Past Laugh Regression: Part Two – Cannon and Ball

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Part One is here.

There’s been a lot of discussion in the last couple of years about shifting notions of masculinity, with angry comments in The Sun from fathers worried their sons will grow up to be Danny La Rue because their John Lewis dinosaur pyjamas didn’t have ‘boys’ written on the label. This sparked a random memory in me, of the moment when I first became aware of macho ideals. Thanks to imdb, I can even pinpoint the exact date.

It’s November 3rd 1984, and the five-year-old Millard is entranced by something on TV. It’s the first time I’ve made the connection between acts of violence and what it is to be a man, and that weekend was spent imagining myself as part of a tough American street-gang, wearing my blue bodywarmer as if it were a hoodlum’s leather waistcoat, and menacingly snapping my fingers at my gran. Perhaps this was the seed that informed lifelong ideas of my own gender; that for me to be a man, I had to hold back tears, walk with a swagger, and lead with my fists. What was it I saw that day? It was this.

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Yes, that’s Cannon and Ball, parodying the Hollywood musical West Side Story. No wonder I grew up to be such an alpha bad-arse. Though, as becomes clear through this reappraisal of their work, Cannon and Ball’s entire act is predicated on the constant, simmering threat of violence. It’s easy to see why they appealed so much to me at a young age, with Bobby Ball as the relatable ‘child’, his cartoonish mop of curls and red braces, like a snappy little terrier, opposite Tommy Cannon’s exasperated father figure. And has anyone ever seemed less comedian-like than Tommy Cannon? Like someone’s aul fella took a wrong turn back from the toilets and ended up onstage, even as a straight man, he had the air of a bloke who’s just stubbed out a roll-up with his heel, ready to give you a good shoeing. In their prime, I’m sure I could’ve taken Ball in a fight without any trouble, but Cannon would have left me bleeding in the gutter with signet-ring mark in my cheek.

Perhaps tellingly, full episodes from their 75-episode run have yet to make their way online, so I’ve settled for a clip show, entitled The Best of Cannon and Ball; a compilation of highlights from their ITV series. Yes, yes, here’s where the “it’s a blank tape” dig goes, well done. From the opening banter, we’re immediately transported to the lands of 80’s variety, with the constant use of “ladies and gentlemen” but pronounced “le-ge-men…” before the first sketch drags us into the very worst styles of that era.

Set on an airplane, and weirdly dialogue-free, like they’re French clowns or shit Mr. Beans, it’s five minutes of gesticulating and bad slapstick, based around the comedic notion of seats pushing back so fast, they spill drinks over themselves, again and again and again. Like with Copy Cats, the audience reaction is noticeably unhinged, even during the lengthy section where they repeatedly get a stewardess to serve Bobby shots so they can look down her top when she bends over. Eventually, he makes her bend right to the floor, so Cannon can get a look up her skirt from the back, which is as excruciating as it sounds, but backed by a wild audience reaction reminding you there was a time, in living memory, when this was considered the height of comedy.

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Next are a series of bloopers — Ball smashed in the face by a prop door; Jimmy Tarbuck mucking about in a golf sketch, because he can never fucking shut up about it — but even if there’d been an outtake where Bobby Ball got scalped by a ceiling fan, it still wouldn’t have prepared us for what’s to come. It all seems normal at first, where Cannon’s on a stool with a mic, using his nondescript Northern comic crooner voice to do the ‘sincere song’ bit they all did in those days, back to their nightclub roots, with a rendition of Send in the Clowns. Then this happens.

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Christ alive, just look at it. This is clearly supposed to be a poignant moment to consider the sadness of the clown, giving joy to others, but always on that lonely road, leaving the highs of the stage to an empty hotel room, ala tortured comic geniuses like Hancock, Pryor, Robin Williams; and Bobby Ball. Reminds you of that joke, doesn’t it, about the suicidal man at the doctors?

The great clown Bobby Ball is in town tonight. Go see him.”

But doctor, I am Bobby Ball.

The giant, disembodied head of clown-Ball hangs behind Cannon like that bit from Stephen King’s It where Pennywise projects himself on the moon, before it cuts to him slumped solemnly in front of a dressing room mirror. Ball stares into the decay of his soul, pouring himself a big scotch, and wiping away an actual tear from his painted face, in a moment so ill-judged, they might as well have gone the whole hog and shown him hanging himself, and doing a fart as he died.

We’re next run through a number of skits that make you wonder what didn’t make the cut, if this truly was the best of their offerings. I’d take footage of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster over the barnyard sketch, featuring Tommy in spotty handkerchief singing Old McDonald while Bobby interrupts with animal noises. Bob and Tom as a barman and customer getting into a fight about the placement of ashtrays and peanuts? I’d rather see interviews with people on the street recoiling in horror from secretly-taped film of me on the toilet.

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Watching a bunch of their stuff in a row really underlines the structure of their act, which almost entirely consists of an infuriated Tommy constantly being interrupted by Bobby until he snaps, grabs him by the lapels and threatens him. Every sketch; every interaction between the two, quickly devolves into arguments and threats of physical harm, with the pair pulling each other around by the lapels while trying not to laugh. It’s the comedy of people being clipped round the ears, with Bobby Ball’s other catchphrase — after “rock on, Tommy!” — the act of holding his forehead and bursting into tears. But though their characters seem to hate each other, there’s at least a sense of warmth behind it, unlike Little and Large, who always gave the impression Eddie had been spitting in Syd’s tea and making him drink it.

Even a guest appearance by Status Quo, who eat up a good portion of the Best Of with a full mime-through of Margeurita Time, consists mostly of shoving and lapel-grabbing, with the rockers berated and threatened by Cannon, and yelled at by Ball, including calling them “drug takers!” But when it seems all hope is lost, then comes the West Side Story sketch, some thirty-plus years after that initial viewing. “This is West Side Story, the modern day!” says Tommy, in a parody of a movie released 23 years earlier. The whole skit’s backed by a beat and bassline, as Cannon corrals his Jets — a gang of high-kicking young toughies with mullets — to batter Ball’s Sharks, which consist of a single, gormless-looking elderly man who can barely walk.

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I must admit to smiling the whole way through, as there’s something quite charming about two middle-aged men playing at gangs, with the greying Cannon threatening “Get your sharks, cos we’re gonna beat you up!” None of the cast can keep a straight face, and the only extra with any dialogue gives the worst line-reading in history as he’s got Ball up by the lapels, but the sight of the old man nimbly dance-fighting Tommy’s Jets to defeat does raise an honest laugh. From these highs, we plumb familiar depths in a darts skit with a snickering Jocky Wilson, that once again ends with Tommy dragging Bobby out of frame by the jacket, followed by a sketch where Bobby tries to pickpocket Tommy, with suggestions people will think they’re gay because a man has touched another man. But then comes another treat.

In a strange convening of comedic generations, the old Northern club scene meets the new Alternative, when Rik Mayall shows up as an unhelpful tourist information manager. Rik’s at his anarchic peak here, fresh off The Young Ones, and on the surface, it’s a strange combination, like seeing Stewart Lee in ‘Allo ‘Allo. But it soon makes sense, particularly as Cannon and Ball’s constant antagonism plays somewhat like a pre-watershed Rik and Ade. In the Venn Diagram, violence is the point where the two acts meet, and if Bobby facing off with Rik is like those wrestling matches where the older veteran passes the torch, then a bit where Bobby repeatedly bounces his head off the desk is 80’s comedy’s Hulk Hogan vs The Rock. Seeing the two go at it is as strange as it is joyful, with Bobby having to elevate his level of violence to stay in the game, grabbing each other by the nostrils, and even doing that bit where you block an eye-poke with the palm of your hand. Rik brings his manic energy to the material, which is much more abstract, and dare I say, Pythonesque, than their usual sketches.

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It’s no surprise then, to find the name Paul Jackson in the credits, as director/producer of some later Cannon and Ball shows — including Rik’s appearance — as well as The Young Ones, Filthy Rich & Catflap, and Rik and Ade’s Dangerous Brothers video, among many others. The Best of Cannon and Ball concludes with some jazz scatting, where they argue about whether it’s better to “skibaddy bow” or “doobady doo doodoo,” and I don’t hate this either, especially when it turns into a freestyle scat-battle, effectively translating their regular end-of-sketch argument into jazz gibberish. But then the scatting segues into a hilariously earnest, intentionally-humour-free duet of To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before. They both gaze lovingly down the lens, with the lyrical dedication to all those girls “who’ve shared my life,” forcing you to picture all the groupies they’ve banged up against the dressing room sinks of northern clubs; Bobby Ball pinging his braces as his cums, his little afro wobbling up and down; Cannon’s workmanlike thrusts, trousers opened at the fly but never fully taken down. Even with a brilliant key change, your mind fills with grotesque images of all the girls “who’ve filled my nights with ecstasy,” with their beaming grins at the terribly specific “all the girls we’ve loved” painting some truly horrific pictures of an off-stage double act.

I’ve got my own Cannon and Ball encounter, though thankfully I wasn’t bent over a sink at the time. After they fell out of favour, the lads became born again Christians, patching up their relationship — which had gone a bit Newman and Baddiel after so many years living in each others’ pockets — and reinvented themselves for the evangelical Christian circuit. Syd Little similarly got a second wind during the nineties, via the quality-starved Christian market, although clearly such enormous talents as his could only be God-given. Sometime around the turn of the millennium, Tommy and Bobby put in an appearance at my family’s church, and obviously, I had to go. Less a comedy show, than an out of character talk about their faith, there wasn’t so much as a trademark “piggin’” from the now decidedly family-friendly Ball. Nobody’s lapels got grabbed, but there was a moment when Bobby Ball, giving his impassioned testimony, and perhaps sniffing out my atheism, caught my eye and held it for what felt like a week. It’s an odd thing, to feel as though Bobby Ball is trying to rescue your broken, Hell-bound spirit. But at least he wasn’t dressed like a clown.

As a quick addendum, I’ve just remembered, some years later, Ball did retweet my ‘charity plea’ to raise awareness of my condition, when informed I was “suffering from a chronic case of well-bad nob-ache…” Rock on, Bobby.

This piece is from my new Patreon, where subscribers could read this a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help me provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

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~ by Stuart on May 12, 2018.

2 Responses to “Past Laugh Regression: Part Two – Cannon and Ball”

  1. […] Part One is here. Part Two is here. […]

  2. […] Part One. And Part Two. And Part […]

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