Adaptations Day - The Boys in Blue

The Boys in Blue

Complete with an EXCLUSIVE interview from Cannon & Ball, Barnaby Eaton-Jones remembers the 1984 adaptation of The Boys in Blue...

P.C. Ball: [Answering the phone] Speak first, it's your money.

Like the BBC’s Eric Morecambe & Ernie Wise before them, the popular 1980s UK double act of Tommy Cannon & Bobby Ball became a decade-long lynchpin of the Saturday night television line-up of the commercial channel ITV (when there were only four channels to choose from) and drew in millions to watch their particular brand of comedy. They were Kings of Saturday Night and were equally as big a draw when appearing live too. So, naturally, the movie industry pricked up its ears and took notice.

Their resulting feature, The Boys in Blue, is a gentle comedy in the tradition of television properties or personalities being adapted for the big screen. It isn’t a comedy classic but it isn’t equally a comedy disaster. It does exactly what it’s supposed to do and entertains.

There’s a trend of looking back on nostalgic treats with a hyper-critical eye and to suggest that what’s now is better than what’s then. It’s obvious that society evolves and changes, which is reflected in the media. So, it’s easy to look back and scoff. That’s not what this article is about and I still have a personal fondness for Cannon & Ball’s knockabout double act. It’s not a guilty pleasure either because I’ve never understood why anything you find pleasing, that maybe isn’t liked by others, is classed as something you should feel bad for liking. We don’t all have the same opinions and we can’t all laugh at the same things.

I preface this review by admitting I watched this with someone who’d never seen it and we both chuckled away merrily at a film that isn’t designed to do more than give you a few laughs. It’s not Dr. Strangelove and nor does it ever set out to be.

Even in this 1980s update, the roots of the old film it was based on make this version just as old-fashioned and pleasant to watch. That film was Ask a Policeman, featuring the popular screen trio of Will Hay, Graham Moffatt and Moore Marriott Moore (way back in 1939). Val Guest co-wrote that film and he does the same forty-five years later with The Boys in Blue, as well as directing it.

The plot is rather quaint and a perfect structure to hang comedy business on, as a police station in the quiet, virtually crime-free, village of Little Botham is threatened with closure due to a lack of crime (and set in motion by the events at the start of the film where Sergeant Cannon and PC Ball annoy a Chief Constable from a nearby town who happens to be passing through). So, in order to stay open and keep the grocery business afloat which they run from the Police Station, they decide to invent some crimes and attempt to steal a painting from a Mr. Lloyd, a rich businessman (played by Roy Kinnear). As they do so, they accidentally stumble across a gang of real art thieves who have just stolen £1 million worth of paintings. So, it’s then up to the two bungling comedic cops to stop them escaping with their haul.

For an act that had been honed in Northern Working Men’s Clubs and then, apparently, toned down for television (so that it wasn’t quite so anarchic), it’s very clear that the rapport between Tommy and Bobby has been well worked out beforehand. It’s also quite alternative for its time, with some aggressive and impressive physical comedy indulged in that wouldn’t have looked out of place if the alternative double act of Rik Mayall and Ade Edmonson had been dishing it out. But, because Cannon & Ball were wrapped up in the sheen of a big-budget Saturday night television show, there was only so far they could go.

The movie doesn’t expand upon their double act and the on-screen chemistry they had is always more difficult to replicate on film, with its propensity for large gaps in filming, countless re-takes, and shooting out of sequence. But, they clearly are having a grand time and it shows. They are slightly hampered by a script that isn’t as funny as they clearly are but it’s also clear that they were a bit overawed by the talent that came to cameo (Eric Sykes, Roy Kinnear and Jon Pertwee, for starters). With these kind of films, there’s an element of re-introducing the double act and showing the audience why you should love them, as the need is to cater for all audience members and not just the fans. That being said, it would have been nice to have seen more of Cannon & Ball in a sequel at least, as this initial film did very good box office numbers.

The Boys in Blue

The film opens with an art heist that precedes but is strangely similar to the opening of the later comedy film A Fish Called Wanda, by John Cleese, et all. A thumping ‘80s soundtrack over scenes of the heist taking place, with alarms going off. Then, follows more visual scenes of how they get away by clever means and fool the police. The soundtrack to this film is particularly good at complimenting the action, so hats off to Ed Welch who gives it the full rock treatment when he needs to and doesn’t resort to ‘comedy’ music during scenes where there might be a temptation to signpost a visual gag. Of course, the ‘theme tune’ of The Boys in Blue is very catchy indeed, as was the theme tune to Cannon & Ball’s television show. It works as an instrumental to compliment the strangely sparse credits at the start and works brilliantly as an uplifting end song too, to leave you humming it after you’ve finished watching.

Once the action of the art robbery opening finishes, you dive right into the rural village setting and a traffic jam (featuring a boat and a herd of cows with a proper ‘comedy’ Farmer). All of Tommy and Bobby’s trademark moves are showcased in this scene. There’s a twinkle in Bobby’s eye that translates well to the big screen and Tommy’s a commanding presence as the straight man who can throw out a quip or two if needed.

It’s here we’re introduced to an in-disguise Suzanne Dannielle playing Kim, who also appears later (without disguise) as someone that Cannon & Ball know really well and keep trying to take out on a date. It’s absolutely English, this film, with no concessions for a global audience – which is odd, as I think they may have translated well across the seas. They have a confrontational and physical style that older USA double acts like Abbott & Costello had in the ‘40s and ‘50s. They’ve got the same quick patter as well, with a lot of repeating each other’s lines to set up fast wordplay and jokes. There’s a beautiful moment, that appears unscripted, when Bobby Ball is stacking the grocery store shelves, steps back, and then they all collapse. I assume they were supposed to do that but his natural reaction to it happening is very infectious. At the time, he’s trying to impress Suzanne Danielle’s Kim character (again).

Suzanne Danielle is one of those actresses who seemed to be omnipresent in the 1980s and then just disappeared. She married golfer Sam Torrance in 1988 and sort of disappeared soon after, as quickly as she arrived on the scene, and that’s a real shame. You could see the potential in her here and she handles the duplicity in her role really well. She appeared in the Cannon & Ball television series and, clearly, worked well with both of them and they requested her for the film. It’s not hard to see why, as she’s naturally at ease on screen and not afraid to make a fool of herself. Most of the time, she’s partnered with the always-watchable and never-more-than-brilliant Roy Kinnear as the cockney Lord of the Manor who’s up to no good. It’s one of those kind of roles that he could do in his sleep but he gives it his all and his appearances really raise the game of anyone he’s in a scene with.

Likewise, Eric Sykes, on screen as the irritated and irritating Chief Constable is very watchable but – as always – without his pointless and trademark nervous tics, Jack Douglas (as the Chief Superintendent) has no charisma and no personality. I’m always surprised how his one-trick act garnered favour, of always pretending he was having some kind of epileptic fit when trying to finish a sentence. It was never funny and, when branching out into straighter roles, he proved that – without that bit of so-called comedy business – he just isn’t interesting to watch.

For me, the highlight of the film (and criminally underused, as always), is the cameo by Jon Pertwee as a crafty coastguard. Looking like he’s been transported here from an earlier era of lighthouse-keeping (very apt for an ex-Time Lord), his Captain Bird’s Eye type character is both loveable and interesting. That he’s there merely as a plot device, and hardly gets much of a look-in, is a real shame. If there was one actor who deserved a better shot at movie stardom, it was Jon Pertwee, and I’m surprised he wasn’t utilised more – even just in British movies.

The film ends with Cannon & Ball commandeering a public transport bus, which fills up with passengers, and comes to a halt with a head-on collision with the art thieves. It may feel like an extended sketch, at times riding on the quick-fire cross-talk of the partnership of the film’s leads, but – even with a clearly limited budget – it works really well as a step away from their television series and a foray into film. It’s one of those Bank Holiday Weekend films that you can happily watch with the family after a large roast dinner, and just feel content to laugh along.

As you grow up and become cynical about the world, and favour a sarcastic retort over a silly pratfall, I’m sure it’s easy to dismiss Cannon & Ball as a product of yesteryear but that innocence and happiness they exude (and were able to bring to so many people via their television success) cannot be denied. They still pack out theatre tours and pantomimes, hard-working professionals who always knew their overnight success took years of craft to get there. So, if you want to be transported back to a more innocent time, with a film made in 1984 but could quite easily have been set in 1944, then The Boys in Blue gives out chuckles and smiles galore.

That’ll do for me, Tommy.

Cannon & Ball

INTERVIEW WITH TOMMY CANNON & BOBBY BALL

BARNABY EATON-JONES (BEJ): Hello, hello! Thanks for sparing the time to talk to me. It’s taken me right back to sitting in front of the television on a Saturday night with my family! Anyway, I’d like to start by asking if the idea of doing a film was something that was suggested to you or was it something that came from a suggestion you made?

TOMMY CANNON (TC): It was suggested to us because the chap who directed us (Val Guest) also directed the original Will Hay film (‘Ask a Policeman’). He saw something in us, like the comedy act from that film. So, that’s why they put it to us and we said ‘yeah, okay’.

BEJ: Val Guest also co-wrote the original too, so I suppose I should ask if you were fans of Will Hay before you made it?!

TC: No. To be honest with you, we did remember Will Hay but had no recollection of what he’d done. They did show us the film, though, and that’s what helped to persuade us to do it.

BEJ: Do you have any memories of any mishaps during the shoot?

BOBBY BALL (BB): I don’t really. It all went really, really well! There were no actual mishaps. It was the first film we’d ever done, so it was a bit all-new to us and it was absolutely fantastic. We were so pleased with it.

BEJ: How horrible was planting yourself in a cowpat for the one scene…

BB: (Huge burst of laughter)

BEJ: …and what on earth did they use to make it look so realistic?

BB: I don’t know what they used but I couldn’t get it out of my mind that it wasn’t a real cowpat! It felt bloody awful. But, you know, it worked and that’s that. Of course, my trouble was, when I was running up, there were real cowpats in the field. So, I’m panicking, thinking ‘Am I going to jump on to one?’ – you know what I mean?

BEJ: The movie theme song was equally as catchy as your TV theme tune. Did you have a hand in choosing the song or was it something you were given?

BB: We wrote it!

TC: I didn’t!

BB: No, no. Me and a friend wrote it. (Sings) ‘We’re the Boys in Blue, a-woo-a-woo-woo!’ – and we only did ‘a-woo-a-woo-woo’ because we couldn’t think of any other words!

BEJ: Did you stick rigidly to the script for ‘The Boys in Blue’ or were you allowed to add bits in to incorporate your Cannon & Ball style?

TC: We stuck very rigidly to the script! Absolutely religious to it, in fact. There were people in it that we admired. Eric Sykes, Roy Kinnear, Jon Pertwee – they were brilliant. So, we didn’t want to sort of mess it up or come across like we knew better than them.

BEJ: Did you have any suggestions for casting or were all those comic actors on board anyway? How did you feel working with them?

BB: They were already on board. They were just asked did they want to do it and they said ‘yes’. Apparently, they jumped at the chance to do it; which was a big compliment to me and Tommy, really.

TC: We were surrounded by what I call some of the British best of the time. We were on our best behaviour!

BEJ: So, that must have felt good for you two, that they wanted to be a part of it?

BB: Yeah, very. Very much.

BEJ: I have been told about a joke you pulled on Eric Sykes, though?

TC: (Laughing) We did, yeah.

BB: It was just a bit of fun!

TC: Bobby stamped on his foot and said he was supposed to run off but, because he was very deaf, he didn’t hear us shouting for him to come back. So, the director’s saying ‘Where’s Eric off to?’ as he ran towards the bulls that were being herded in the scene, and we had to go and fetch him back quickly.

BEJ: How did you find television differed from film and do you prefer having a live audience to gauge what works and what doesn't?

BB: They’re all different. And I like every single one of them. Because they’re all different, every one’s a challenge and that’s what I like about it.

BEJ: Do you wish you could have made more movies, though?

TC: Yes, definitely. Bob came up with the idea of doing ‘The Boys in Blue II’ but doing it in New York.

BEJ: Did it ever get to script stage or was it just an idea you pitched to the studio?

BB: It were just an idea, really, and it never came to anything.

BEJ: What was the idea, if you don’t mind me asking?

BB: Basically, for us to go over there, like proper British policemen, wasn’t it, Tommy?

TC: Yes. Going over there, with the tall helmets on and everything, to see how the police in New York did it. The first scene was us getting off an airplane and walking out onto the New York streets and seeing an Organ Grinder there who immediately did us over and took what little money we had.

BEJ: So, even though the first film was a success, they didn’t go for it?

TC: For some strange reason, The Rank Organisation didn’t see it as a good idea. It got squashed. It’s a shame, because I think it would have been great to do.

BB: I think it would have been too. Us talking broad Lancashire amongst the New Yorkers, you know?

BEJ: That’s a real shame that didn’t happen, as it seems like the perfect ‘fish out of water’ sequel. Anyway, thank you both for your time. I’ve just got one quick final question, to Bobby. You are still being Lee Mack's pretend Dad on the highly successful BBC sitcom 'Not Going Out'. It’s clear - from watching Lee (who created it, co-writes and stars in it) - that there's a lot of Bobby Ball style in his delivery, that fast-speed and manic nature of performance. Did he say he was a fan?

BB: Yes, he is a fan. He said he was a big fan and, of course, he’s from up North originally – where I’m from – and I think that’s what got me the job, really. If I’m honest about it!

BEJ: Tommy and Bobby, thank you very much indeed.

(With grateful thanks to BEN LANGLEY for his assistance in interviewing Cannon & Ball)

Image - Supplied by the author.