TV presenters Johnny Ball and daughter Zoe Ball
TV presenters Johnny Ball and daughter Zoe Ball

Catching up with presenter Johnny Ball over BBC’s Play School, days as a Butlin’s Red Coat and making maths fun at Blackpool's Grand Theatre

In our A to Z Retro of Blackpool's Century of Stars we haven't had a chance to renew acquaintances, writes Barry Band

By Claire Lark
Thursday, 5th May 2022, 4:55 am

So, take a bow Johnny Ball, comedian, presenter and mathematical mesmeriser, who is to do a matinee at the Grand Theatre on Saturday, July 2.

It will be 60 years since Johnny made his showbiz debut as a Butlin's Redcoat at the resort's Metropole Hotel.

Johnny is coming to town as a former president of Lancastrians in London and is bringing a large party of VIPs from the London Livery companies.

It's likely that the party will include former Blackpool Grammar School boy Sir Andrew Palmley, who is Director of the Royal College of Organists and was Lord Mayor of the City of London in 2016-17.

So it will be the Square Mile visits the Golden Mile as the city bigwigs inspect the Tower Circus, have lunch in the ballroom and hear Johnny deliver his Blackpool anecdotes about comedians and their quirks.

You and I can't be with them, of course, but we can make sure there are no empty seats at the Grand as Johnny presents his Wonders Beyond Numbers show. Ask the box office about concessions.

Johnny called me this week to give readers the "heads-up" on the show but first we chatted about his Fylde Coast links.

"By the time I'd finished my National Service in the RAF in 1961 my parents had moved from Bolton to Cleveleys and that's where I lived for a few years.

"I got a job with Butlin's for the 1961-62 winter season at the Metropole."

His career as a stand-up comic led to the TV show that we of a certain age remember with the kids - the BBC's Play School.

In 1969 his first Blackpool "main stage" season was at the Central Pier as the only non-Scot in the Andy Stewart Show.

Johnny's famous daughter from his first marriage, radio DJ Zoe Ball, was born in Blackpool in 1970.

The comedian was back on the summer show scene in 1973 as "second top" to the Grumbleweeds at the South Pier. It was here that he first met his second wife, Di, who was working for producer Peter Webster. They married in 1976.

Johnny's TV work developed with his Think of a Number show and his later series making maths and science fun for kids.

But he admits they didn't help getting him much work in what we might call more adult programmes and he switched to the corporate sector in the 1990s.

Johnny recalls that for the opening of his Tales of Maths and Legends presentation he had Prime Minister Tony Blair on stage.

"I handed him a billiard cue and said 'Just hold this, sir. Hold the thick end. Nothing personal.'"

That's the exhuberent, and mischievous Johnny Ball many of us remember from his "numbers" TV shows.

It all adds up, don't you think? The show takes place on July 2 at The Grand Theatre. Tickets from £18.50

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