It was the 1960's. Robert Harper and Thomas
Derbyshire found themselves working at the same
factory in Oldham, Lancashire, as welders.
They got on well and as Robert had a sideline at the
weekends of singing in local clubs, he invited
Thomas to go along one weekend with him. Robert was
singing under the name of Stevie Rhythm. They spent
more time together and eventually Thomas became part
of the act. The sang as a duo under the name of The
Sherrell Brothers and later called themselves The
Harper Brothers. They spent time as a duo and also a
trio at times but later decided that they worked
best as a double act.
time concentrating on their vocal act but as Robert was
naturally funny and as time passed, the smooth, natural
rapport between them became apparent and they started to add
small comedic parts to the act. It has been said that they
saw that comedians received a tenner more per night and
that's why they started to add comedy, but as we now know,
they are just funny together so no doubt it would have
evolved that way whether it was a conscious decision or not.
As the act grew, they earned their stripes trawling the pubs
and clubs of Lancashire and beyond. It was hard work. As any
of the acts of the day will tell you now, they were not easy
audiences to please and you had to be pretty thick skinned
to make it through unscathed. They battled on and won over
the audiences and grew to ensure they had regular work for
quite some time.
Towards the end of the 60s they decided that they were
earning more money from their act than they were welding and
they made the decision to give up their day jobs to
concentrate on the act full time. This way they could give
the act the attention it deserved and they also liked the
fact that they had the whole day to themselves and didn't
have to turn up at the club for work until the evening time.
They changed their name to Cannon and Ball and turned
professional. The name worked. Can you imagine them as
anything else now? It was perfect.
Their first TV appearance came in 1968 when they entered
Opportunity Knocks. This must have been terrifying for two
working class blokes from Oldham. They gave it their best
shot and hoped for the best but their dreams were shot down
when they came last in the competition. They plodded on
though and kept working as they had done beforehand. Not all
of their attempts would end the same way.
On May 18th 1974 they appeared on an episode of the variety
show, The Wheeltappers And Shunters Club. Set in a working
men's club environment, their act stood out showing a
glimmer of what was hiding beneath the surface waiting to
jump out and take the world by storm. Tommy came out wearing
a swanky brown suit and gold platforms, suave and
sophisticated singing a song, full of confidence. Bobby was
sat in the audience, baggy suit, timid looking with a wicked
centre parting in his thick bush of hair. He jumped up,
shocked to see his friend on stage performing and began
trying to get his attention. He eventually got up on the
stage to the amusement of the audience and involved himself
in the act. Classic Cannon and Ball, a career built on this
concept and one that we never tire of seeing. Many people
hold this performance in high regard and deservedly so.
In 1978 Cannon and Ball were asked to film a run of sketches
to be shown on the current Saturday night event of the time,
Bruce Forsythe's Big Night. Sadly, the sketches were never
used but their performances lead to them being spotted by
the powers that be at ITV and they were offered their own TV
show. The first series was shown in 1979 and went down with
audiences brilliantly. Within months of their failed Brucie
appearance, they were topping the bill in Blackpool. Their
popularity grew and grew. Throughout the 1980's they had
annual TV series, Christmas Specials, Summer Seasons, a film
(The Boys In Blue), musical albums and pantomimes. They were
truly the most sought after act around at the time. No one
could touch them. Someone lit the blue touch paper and their
In 1982 they booked a 6 week run at The Dominion Theatre in
London and before the show even opened every seat for every
night had been sold out. They spent time working in America
and were the only British double act to ever have played the
Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Their 1988 season at The London
Palladium broke all box office records and theirs were the
largest takings in the theatre's history. They had made the
almost instant transition from £20 per week welders to
£50,000 per week performers. In 1985, their Summer Season
outsold Bruce Springsteen's British Tour, that puts into
perspective how big things had become.
Cannon and Ball were the hottest act around but as is true
of anything, the hotter it is, the more chance there is of
getting burned! Popularity, fame and fortune were to take
their toll. These two normal northern lads were flung from
their quiet lives into a life of hustle and bustle, money,
vices and adoration. It had to have some effect.
Who is there to counsel people when things like this happen?
Who is there to help keep their feet on the ground? It's
everyone's dream to suddenly be able to have everything you
ever wanted, to have people scream your name and love you.
When it happens though it must be terribly difficult to deal
with. Who wants to know you for you? Who wants to know you
for who you are and what what you can give them? Who just
wants to be associated with the name? How does an everyday
bloke deal with that? Well, a lot of the time, they don't!
Bob and Tom lived the celebrity lifestyle to the max. They
bought cars, boats, houses, football clubs, nightclubs.
Loved the adoration they received from their fans of which
there were countless numbers. It took it's toll heavily on
their family lives. They weren't at home much. they were out
partying, they were drinking, women were throwing themselves
at them and life got thrown up into a whirlwind of excess.
The lads went through a really low patch where they were so
caught up with their own lives and their own demons that
they didn't want to be around each other any longer. They
still worked but apart from that time that they spent
together, they didn't see each other and they didn't speak
for a number of years. Things were at an all time low. The
high living and the way that they were being pulled in all
directions tore these everyday lads from their roots and
they didn't know what had hit them.
Bob admits that he was lost. He was drinking heavily, he was
womanising, and he was becoming violent, getting into fights
when he was out, looking for any excuse to start a fight
whenever he felt like it. It was not the person he had ever
been and not the person he wanted to be. He has said in the
past that as much as he had, it never seemed to be enough
and the more he filled his life with these things, the
emptier his life felt, he felt dirty and ashamed.
Times were changing with regards to work too. Work was
drying up. The tide was turning on the comedy circuit and
people weren't looking for the same old acts that they had
enjoyed for the last decade. Alternative comedy was taking
over. The likes of The Young Ones, Alexei Sayle and Ben
Elton and their sharp, brash way of expressing their comedy
was what they young audiences were wanting to hear and the
television schedules changed to accommodate such feelings.
Cannon and Ball's last TV series was shown in 1991.
The lifestyle pulled at them as people. They weren't
behaving the way they had always done as they were being
pampered and fussed over everywhere they went. Everything
was being done for them, they never had to lift a finger.
Anything they wanted was theirs and all they had to do was
click their fingers and there it was, they were losing the
ability to do anything for themselves. They got used to
having money very quickly. They were spending it as quickly
as it was coming in and they admitted that they did it a lot
of the time, simply because they could. They didn't need the
things that they were buying, they were buying things for
the sake of buying something, anything. It had become a
Neither of them wanted their lives to carry on the way that
they were. Bobby knew that he was behaving badly and was
wracked with guilt. He wasn't being a good friend, a good
husband or a good father to his children and he knew
something had to change. Whilst doing a stint of pantomime
in Bradford, he met up with a friend of his, the theatre
chaplain at The Alhambra where the pantomime was being
performed, Max Wigley. He talked to Max at some length about
his life and his problems. Max listened, helped Bobby
discuss what he wanted to do to sort his life out and gave
him some reading material. He gave him a copy of Journey
Into Life and Bob went away and read it. One thing Bob
remembers is that Max said to him, " God loves you you know,
no matter what!" Bob heard this, prayed and broke down in
tears. He knew at that moment he had been touched by the
Lord and that this was the path for him to follow to get his
life back on track and give it purpose and meaning once
A new start for Bob and Tom was to come when after his
realisation, Bob approached Tommy at The Alhambra and made
amends. He explained what had happened to him, he told Tommy
that he had become a Christian and that he knew that things
had to change and a fresh start was made from then. In the
years that have followed, the pair have become closer than
they ever were. A new bond was formed and grows stronger
year on year.
Everyone around Bobby thought it was a phase he was going
through and would wear off as fads do but it was something
that made a massive change in his life ad he stuck with it.
So happy to see this change in Bobby was his wife Yvonne.
She had bore the brunt of his past behaviour at home. When
Bob was drinking he was very selfish and she had to live
with the man she loved changing before her very eyes. She
became agoraphobic and needed to take pills in order to be
able to sleep. She had to bring the children up and explain
to them where their dad was and why he wasn't at home, it
was a lot to deal with alone. To this day, Bobby knows that
he was lost and that he became desperately close to losing
Yvonne. He says he didn't deserve her to stay and forgive
him but he will be eternally grateful to her that she did.
Two months after seeing the difference it had made to Bob's
life, Yvonne too decided to become a Christian and both have
been so ever since.
The high living years didn't let Tommy escape untouched
either. As with Bobby, he enjoyed the superstar lifestyle
for a while until anyone could see that it had become too
much. His family life suffered as he whilst working, he
began an affair with a dancer in one of their shows, again
in Bradford. This lead to his 30 year marriage to his wife
Margaret breaking down. He built his life back up though and
pulled through the bad times. He and Hazel are still
together and married to this day. They live happily with
their children on their farm and love their settled family
life. Tommy is a very devoted dad, he has five children in
all (two with Margaret and three with Hazel) and will drive
home after each gig to be sure that he is there every
morning when his children wake up.
After Bob gave his life over to Christianity, he spoke to
Tommy about doing the same thing many times. He tried to
explain what a difference it had made to his own life and
even though Tommy could see the difference in Bobby, he
insisted that it wasn't for him. He held out for seven years
until he was at a service with his own and Bob's family both
in attendance. He was invited by Bob's daughter Joanne to
attend her son's dedication to God. Tommy was asked if he
and Hazel would like to have their own small son done at the
same time. They at first refused but some days later changed
their minds. That weekend something touched him and both he
and Hazel became Christians and haven't looked back since.
He has said of his faith, "We have a faith, it's nothing
serious. We are basically very happy with our beliefs but
it's not religious. We don't walk round with a cross around
our necks." Everyone has a different level of faith and if
you find one that suits you and it makes you comfortable
then what more can you wish for?
Both Bobby and Tommy now take four months per year off from
their comedy performances to tour with their gospel shows.
They have also produced gospel books, videos and CDs. Look
out for them speaking at a church near you, their gospel
shows run countrywide and there are lots coming up soon.
Even though they haven't had their own TV Show on air since
the early nineties they have never stopped working. They
still work approximately 45 weeks out of the year and are
constantly touring with their own comedy shows, Summer
seasons, plays, and pantomimes and they are constantly
making personal appearances and guesting on other television
programmes. Both have had roles in shows such as Last Of The
Summer Wine and Heartbeat. Bobby also spends some of
his time giving laughter master classes at a drama academy
and other such activities such as judging the Search for A
Star competition in Blackpool.
In recent years their profile was raised when they both
entered the jungle on top ITV show, I'm A Celebrity, Get Me
Out Of Here. They have since done comedy tour after tour,
pantos , a tour of the stage play Big Bad Mouse and
headlined the second Best of British Variety Tour. Both
Bobby and Tommy along with their friends have starred in
plays written by Bobby in 2014/2015 and continuing into
2016. Rock Off, Tommy was the first one, the one continuing
into the current year is The Dressing Room, also starring
Kate Robbins, Johnny Casson and Stu Francis. Keep an eye out
for it at a theatre near you! More recently, Emmerdale
and Masterchef have kept Tom busy while Bobby reprises his
role in Not Going Out often and has a new role starting in a
comedy sitcom called The Cockfields.
There's no fear that these guys are going to give up their
work any time soon, they love it and will keep going as long
as the work is offered, which is great for the viewing
public as they feel just the same way!