'Bobby Ball's death reminds us of the power that clubland once had in entertainment world'

The tragic death of entertainer Bobby Ball is a reminder of how an entertainment world once dominated by the working men’s clubs is fast disappearing.

Wednesday, 4th November 2020, 12:00 pm

He was one half of a duo that had the movement to thank for their eventual rise to true comedy greats.

More than four decades on from the era when Cannon & Ball first rose to prominence and it’s hard to appreciate the power and influence the working men’s clubs movement had over life in 1970s Britain.

Its tentacles permeated every sector of society – working class or otherwise.

South Yorkshire clubland star Charlie Williams

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 clubs 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.

Sheffield’s own Bobby Knutt, who made his name on the club scene in the 1970s

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.

Bobby Ball, left, one half of Cannon and Ball, in their working men's club heyday

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 among many of the ‘turns’ in the industry’s boom years).

The working men’s clubs 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 members’ kids to the seaside.

Christmas celebrations, wedding receptions, christenings, wakes... There was very little a working men’s clubs didn't accommodate.

Ronnie Dukes was a big club star

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 Bailey’s 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 forever.

A typical working men's club scene

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 21st century approached.

Although audiences continue to dwindle and many clubs stand boarded up, the legacy left by these venues in their heyday is quite staggering.

Local 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 which is available for £13.95 from www.dirtystopouts.com

In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a subscription or buying a paper. We stand together. Nancy Fielder, editor.

Get us one in, love...
The cover of Neil Anderson's book on working men's clubs