They go together like fish and chips, bread and butter or salt and pepper. But now Cannon and Ball, the comedy duo who at one time pulled in almost 20 million viewers for their weekly television show, are having to undertake solo projects to stay in work.
But the pair who have been a double act for 55 years will join up again later in the year. They will both be in Bobby’s play The Dressing Room which will tour for two months before Cannon and Ball spend Christmas in panto, the third successive year they have been signed up to play at Crewe Lyceum. This year’s show is Jack and the Beanstalk.
Tommy looks on acting as a challenge, although he admits it’s a bit odd looking around and his old mate Bobby – catchphrase “Rock on Tommy!” – isn’t at his side.
“It’s a bit nerve-racking to be honest with you. But sometimes we have to do things separately simply because if we don’t work we don’t earn any money.”
Tommy, a likeable northerner with no pretensions, doesn’t hold anything back when he talks about how the world of entertainment has been turned upside down over the past couple of decades.
“When you think about what we do, we’ve got nowhere to go and do it. Summer seasons have gone. In the ‘80s we used to do 25 weeks at Bournemouth and 25 weeks in Blackpool, Torquay and all them sorts of places. But they don’t do it any more.
“When variety died it were just like somebody had switched the light off. We went ‘where’s all that gone? Where’s the summer seasons gone? Who’s changed that?’”
Tommy appeared in a Christmas special of Lee Mack’s TV sitcom Not Going Out – Bobby plays Lee’s dad – and Tommy also made a guest appearance last year in the soap Doctors. Four years ago he and Bobby toured a farce, Ha Ha Hood!, with Su Pollard – but apart from that he has done little acting. That’s why he’s enjoying Seriously Dead.
“I’m a character by the name of Albert Blunderstone who’s a bit of a northern boy, has a bit of a way with the ladies. Me and another guy have done a bank robbery and he’s disappeared. It was £50,000 we stole and I’m trying to find out where it’s gone because I never got any of it.”
How did Tommy get the job?
“I know Leah Bell who’s the director. She’s written it and is in it as well. I heard that she was after me to do the play. I rang Leah up and she said it would be lovely if I could do it. So I said let’s give it a go. It was as simple as that.”
Thomas Derbyshire was born in Oldham on 27 June 1938. He met Robert Harper in the early 1960s while they were working as welders in the same factory.
They formed a club act and turned professional in the late 1960s, changing their names to Cannon and Ball.
Their primetime Saturday night programme The Cannon and Ball Show was one of London Weekend Television’s most successful series and lasted for 12 years.
They recently returned to the small screen in a reality-type show called Last Laugh in Vegas. Nine showbiz legends from the worlds of comedy, music and variety were given a last shot at putting on an act in Las Vegas, the variety capital of the world.
Cannon and Ball joined Bernie Clifton, comedian Mick Miller, pianist Bobby Crush, singer Kenny Lynch, pop idol Jess Conrad, singer Anita Harris and Su Pollard for a five-part TV series in which they prepared for the gig of a lifetime.
Tommy admits it was fun but it was also challenging.
“We didn’t know what we were going to do. All we knew was that we were going to be out there for virtually two weeks. We enjoyed it.”
But while they were there a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers at a music festival on the Vegas Strip, leaving 58 people dead and 851 injured.
“Vegas was very special apart from the fact that all them people got killed,” says Tommy. “That was very sad. Typical Americans – the following day they were going down the Strip with banners the size of a garage saying ‘keep your heads high America, we can beat this’. It was fantastic to think they were rallying round so quick.”
The programme may lead to new opportunities for the showbiz veterans who went to Vegas, although Tommy is taking nothing for granted.
“If anything does happen it would be in the early stages of next year. TV don’t work that quick any more. We’ll have to wait and see. Who knows?”
After Seriously Dead Tommy and Bobby will start another tour of The Dressing Room. It features a group of comics having a laugh before Cannon and Ball do 25 minutes of their own material. “It’s variety within a play,” says Tommy.
He agrees there is still an outlet for variety but the problem is that the younger generation doesn’t experience it.
“It’s 30-odd years since we were on TV, every Saturday, Christmas specials and Easter specials and all that stuff. There’s a whole generation who’ve grown up in that time. They don’t know about us unless they go on YouTube.
“The funniest thing of all is when you do pantomime the kids are waiting for an autograph and they say ‘you’re really funny, why aren’t you on telly?’ There’s a new generation out there who don’t know what variety is about.”
As well as the good times, Tommy has had a number of bad experiences. When variety died, he found it difficult to get back on his feet. Last year he was made bankrupt but remains stoical about it: “It’s just one of those things in life – it happens to lots of people.”
He lives with his second wife Hazel near York with their two daughters and a son. He has two daughters from his first marriage.
His career now seems on the up again and 2018 has been really good so far.
“We’ve had a heck of a year. My daughter got married recently, we’ve been backwards and forwards to London doing shooting for Last Laugh in Vegas – I don’t know whether I’m on me backside or me elbow to be quite honest with you. I’m still in there fighting.”
Tommy became a Christian in 1992 which he says has made a big difference to his life. “But I’m not holier than thou and I don’t go round telling people what they should do with their lives and all that business. I’m happy being a Christian.”
He doesn’t have any big ambitions left but he’s still content to rock on: “I cannot believe I’m 80 in June. I think: how have I lived this long? Looking back on the TV we used to do I think to myself: it were 34 years ago! Where’s that gone?
“You’ve got to live each day of your life. Your life is now. Not tomorrow because you don’t know if you’re going to wake up tomorrow and yesterday’s gone. So your life is now. Don’t look back, only look forward.”
Wise words from a showbiz lynchpin who has every reason to look to the future.