Bobby invested in a nightclub in Rochdale and called it Braces, Tommy – not to be outdone – bought his local football team, Rochdale FC.
Yet behind the scenes, not everything was so rosy. The real irony was that while the duo had achieved the success they worked so hard for, their own relationship had fallen apart. For a couple of years in the mid-80s they didn’t speak a word to each other, except on stage.
In 1985, I heard that Bobby had become a Christian. He’d been known for his wild, unpredictable character and his drinking, fighting and womanising. Then he met theatre chaplain, Rev Max Wigley, for a chat about Christianity. Despite the fame and fortune his career had given him, Bobby realised something was missing from his life, and he asked God to take over. He was never the same again.
As a young Christian myself, I was really encouraged by this and started praying regularly for Tommy. Amazingly, six years later ‘Rock on Tommy’ became Tommy on The Rock as he became a Christian (I don’t want to take all the credit on that one, but I’ll take a little) and the two decided to use their talents to share their faith.
At that point, I’d been travelling all over the UK and Europe for seven years, using a daft mix of comedy and escapology, and you can imagine how I felt to be invited to be part of Cannon and Ball’s Gospel Tour in theatres and arenas all around the country.
Christianity had had such an impact on Bob, he would readily share his faith in every way he could, and his amazing gift for weaving comedy and faith into his routines meant that he was listened to by audiences everywhere he went. He wanted to share the reality of the Christian message and the change it had made in his life. It was impossible for him to keep his faith quiet.
In our 1995 touring show, we performed to more than fifty thousand people over 48 nights. It was the stuff of my dreams – performing with my favourite comedians, becoming pals and sharing Jesus with people as we travelled the length and breadth of the country. It was a wonderful experience. Bob and Tom were the stars of the show, but the cast also featured the solo singer, Danny Owen, the duo Perfect Match and yours truly – as in me, not a badly named tribute band.
Each night, I’d open the second half, appearing out of an empty box, only to be manacled into a regulation straitjacket from which I attempted to extricate myself faster than Houdini, with a daring difference: I escaped upside-down whilst dangling from the top of the theatre. It was a busy and exciting time, and it had more than the intended laughs.
It was all going well until we arrived at Edinburgh’s magnificent King’s Theatre. f
h The organisers had taken us out for a slap-up pre-show, all-inclusive, eat-as-much-as-you-possibly-can Chinese buffet. Never one to let the side down, I dutifully ate as much as I could. Two hours later, Tom and Bob waited in the wings armed with buckets: I was turning various shades of green as I hung upside down, trying to get out of the straitjacket not just faster than Houdini, but before I was violently sick all over the stage. Forget escapology – keeping my dinner down was the most impressive thing I did all day.
When the shows ended, I have fond memories of sitting in the hotel bar each night laughing and joking over a few pints, egg mayonnaise sandwiches and an occasional Bacardi and Coke. We would all go to bed in the early hours exhausted, worn out by all the laughter.
A couple of years later, we were back together again for a big outdoor event in Sefton Park, Liverpool. It was the scene of a deeply unfortunate incident with a one-way mirror – you know, like the ones they have in police stations where you can see out, but no one can see in. It was also one of the most embarrassing moments of my life – and as you can probably imagine, there’s been some competition.
The show itself was a huge affair organised by local churches and we had an awesome stage vehicle for the day – a bit like those used for the Radio One Roadshow –and I felt like a proper star.
Hanging out backstage drinking tea (still as rock and roll as ever), Bobby and I realised we were soon on and needed to get changed. ‘These mirrors are amazing, aren’t they?’ I said to Bobby, as we started getting undressed. He agreed and we both stopped for a moment to stare at the crowd, hands on our hips, wondering just how many people were out there.
I’m not entirely sure how long that moment was as we stood there in our underpants, but it was brought to an abrupt halt as we spotted some women giggling and pointing in our direction. In case we had any illusions left that we were stood behind a mirror, they mouthed ‘Look, it’s Bobby Ball.’ They probably didn’t mouth it; they probably said it loudly, we just couldn’t hear them through the soundproof, if not one-way, glass.
It was crystal clear that the very normal glass was all that stood between our pants and the vast crowd who had come to hear us tell them about Jesus. It was not the show people were expecting us to give.
Frozen to the spot, we realised we had been entertaining the crowds in a quite unplanned and most unexpected way. I belatedly caught sight of the curtains at the side of the window and swiftly pulled them. We had been caught very much with our pants, fortunately, up.
Bobby was one of the funniest and kindest people I’ve ever met. He had genuinely funny bones. He was a joker through and through and loved winding me up.
Another time we gigged together in Harrogate for a church guest meeting at a swanky hotel. Bob got there before me. Six hours later, I arrived at the venue to be turned away by an over-officious woman on the door because I didn’t have a ticket, even though my face was on the poster. I phoned Bobby to come and rescue me, but he came to the door and, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, said ‘Sorry cocker, I’ve never seen you in all my life.’
He was a joker, but he had a heart of gold (as well as previously owning a Rolls Royce of the same colour) and cared very much about everyone he met, and he’d help me out with anything. He and Tom appeared as quails on my kids’ Christmas cartoon, It’s a Boy. It came out in 2005 as the pair were Down Under, starring in I’m a Celebrity, causing a new generation of young people to fall in love with the pair.
Nothing was too much trouble for Bob – he had a truly generous spirit. In fact, we’d been texting each other about appearing on my podcast just a week before he died.
Meeting one of my childhood comedy heroes was one thing, getting to work with Bobby was another, but calling him a friend was the honour of a lifetime.