Bobby Ball, who has died after testing positive for coronavirus aged 76, was the irresponsible but anxious to please half of the comedy duo Cannon and Ball, famous for twanging his braces alongside the serious Tommy Cannon. “Rock on, Tommy!” was his catchphrase.
They fulfilled the prophecy made by Eric Morecambe just before his death that Cannon and Ball would inherit Morecambe and Wise’s crown by becoming television’s most popular comedy double act of the 1980s. Like Eric and Ernie, their performances were pitched perfectly for weekend TV audiences looking for family entertainment. “The reason I don’t do blue,” said Ball, “is that, if I can’t fetch my children to see me perform, I’m not doing the right stuff. We do naughty stuff. It’s more ‘cheeky’.”
They were launched on their television career by Michael Grade when he was director of programmes at the ITV company LWT. Although Cannon and Ball recorded seven segments for the marathon Saturday-evening show Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night in 1978, not all were screened. Grade watched the dropped clips and in 1979 gave them their own programme, Cannon & Ball, which clocked up nine series before it finally ended in 1988.
Later in the run, they introduced a sitcom element to the show, which depicted the pair living together in a well-appointed London flat while performing away from their homes in the north of England. This led them into their own standalone sitcoms, beginning with two pilots for Cannon and Ball’s Playhouse in 1991. These were followed in the same year by the less-than-successful series Plaza Patrol, with Bobby as Trevor Purvis and Tommy as Bernard Cooney, two inept night security officers at a shopping mall, Margaret Thatcher Plaza.
The show was in the same vein as their previous feature film breakout, as useless police officers, in The Boys in Blue (1982), which was loosely based on the 1938 movie Ask a Policeman, and featured the pair inventing crimes to justify their existence when the police station in Little Botham is threatened with closure. Another TV series, Casino (1990), was part-comedy, part-game show. Although it failed to give Cannon and Ball the hoped-for jolt into the new television era that followed the advent of alternative comedy, they continued to perform on stage for another three decades.
Bobby Ball was born Robert Harper in Oldham, Lancashire (now Greater Manchester), to May (nee Savage), a cotton mill worker, and Bob Harper, who worked in a rubber factory. The family lived in a one-bedroom house and Bobby slept toe to toe with his two sisters on the landing. “We were poor, but we were a loving family,” he said.
Aged seven, he and his sister Mavis took to the stage in north of England clubs as Bobby and Mavis. On leaving High Crompton school, he studied shipping management at Wigan Mining and Technical College before taking a job in an engineering factory where he and Thomas Derbyshire, the future Tommy Cannon, both worked as welders.
Already singing in local clubs under the name Stevie Rhythm, he invited his colleague to join him and they performed first as the Sherrell Brothers, then the Harper Brothers. Failing to wow audiences, they switched to comedy.
“We worked on the characters till they felt right,” said Ball in 1983. “My character has changed quite a bit. First, we both wore mohair suits. Then, I changed to a striped suit, then bold checks and then, at last, we found the baggy suit and braces I use today.” Meanwhile, Cannon developed a smoother persona, providing the classic “chalk and cheese” characters found in comedy duos.
After two years, they went professional, changing their names to Cannon and Ball – Cannon after the American singer Freddy Cannon and Ball as the obvious name for a sidekick. Their big break came with a TV appearance on the talent show Opportunity Knocks in 1968 – but they came last. However, they had another chance to make their mark on screen as one of the acts throughout all five original series of The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club (1974-77).
Their own TV programme helped to fill theatres. In 1983, they set a then record for one-night variety acts by performing 134 shows in 45 theatres over a 13-week spring tour. Although they continued with their stage act when TV work began to dry up in the 1990s, Ball occasionally popped up in small guest roles in dramas such as Heartbeat (2005-06) and Casualty (2012).
He also had long-running acting parts as Frank, father of Lee Mack’s fictional version of himself, in the sitcom Not Going Out, from its 2009 series until last year, and Barry Harris, a widower, ageing rocker and father of Sally Lindsay’s high-flying recruitment firm boss Lisa Johnson, in all seven runs of the comedy-drama Mount Pleasant (2011-17).
From 2005 to 2008, Ball appeared in three episodes of Last of the Summer Wine as Lenny, first seen travelling down the canal on a giant inflatable swan. Cannon also had a cameo in those episodes of the show. The pair were seen together in several reality TV shows: the 2005 series of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, Celebrity Coach Trip in 2012 and Last Laugh in Vegas in 2018.
Ball’s autobiography, My Life, was published in 1993. His first marriage, to Joan Lynn in 1964, ended in divorce, while his second marriage, to Yvonne Nugent in 1974, survived his drinking and infidelities. Of the other women, he said: “My pride wouldn’t allow me to see that it wasn’t anything to do with me as a person. They were attracted to me because I was on TV.” In 1986, he put these times behind him and declared himself a Christian.
He is survived by Yvonne, their daughter, Joanne, and the two sons, Robert and Darren, of his first marriage.
• Bobby Ball (Robert Harper), comedian and actor, born 28 January 1944; died 28 October 2020