Bobby Ball - goodbye to one of clubland's last great entertainers
The tragic death of entertainer Bobby Ball is a reminder of how fast an entertainment world once dominated by the Working Men’s Clubs is fast disappearing.
He was one half of a duo that had the movement to thank for their eventual rise to true comedy greats.
Over four decades on from the era that Cannon & Ball first rose to prominence and it’s hard to appreciate the power and influence the Working Men’s Club movement had over life in 1970s Britain.
Its tentacles permeated every sector of society – working class or otherwise.
The movement had a stranglehold on light entertainment like nothing else and produced some of the biggest acts of the era – Cannon & Ball being one of the last surviving acts in the 21st century.
But for every star that rose up through the Working Men’s Club circuit and broke into the big time via iconic TV talent shows like Opportunity Knocks (or Opp Knocks as it was referred to by those in ‘the business’) or New Faces, there were a thousand more waiting in the wings for their big break.
Working Men’s Clubs of the era offered a training ground like no other for aspiring artists.
Unlike the audience-starved existence endured by many clubs today, the venues of the 1970s had a waiting list of people eager to be members.
Hundreds would pack into the smoke-filled concert rooms up and down the country every single weekend and work would be there in abundance for acts.
There wasn’t much room for egos though – even the biggest stars knew they were always playing second fiddle to the bingo.
In fact the acts could even be upstaged by delivery of the meat pies – another nightly staple of the movement.
The sheer variety of acts (or ‘turns’ as they were more commonly referred to) on offer for audiences was truly mind-blowing in a world – at that point - bereft of political correctness.
For every act that became a full time professional – hundreds of others would still be holding down a day job (vacuum cleaner salesman seemed a very prevalent job amongst many of the ‘turns’ in the industry’s boom years).
The Working Men’s Club movement presided over virtually every aspect of life for many families with its attributes instilled at an early age via the annual ‘club trip’ to the coast - a legendary summertime jaunt that would see scores of coaches taking member’s kids to the seaside.
Christmas celebrations, wedding receptions, christenings, wakes... There was very little a Working Men's Club didn't accommodate.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were the years the clubs came of age. It was an era of massive investment that saw spit and sawdust venues turned into entertainment meccas.
Palatial concert rooms to accommodate hundreds became commonplace as the 'tin-hut-style' venues that were a throwback to post-war austerity were razed to the ground.
But private industry was never far away. They gave the ‘turns’ something to aspire to with a new level of luxury in the shape of cabaret clubs like the nationwide chain of Baileys venues, Batley Variety Club, Sheffield Fiesta and others that opened in the late 1960s.
The 1970s were heady days as club committees presided over power to rival kings.
But nothing lasts for ever. And as music hall had died out earlier in the century as the dominant entertainment force for many, the Working Men’s Clubs were seriously struggling as the 20th century approached.
Though audiences continue to dwindle and many clubs stand boarded up, the legacy left by these venues in their heyday is quite staggering.
Names like Bobby Knutt, Marti Caine and Charlie Williams all came from clubland.
* Taken from the 'Dirty Stop Out's Guide to Working Men's Clubs'.