Johnny Ball – In Conversation

Following a two year stint as a Butlins redcoat from 1960-1962, comedian and entertainer Johnny Ball burst onto the 1960’s comedy circuit, and was surrounded by figures who would go on to define British comedy for generations including Les Dawson. Having a natural patter with the audience, Johnny perfectly suited the unpredictable nature of live entertainment and the buzz of reacting off the crowd. frequently playing to audiences up to 750 in theatres and Working Men’s clubs around the northern part of England, the young Johnny Ball slowly made a name for himself among comedy circles and it wasn’t long before TV came calling. In 1967 after appearing on The Val Doonican Show, he was put forward to compere the 90 minute ITV Christmas Day extravaganza Christmas Night With The Stars. This catapulted him into the entertainment spotlight and luckily he never looked back.

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By this time Johnny was already one of Britain’s most recognisable faces but with a totally different demographic. In 1964 he helped launch the BBC’s flagship Light Entertainment series Play School alongside Brian Cant and Julie Stevens. As the only presenter from a non theatrical background, Johnny thought he brought something different to the show and relied on his experiences as a stand up comedian to engage with the audience in an informal manner. When former West End star Floella Benjamin joined the series, she was able to compliment Johnny’s vaudevillian approach and the pair instantly had natural chemistry. This formula proved popular with the audience and Johnny and Floella became one of the most popular aspects of the series. For 16 years Johnny remained a firm fixture of Play School, forever challenging the tight confines of what was considered suitable subjects to discuss. With a firm belief that this audience should be stimulated in a similar manner to adults, Johnny stood up for creativity in children’s TV and was eventually allowed a looser reign.


The success of Play School spawned Johnny’s own series Think Of a Number in 1978 which originally ran for six series until 1984. Solely writing the first series alone which won a BAFTA, Johnny recognised the significance in surpassing audiences expectations by exploring bigger concepts. Never afraid to push the boundaries of possibility, Johnny had the idea to centre an entire episode on explosives. Initially this sent shockwaves around BBC management regarding their responsibility to set a good example to the children of Britain. Yet when he explained that explosives take many different forms from starting a car engine to lighting a fuse, they became much more understanding and this resulted in a fascinating piece of children’s TV. Along with Tony Hart and Johnny Morris, Ball became one of the most popular children’s presenters in Britain and the public loved him for it.


Synonymous with the world of science and mathematics, Johnny was the obvious choice to replace the celebrated steeplejack Fred Dibnah following his death in 2004. Unfortunately the BBC never even granted this concert a producer and Johnny was forced to forget about this idea. Yet later this year, over fifteen years from the misplaced Fred Dibnah series, Johnny is set to present a series surrounding canal journeys which at last will reunite him with the travelogue format as he will present a documentary on the history of canals which will finally satisfy the travel broadcaster in him.


Returning to Light Entertainment in 2003, Johnny joined the mid morning magazine show Terry and Gaby. Masterminded by Chris Evans, the series was designed to bring the glitz and glamour of Light Entertainment to the Channel 5 weekday schedule. Yet a lack of audience figures together with Wogan’s lack of passion led to the show’s premature decline. Though for Johnny, he thrived upon working with a fellow broadcasting great and realised why Terry Wogan is regarded as one of the greats by so many of his peers. The decision to rename the famous BBC Broadcasting House to the now infamous Wogan House, according to Johnny, is completely justified and remains a token of what the late broadcaster meant to Britain.


Of course Johnny Ball is now part of a successful showbiz dynasty following the rise to fame of his daughter Zoe who now presents the Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2. Johnny is adamant to stress that her success has come entirely off her own back and was never influenced by him or his public image. Starting her career on a children’s series for BSkyB, Zoe found her way to the very top of public service broadcasting and the only thing Johnny gave her was just one contact for a producer at the BBC. Her rise to fame coincided with the laddette culture of the mid 1990’s and Zoe was able to be at the very forefront of such a moment. At the time, Johnny had absolutely no idea what a “laddette” even was or as to the world in which she lived so any assistance he could offer would have been totally irrelevant. Besides this, Johnny remains immensely proud of everything she has achieved and the fact that she has done it independently of his assistance is even more impressive.


Now into his sixth decade as an entertainer, the elder statesmen of broadcasting shows no signs of slowing down as he continues to ponder new book ideas and welcomes a whole host of TV offers. With a formidable repertoire of entertainment under his belt, he would be excused for shying away from the spotlight and enjoying a deserved retirement. Yet his zest for life gives him constant determination to embrace new ideas and projects which help to keep him young. It was a great pleasure to interview the legendary Johnny Ball and wish him all the very best for his future accomplishments.