Seriously Tommy: Tommy Cannon stars in new musical comedy at the Thameside Theatre
Mr Tommy Cannon is 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 and comes to the Thameside Theatre in Grays in May.
He smiles: “It’s all very different from the act that Bobby and I do, which is structured but also fairly free-wheeling. Bobby still surprises me, even today, doing something that is completely spontaneous. You know something? We’ve been a double act for fifty-five years now, which surely must be some sort of record?
“A stage play means learning lines, for a start, – lots of them – and, of course, sticking to them. You can’t wing it and go off-course. The rest of the cast would never forgive you! It’s been written by a lass called Leah Bell, who – full credits to her – is also in the cast, and who has written it, and produces it. In fact, I’d be hard put to it to think of what Leah hasn’t done! We met, years back, in Jersey, when we were all doing summer season together. Those days, a summer season would go on for twenty and more weeks, playing to good houses all the time. Then you’d have a few weeks of variety, or some clubs somewhere, and after that there would be at least two months of pantomime. Your year was planned out in advance.
*That doesn’t happen now, more’s the pity, but Leah and Bob and I got on like a house on fire, and we always kept in touch. 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”.
Asked if he was apprehensive about acting in this new venture without Bobby Ball, Tommy said, “I’ll have a crack at anything, as long as the offers keep on coming. 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.” All this from a man who, incredibly, will be celebrating his eightieth birthday in June this year. “I know”, he laughs, “I can’t believe it either. But it’s true, and I am very blessed, I know that all too well!”
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?’ The only one who actually spoke to me! And that was it. We became mates,
Cannon and Ball’s act was forged in the working men’s clubs of the day, “and we very much 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!”
Their big break came just as the seventies slid in to the eighties. “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.”
Today, Tommy and Bobby 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. My own feeling is that we were each surrounded by our own little entourage, and instead of me talking to Bobby, or Bobby talking to me, communications broke down, and it was all through third parties. And that wasn’t helpful at all. But…..we resolved things. That’s what matters”.
Tommy and Hazel are not a showbiz couple. They live quietly, with no ostentation, and they are content with their rural surroundings. They ran a smallholding for several years. “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, believe me!”
Cannon was always the abrasive one, the bully to Ball’s cheekiness and softer touch. “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 were on the ITV Lorraine programme recently, Tommy got back home, had a good night’s sleep, and was woken by Hazel with a cup of tea in one hand, and her mobile in the other. 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” Tommy Cannon is currently starring in the ITV series
“Last Laugh In Vegas” but is looking forward to this new challenge of playing Albert Blunderstone in this brand new comedy play.
Seriously Dead is at the Thameside Theatre, Grays on Tuesday 8 May at 7.30pm.
Box Office 0345 300 5264, book online www.thurrock.gov.uk/theatre or
in person on Saturday from 10am – 1pm at the Thameside Complex, Orsett Rd, Grays.