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90. It were a right smack in the face




In 1990 Cannon and Ball found their professional career in bad shape. During their final years at LWT they had struggled for new material and had tried to reinvigorate their act. The sitcom format they adopted didn’t really prove successful, and by the time they signed up with Yorkshire Television they were ready to try something different again. “We’re thrilled at getting the show and even more delighted that it’s got an entirely different format from any other quiz show,” remarked Ball in the early summer of 1990. “There are three sets of contestants and three rounds. For the first time they have to choose the prize they want to win before the first question is fired.” Their fellow game show hosts were quick to line up with advice on how the duo should approach the show, with Win, Lose or Draw‘s Danny Baker suggesting that the duo “don’t boast about being game show hosts. It’s like being a Deutschmark after the First World War” and Bruce Forsyth suggesting that the boys “don’t let the contestants get too many laughs and most important of all, don’t allow them to turn you into two straight men.”

Cannon and Ball‘s Casino interspersed game show rounds with variety acts and comedy routines for the boys. Each show would last for 45 minutes. Broadcast during the summer months, it failed to find a significant audience and unsurprisingly only nine episodes were ever made. “I’m going to tell you something,” said Tommy Cannon speaking in 2004. “Everybody said that …Casino was a monkey on our back. I’ve seen …Casinotime and time again on a video that I’ve got of it, and my kids have seen it, and my kids loved it. The problem with it was that we were trying to ram everything into the show. We were even changing lines as we were walking on to the set.  There were certain things that we were kyboshed from doing because it was a game show.” Legendary producer Michael Hurll diagnosed the programme’s problem as follows: “The  first rule of all game shows is never have two presenters.  No game show will ever work with two presenters, because you want one host against one contestant or two contestants.  You cannot split the attention of the public.”

The following year, Yorkshire Television moved the duo to Monday nights. Again, no attempt was made to return Cannon and Ball to the stand up and sketch show format that had served them so well at LWT during the 1980s, instead there was to be another sitcom – this time The Plaza Patrol.Cast as two night security men in a shopping mall, the series lasted for only six episodes and peaked at just 8.3 million viewers – well down on their earlier performances. Perhaps more damning though, was the dated slapstick feel of the programme. With ITV attempting to woo the more affluent viewer, this kind of programme was the last thing the network should be doing.

Inevitably, Cannon and Ball’s contract with Yorkshire Television was not renewed. “We weren’t too pleased at the time. It were a right smack in the face,” recalls Ball. “The face of TV was now changing across the board and for us it was back to the theatres and clubs. We had enjoyed a TV contract for many years, but to be honest we were pretty tired out from all the hectic recording schedules. Our main fear was that with the demise of Cannon and Ball on TV, our other work might drop away too. TV had apparently made us the biggest draw, but with constant public awareness now gone, would anybody still want us?” “They were not right for that because basically they had to play themselves in it,” says Hurll.  “And you just see it, there, there was no credibility to the characters. I think it was just another reason to try and get their contract used up.”

Times were hard too, for Cannon and Ball’s BBC counterparts. Little and Large’s penultimate series was broadcast in 1990, amidst a growing swell of criticism. Comedian Ben Elton was embarking on his first show for BBC1 and there was a sense that old school comedians of Little and Large’s ilk were irrelevant. “So many funnymen these days are coming from the universities that the emphasis has changed from visual to verbal humour,” observed Eddie Large in 1990. “Tommy Cooper and Eric Morecambe only had to walk on stage to make people laugh, but nowadays audiences are just as interested in what you say. By mixing the two, we’re keeping that tradition going,” he concluded somewhat hopefully.

“We don’t pretend to be the best comics in the world” added Little, “so we don’t threaten anyone. Successful comedians often replace someone else performing similar material, but there really isn’t anyone competing directly with us.” Although they would later admit they struggled to come up with suitable material for their final few series, back in 1990, Little and Large – rather like Cannon and Ball – deflected criticism by seeking to diversify. “In England it’s difficult, because if you try anything new, people say, ‘What’s he doing that for?'” mused Large “and if you don’t, they say, ‘Why doesn’t he try something different?’ I’d love to play a part in a film – like being Bob Hoskin’s roadie!”

The twosome were still able to attract up to 12.2 million viewers for their 1990 series, but it was to be their penultimate, with the BBC electing to pull the plug, then retracting the decision and then cancelling the series for good the following year. Their TV series had run for almost the same length of time as Cannon and Ball’s. Here were two double acts cut from the same cloth and their on screen acts were not the only similarities between the duos; both would suffer serious money problems and extreme turbulence in their personal lives, and both would later find some solace in religion. However their respective rise and fall on television said much about the change in British light entertainment over the course of the 1980s and into the 1990s. Both undoubtedly benefited from the chasm left by Morecambe and Wise’s troubled departure from the BBC at the end of the 1970s. Yet had either combo surfaced either 10 years earlier or 10 years later it is doubtful they would have made the same impression.

Next Monday: Look Straight Into My Eyes And Everything Will Be Alright, That’s A Promise

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Glenn Aylett

    June 15, 2019 at 10:35 am

    It always beats me how Little and Large survived so long on BBC One. The critics hated them, most viewers found their humour juvenile and unfunny, yet at times they were pulling in 12 million viewers. Perhaps Little and Large found a following among families with children, who found Eddie impersonating cartoon characters and pop singers, amusing and safe. Interestingly, though, and probably telling of the basic nature of Syd and Eddie’s act, I don’t think their shows have ever been repeated since the BBC sacked them in 1991.

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