A show featuring some legendary showbusiness names is coming to the North East. Andrew White spoke to Tommy Cannon and Bernie Clifton - two of the Legends of Variety.

How does someone achieve legendary status?

It's a question we asked two of the stars of the 'Legends of Variety' show presenly touring the country and coming to the North East next month.

The show, the brainchild of comedian Freddie 'Parrot-face' Davies, brings together a collection of star entertainers still performing at the top of their game.

Hailing from the world of variety and the very best in television entertainment from the 1960s, 70s and 80s - through to the present day - it harks back to an almost forgotten and much missed style of theatre.

The North East shows - at Whitley Bay Playhouse on Wednesday, July 19 and Darlington Hippodrome on Thursday, July 20 - feature Tommy Cannon as host and stars Anita Harris, Bernie Clifton, The Grumbleweeds and Billy Pearce.

But what makes them legends?

It's a question that had both Tommy and Bernie scratching their heads.

This from Tommy: "I think it’s just a name. We’ve been in the business for a long time, that’s really what it comes down to."

The Northern Echo: Comedy legend Tommy Cannon, who will be compering the showComedy legend Tommy Cannon, who will be compering the show (Image: THE ENTERTAINMENT BUREAU)

Bernie can't resist cracking a joke: "When I saw it was called Legends of Variety, I thought it read ‘leg ends with a verucca’.

"That’s my best joke of the day – use it at your peril," he says.

"But really, I just think it’s an overused term. I don’t know what the criteria is to be described as a legend. Is it longevity, is it a generational thing? I don’t know."

Well if it is longevity that counts, then this pair certainly qualify.

Tommy became a household name as one half of Cannon and Ball, a partnership which lasted nearly 50 years until Bobby's untimely death from Covid-realted issues in 2020.

Bernie has been in the business for six decades, since starting off as a boy singer in his home town of St Helens.

Now 87, he describes this latest venture as an "amazing chapter" in his long career.

Recalling his early days, he said: "It’s 60 years since I was travelling up and down the old A1.

"I started as a boy singer in St Helens when I was 16/17. The North East was the capital of clubland back in the day and - as it’s been said to me many times - I took a few wrong turns."

Bernie found that if he threw a few gags into his act, he’d get a few extra quid.

He recalls doing a gig in Sunderland in the early days when he was asked if he was a singer or a comedian.

"It was a matter that if I was dying – and the clubs could be quite difficult in those days – at least I had a song to fall back on," he says.

The Northern Echo: Bernie Clifton has been in showbusiness for 60 years and is still going strong, aged 87Bernie Clifton has been in showbusiness for 60 years and is still going strong, aged 87 (Image: THE ENTERTAINMENT BUREAU)

It was Les Dawson - an undoubted legend - who put him on the right track after Bernie appeared alongside him in his first TV show 50 years ago.

"He took me to one side and said 'you haven’t got an identity, you’re just doing a couple of songs and gags'," says Bernie.

Dawson told the young comic: "You love mucking about with props, why don’t you go out and become a prop comedian?"

And that was that.

"I went to a film studio and bought two huge rubber sharks. I thought 'visual comedy, that’s my route'." Dawson went on to become a close friend and mentor.

Bernie's most famous prop, of course, is Oswald the ostrich, the orange puppet costume, who accompanied him on numerous TV shows - perhaps most famously Crackerjack!

He even ran the London marathon with Oswald and the pair appeared in  Peter Kay and Tony Christie's music video for the Comic Relief charity re-release of '(Is This the Way to) Amarillo'.

Sadly, old father time has caught up with Oswald.

"He went out to grass about a year ago," says Bernie.

"I’m not the athlete I used to be - one of my legs is 87 years old! If you said to me ‘see that bus stop there, can you run for the bus', I’d miss it."

But there are many more strings to Bernie's considerable bow.

He's rediscovered his love of singing - he even auditioned for TV's The Voice and released a CD of cover versions.

Perhaps the least-known fact about Bernie is that he was trombone player for the England football band - the ones you hear blasting out 'The Great Escape' at matches.

He sometimes uses a trombone - simply becasue "it makes a funny sound" - in his act.

He was invited to join the band, despite not being able to play it properly, starting with England v Albania at St James' Park, Newcastle in 2001.

"They got me some tutoring and - this is the ridiculous part - I ended up travelling all over the world with the band. Beijing Olympics, the Euros and World Cups in South Africa and Brazil.

"We even became the boxer Ricky Hatton’s band and went to Las Vegas to support him. It’s a weird story – but it happened."

Bernie and Tommy are no strangers to Las Vegas. The pair were among a group of showbiz legends - there's that word again - who took part in a 2018 five part TV series which culminated in them performing a one-off show in Las Vegas - the variety capital of the world.

The present tour has shades of that series, which saw both comics in their element.

"That Vegas trip was tremendous, says Tommy, who topped the bill on the Vegas stage with Bobby, performing as Cannon and Ball.

"It was one of the best things that we ever did. We all got on, it was all wonderful and I can’t tell you what a great time we had."

And both jumped at the chance to join their fellow performers in the Legends of Variety tour, organised by Freddie Davies after a benefit concert in Doncaster.

The Northern Echo: From left, Freddie Davies, Tommy Cannon, Bernie Clifton and Anita Harris at a show in Doncaster,

"I think we play to our target audience," says Bernie. "I would describe it as a wholesome variety show - the kind of show my mum could have taken me to as a youngster. They’re getting traditional comedy and music hall entertainment."

Tommy thinks the show gives people a little relief from all of the doom and gloom on the news.

"They come to see the Legends of Variety and hopefully what we do for them is a bit more lighthearted and they have a good laugh," he says.

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Tommy has kept busy since Bobby died, performing a one-man show and recording a version of the Cannon and Ball theme song 'Together We’ll Be Okay' with Local Vocals, a choir community based across Lancashire,  for a charity single in aid of a local mental health charity.

You'll know the song - 'Laugh me a laugh, grin me a grin' - which Tommy will be performing during the tour.

At their height, in the 1980s, Cannon and Ball were pulling in a TV audience of 20 million every Saturday night.

And Tommy, who celebrated his 85th birthday this week, readily admits he is still adjusting to performing without Bobby.

The first show he did since Bobby's death was in Consett, County Durham, last year - as Emperor Tommisso Cannonisso in Aladdin.

At first, he wasn't sure he could do it because he and Bobby knew how to play off each other after decades of performing.

"I found that quite difficult because Bobby and I did 40-odd pantos together," he says.

"I found that first week of rehearsals really tough. I kept thinking about Bob. When Bob and I used to do panto, if Bob forgot a line I could remind him - and he’d do the same for me.

"I was beginning to think towards the end of the first week of rehearsals that I’d made a massive mistake."

But he was persuaded to continue and the reaction he got from the rest of the cast and the ovation from the crowd persuaded him to carry on. So much so that he'll be back in Consett again for this year's panto - Jack and the Beanstalk.

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"I’ll always miss him after all those years together," he says.

"But it was fantastic. I know Bobby were looking down and giving me a cuddle and saying ‘good on you’."

What a legend.

  • Legends of Variety is on at Darlington Hippodrome on Thursday, July 20 at 2pm. More details and tickets from: darlingtonhippodrome.co.uk/

It's also on at Whitley Bay Playhouse on Wednesday, July 19, from 2.30pm. More details and tickets from playhousewhitleybay.co.uk/