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TV Star Johnny Ball reveals all about his Lancashire past

PUBLISHED: 00:55 23 December 2009 | UPDATED: 16:08 20 February 2013

Johnny with a primate skull

Johnny with a primate skull

We all remember Johnny Ball on the television but he speaks to Lancashire Life about his childhood days in Bolton.

Most people of a certain age will remember an enthusiastic Johnny Ball bounding around their television studio in his popular maths shows, Think of a Number and Johnny Ball Reveals All. He's also been a Butlin's Red coat and a stand-up comedian appearing on shows with Val Doonican and Harry Secombe.

Johnny, father to radio presenter and Strictly Come Dancing star Zoe, has become a bit of a cult figure these days and despite his 71 years still travels far and wide giving lectures, workshops and talks. When I spoke to him he'd been on Radio 2 the previous day, he was about to go on Loose Women with Lancastrian Coleen Nolan and he has just launched his new book, Mathemagicians.

Garlic bread

He may be known for his mathematics whizz but get this Boltonian talking about Peter Kay and you'll struggle to get a word in.

'Garlic bread? Garlic bread?' he mimicked the Bolton comedian. 'That joke was just absolutely brilliant. Peter still lives in Bolton, not far from where I used to live and I met him recently and we were sharing some of our memories. I just think he's fantastic.

'But we've got some great Boltonians like Vernon Kay and Sara Cox. Although I'm sure Sara was a bit of a wild one and led my daughter off the straight and narrow a bit. Well, I used to think that but I think my Zoe was a bit of a wild child, too, if I'm being honest.'

Formative years

Johnny was born in Bristol but his parents Danny and Martha-Anne moved to Bolton when he was small. His formative years were spent in the town until he joined the RAF aged 18. The eccentric television presenter recently took a welcome trip back to give a talk on Charles Darwin and open up a new exhibition at Bolton Museum, Aquarium and Archive. It was time Johnny spent here after school that he remembers with fondness.

He explained: 'I'd finish school at half three and my parents wouldn't get in from work until quite a while later,' he said. 'I'd have my jobs to do like doing the washing up and lighting the fire for when they got in but I knew I could get that done in half an hour.

'I'd nip off to the library for a while after school and I used to absolutely love it. It was great being able to go back and see what it looked like now. Le Mans Crescent and all of that area is just beautiful.'

Johnny, who was also a member of the St Bede's Amateur Dramatic Society, also stopped off at the house where he would go for rehearsals. He never expected to see one of the women that used to be involved with it.

Memory lane

'I couldn't believe it.' he said. 'I'd taken my wife Di on a bit of a trip down memory lane to show her where I used to live in Mornington Road and we went past the house where I used to rehearse. Eileen was still there. I couldn't believe it, I burst into tears.'

Any Boltonian worth their salt will soon have memories flooding back when Johnny talks about black peas at the fair. And it was a New Years Eve when he was just 11-year-old that particularly sticks out in his mind.

'My mum and dad were going out and they left me some money so I could go to the fair,' remembered Johnny, who attended Bolton County Grammar School. 'I got there about 8pm and I went on loads of the rides. I'm sure most people would remember but you could go into this little tent and sit on the bench and have scorching hot black peas.

Walked home

'I went back on the rides and tried not to be sick and before I knew it, it was one o'clock in the morning. I walked home, at 11-years-old, can you imagine doing that now?'

Johnny is now spending time promoting his new book as well as travelling around the country making public appearances, hosting talks and doing lectures at colleges and universities. Many of his talks tackle issues like global warming and climate change.

He's obviously a man who likes to keep busy. Maybe it is his seemingly never-ending enthusiasm that keeps him going. Or maybe it's the gritty Bolton attitude and the happy childhood memories. I'd like to think it's the latter.

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