Children’s TV legend Johnny Ball to bring his one-man show to Holt
PUBLISHED: 12:08 07 May 2018 | UPDATED: 14:21 07 May 2018
With his boundless enthusiasm and madcap sense of humour, children’s TV legend Johnny Ball put a fun and exciting spin on maths and science for thousands of youngsters in the 1970s and 80s.
Set to celebrate his 80th birthday a week after bringing his one-man show to Holt on May 18, the master mathematician spoke to KAREN BETHELL about his 65-year career, which took him from Butlins Redcoat to household name...Best known for the hugely popular series Think of a Number, Think Again and Johnny Ball Reveals All, Mr Ball has enjoyed a TV career spanning more than 50 years.He has gone from being a presenter of the classic BBC2 kids’ show Playschool in the 1960s and 70s, to his 2012 appearance as the oldest ever contestant in the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing and a stint last year on the Channel 5 show A Celebrity Taste of Italy.
At 79, he admits his ability to “bounce up and down on stage” is not what it was, but his maths skills are as sharp as ever and he insists that when it comes to age, numbers just don’t matter.
“I might be older but nothing’s changed,” he said. “I am still working, my audiences are aged from nine to 90 and they still all have a smashing time at my shows.”
Born in Bristol, Johnny grew up in Bolton, Lancashire, and after languishing in the bottom set at school, gained just two O Levels – in geography and maths.
After a three-year stint in the RAF, he honed his comedy skills as a Butlins Redcoat in Wales and Blackpool and went on to tour clubs all over the country as a stand-up comedian.
He got his TV break in the mid-1960s with appearances on the Val Doonican and Harry Secombe shows, but describes his performance as “very average”.
“It didn’t really suit me, what I really wanted to do was a sketch show,” he said.
Children’s TV beckoned however and, in 1967, Johnny joined the classic kids’ show Playschool and went on to juggle his stand-up performances with working as a writer and presenter for other popular 1970s shows, including the BBC’s Playaway and the kids’ history series Cabbages and Kings.
After 12 years of stand-up, Johnny, who, in 2004, was listed by the Radio Times as one of the top 40 most eccentric TV presenters of all time, decided the time had come for a change and came up with the idea of writing a children’s TV show around his lifelong passion for maths.
“Apart from Bob Monkhouse and Ken Dodd, I didn’t feel there was any such thing as a happy middle-aged comedian and I didn’t want that,” he said. “I had always found factual information wonderful and I wanted to make maths and science fun, clear and understandable.”
His shows, ranging from the BBC’s Think of a Number, to ITV’s Johnny Ball Reveals All, went on to run for 20 series from 1978 to 1994, with Johnny also writing, producing and starring in five educational stage musicals, which played to 160,000 youngsters a year between 1993 and 2003.
“It’s all about maths and science and making thing fun,” he said. “I find what is interesting and easy to remember – I don’t blind people with science as I just don’t think that’s necessary.”
Mainly self-taught, he puts his talent for numbers down to being a good listener, having a keen memory and having a “butterfly mind”.
“Having an open mind has always stood me in good stead and, not having gone to university meant I didn’t have a discipline – I pick up anything and everything and link it all together.”
As well as still drawing big crowds to his stage shows – his ‘evening with’ appearance was the one of the most popular events at last year’s Norwich Science Festival - Johnny has, in recent years, presented a Horizon special on ageing for the BBC and starred in ITV and Channel 4 TV adverts.
He has also published eight books, the latest of which – a history of the subject entitled Wonders Beyond Numbers – he will be chatting about in his Holt show.
“It’s about communicating facts and I talk to people, not mathematicians,” he said. “But the important thing is that I want people to go away from my shows having had a good laugh, and, hopefully, learning something new.”
An audience with Johnny Ball is at the Auden Theatre, Holt, on May 18. Tickets, priced £23, are available from the box office on 01263 713444 or online at www.audentheatre.co.uk
What’s planned: An all star line-up will help celebrate venue’s 20th anniversary
Johnny Ball’s appearance at the Auden Theatre on May 18 is one of a series of celebrity events organised to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the popular north Norfolk venue.
Originally founded as a performance space for students at Gresham’s School, the theatre has branched out over the years to host professional productions, as well as Holt Festival events and performances from local music, dance and drama groups. Other celebrities featured in the ‘audience with’ line-up include Springwatch presenter Simon King on June 16, former sports journalist and cricket commentator Henry Blofeld on June 17, actress and singer Dame Patricia Routledge on August 4 and comedian, actor, writer and presenter Alistair McGowan, who will be entertaining audiences with an evening of anecdotes and tracks from his latest piano album on August 18. General Sir Mike Jackson will complete the programme on September 14