World Darts

Wednesday, January 5, 2005 by

Nothing divides folk quite like sport. While everyone has their favourite and their least favourite, it’s always been the humane thing to “never criticise another person’s sport.”

If that sport is darts though, it’s the easiest thing in the world to critique. The narrowest criticism is that it isn’t sport at all, if one uses the criteria foisted on us by the received wisdom that sport should be defined as a pastime of active achievement which involves some form of physical activity. The last bit is where doubters pick on darts.

The mental strain and heat of a high-tempo and important darts match, however, does set physical tests on the player, even if it amounts to no more than a sweaty head and an aching forearm. If a dart bounces out back at you though, it takes a mean reflex to dodge the tungsten spike heading mercilessly for your eyeball.

Anyway, darts has enough apologists to merit its sporting status and I’ve been one of them for life. January is always a fun time for me, as the New Year and the promise of fulfilling ambition is galvanised by a week in front of BBC2 watching the World Championships.

Televised darts has taken a strange twist in the last decade, with the sport’s infamous split into two pools taking what became the more glamorous half of the game onto satellite. Their coverage – while containing all the vileness which can go with an overblown, overhyped sporting event on Sky Sports – is technically impressive and extremely well planned. The PDC players are given documentary airtime, the venues are chosen for the benefit of the telly rather than despite it, and for some time now the looped introduction of the splendid Chase the Sun by Planet Funk has become a much hummed, wailed and sung theme tune for every player intro, commercial break and presentation ceremony.

Coverage by the BBC has remained refreshingly staid by comparison, contributing next to nothing to the natural glitterati of the event at the Lakeside Country Club, leaving that to the whims and policies of the tournament’s organisers and the Masters of Ceremony – the chief of which, the klaxon-like Martin Fitzmaurice, whips up an already sizzled crowd into a proper frenzy with the simple, effective opening gambit: “Let’s! Play! Darts!”

For a long time now we’ve taken the BBC’s features and trickettes round a dartboard for granted. The regular stuff’s there – titles featuring past winners, the halved screen allowing the viewer to see both thrower and board, and a commentary team still led by Tony Green, with the sport’s biggest voice Sid Waddell now coming out with his twerpish japes for the other side, both in darts and telly.

Green is really old school. If you can imagine Dan Maskell on Centre Court in his very last years, our man has a similar chilled edge to his voice. Amidst the bedlam, he gets contradictorily calmer and gives it extra dramatic effect (“one dart for double 12 …!”) in the same way that higher tension at the Crucible would lead to a lower whisper from Ted Lowe. His gentle explanations of outshots and tactical throws always educate the uncommitted – of which there are many at home being forced by (usually) transfixed husbands – and his whimsical, innocent remarks about the sport’s ladies, be they players (like the unbeatable Trina Gulliver), wives or fans, always raise a chuckle.

“They have pretty girls in Holland,” said Green, politely, as the camera panned in on a bunch of typically orange-clad ladies in the throng of tables and candle-bowls. “And it’s pretty good darts they’re watching here too.”

Green’s coaxing, uncle-like style is a joy to hear. He does rage his voice occasionally – a big finish from a Barneveld or O’Shea can bring him out of his shell – and his goofy voice-overs of television heritage from his days as Jim Bowen’s darts advisor, scorer and caller on Bullseye easily remind us of the pitch levels he can reach. But his softer focus, which he has adopted far more in the last decade, is just as effective and it’s no wonder that his surreal cameo on Newman and Baddiel in Pieces more than 10 years ago (to cajole Baddiel the insomniac into a gentle sleep) remains one of that particular programme’s few highlights.

Alongside him, there is the ubiquitous presence of the Canadian player John Part, victor in this competition in 1994 and whose presence is always eyebrow-raising. After taking the trophy (and pulverising perennial runner-up Bobby George in doing so) he promptly shifted to darts’ splinter side yet was still offered an annual pilgrimage back to the Lakeside to do a turn in the commentary box. When he won the “other” world title last year and then nipped across to sit alongside Green, it led to a confusing and embarrassing situation of Green thanking Part for coming along to the world championship – and then congratulating him on winning, er, the world championship.

But in-house political anxieties aside, Part is brilliant. Excitable and obviously nailed on with his sums, experience and knowledge, he counts through the legs and arrows with the enthusiasm of a boy discovering his obsession for the first time. The pair of them bounce off each other so well, it could be genuinely described as one of commentary’s smoothest partnerships were it not for the minority status of their game.

The BBC stuck with Green alone for years and years after Waddell flitted, but ultimately knew they needed an extra voice to give their main man a break as he slowed and aged. After championing the occasion for two years on 5 Live, the network’s best sports broadcaster, David Croft, was summoned back to the Lakeside to do the business in the TV commentary box. There’s more in common generationally between the sardonic Croft and the impulsive Part and as a result they have a greater understanding of each other’s thinking when shots go off on a tangent between legs or throws. Croft, a beginner as both a commentator and darts connoisseur (beyond typical interest in the sport), relies on Part for outshots and tactics and is always graceful and humble when Part playfully berates him for not knowing in a split what a player will do when he has a 124 outshot but only hits a single 20 with his first dart. Well, would you know?*

The players aren’t as exciting as the halcyon days of Bristow and Lowe, when every tournament was terrestrially shown and Bullseye gave the sport light-entertainment appeal, but they are better. It’s accepted that the PDC players are more glam and consistent, though in truth only Phil Taylor stands out alone. Most of the competitors from either pool could expect to beat each other on good days. Back in the 1980s, Eric Bristow dominated with B-listers like John Lowe and Jocky Wilson, not to mention the infamously youthful Suffolk boy Keith Deller, getting in on the act. Maximums were less frequent, higher outshots were not common and doubles were missed, even without big-point pressures.

The sport has also tried to dispense with stereotype, famously banning alcohol and tobacco from the stage, but can’t ultimately dispel the claim that the players are big-drinking blubber mountains if that’s what the players still look like. However, with the obvious exception of Andy Fordham, now shuddering at the thought of shedding 16 stone on Celebrity Fit Club, the rest have managed to keep the weight relatively at ease. Beer bellies still protrude on some of the bigger names, such as Taylor, Barneveld, Mardle, Hankey and, of course, Lazarenko (and the telly does add a stone, of course), but the likes of Warriner, Painter, Monk, Mason, Adams, Beaton and Burnett all seem to be in good shape. Two decades back, you’d struggle to find a player who wasn’t overweight. Maybe Paul Lim, the only nine-darter ever at the Lakeside, but that could be it.

The anchoring by the BBC has also had a makeover in recent years. Throughout the earliest days, when live coverage was restricted to a showing on Grandstand on each Saturday, plus the final, we had Tony Gubba mouthing to camera at an angle so tightly closed in on his receding head that it was only when he interviewed the players that we had any proof he was in the Lakeside at all. That, plus all the highlights stuff was after midnight, sometimes even between the late-night movie and the PIF. Later Dougie Donnelly took the job – following Gubba in the assumption that darts and bowls were as digestible as each other and therefore you can do both – but now the understated, neighbourly Ray Stubbs has his feet well and truly on the oche.

And he is good at it. Stubbs is always maligned as the geezer who does football results, minority sports, stand-in gigs and looks a prize mug as he is chucked at high speed into a skipful of real excrement when Sport Aid comes round. But his probing, listen-closer style is always appealing and amiable, and he doesn’t try to outwit his audience with bad jokes or puns. Nor does he come across as too expert. He undoubtedly is, but his sense of minimalism with the camera is a fantastic bonus to the coverage.

Next to him, also now a fixture every year, is Bobby George. One of the game’s characters, with his yellow teeth and left hand weighed down by sovereign rings and artless chunky bracelets, George isn’t an articulate pundit but gets away with his cliché and stalling because he is clearly one of the game’s groundbreakers. Thinking back, the players had to be more than good when darts was establishing itself – they had to be interesting. Arrows alone couldn’t keep the public informed and entertained until they felt more for those going through the process. Once that was done, then the sport developed its international appeal via the screen. Being interesting led to the big entrances, daft nicknames, flamboyant clothing – George was at the forefront, using the jewellery and candleabra to whip up his devotees and mugging endlessly to the crowd to keep them alive and in voice as the match progressed.

George didn’t go with the other names into the PDC, preferring to stay with the original set-up, which allowed him more time for lucrative exhibition nonsense when his competitive form dried up. Each year he has tried to qualify for the Lakeside but hasn’t made it for some time, so he turns up, still with the regalia, offering informative but rough analyses and a whole range of tips for the many emailed inquiries which are sifted through between matches.

The best thing about the Stubbs-George blab-ins this year has been their location; seated within the portals of the Lakeside’s VIP room, they are surrounded by framed photos of all the stars and cabaret turns who have done a spot there down the years. Dana and Tom Jones are easily seen over their shoulders; 1988 New Faces winner Steven Lee Garden gets a bit of unwitting national re-exposure. The best visible one though is Copycat mimic and panto seatfiller Aiden J Harvey, observed with grin and mullet in snapshot form right behind George’s head.

A new feature this year has been the reporter in the crowd. 5 Live’s Juliette Ferrington has been amidst the cheering masses, talking to bonkers Dutch darts fans, hysterical wives and observing off-duty players. As is often the case with live links of 20 seconds maximum, the questions are often banal, the replies are always predictable and, given that it’s one of the few sporting events where the watching masses are permitted (in fact, actively encouraged) to get completely rat-arsed, there is always a danger (or hope, depending on your viewpoint) that the live coverage will be filled with expletives about how Daryl Fitton should have nailed in that fucking double eight. It hasn’t happened yet, but bear with us.

As with snooker, there is a phone competition at a premium rate for punters to enter, with tickets to the final, overnight accommodation and a jam over the oche with George up for grabs. The lion’s share of the revenue is, generously, going to the tsunami appeal. This year’s contest shows a load of darts hitting the board at varying angles with the viewers required to add up the final total (Stubbs: “To make it easier for you, we’ve got three options here to choose from” – thereby protecting against the darts masses being entirely unable to count); another phone-based feature, prizeless, asks viewers to vote for the best Lakeside moment, using Lim’s unique nine-darter, Bristow and Wilson’s most famous successes and a handful of awesome comebacks as candidates. Despite the horrific absence of Deller’s destroying of Bristow in the 1983 final, it’s easy to guess that Lim’s peerless achievement will win, and the latest results show this.

The title music doesn’t feel relevant any more. It used to be that great two-chord humming tune, basic but moody in the extreme, complete with rhythmic sound effect at the end as three darts hit the lipstick of the treble 20. But the choice of tunes which the players use to make their entrance, more than makes up for it, with Fitton’s selection of One Step Beyond especially good as an insurance against a crowd not already hyped and drunk to the eyeballs. The PRS fees paid up by the Beeb must be huge.

Darts is exciting, skilful, mentally draining and classless to the extreme. It is also blessed with more sportsmanship and manners than any other sport you can care to reel off. It’s a frightfully British trait to knock it. Seeing the way the Dutch – home of Cruyff, Van Basten and Bergkamp – have embraced it more than they ever have football is a lesson to every sneery individual who thinks of beer, fat blokes, smoky rooms and cacky, cultish quiz shows. Darts looks easy on the telly but, given that it isn’t an easy game to play at all, this is a tribute to both the players for their standards and the BBC for the consistency in their coverage.

It’s true that as I typed this, the foghorn Fitzmaurice wandered on to the Lakeside stage during a break in the “red-button” live coverage on BBCi (by the way, congrats to the BBC for that too) and announced that the deal had been extended with the Beeb for another three years. So I’m guaranteed a Happy New Year for a while yet, though my missus ain’t. How about you?

* Treble 18 and bullseye. If you hit the single 18, go for the treble again to leave you with double 16 next time. Simple…


3 Responses to “World Darts”

  1. ciaran on January 9th, 2010 2:55 am

    Great article. History will look back at the mid noughties as the 2nd golden era of darts.That tournament was brilliant. The emergence of Fitton,imperial phase Barney,Adams at last getting to the final and a breakthrough for an unknown called Simon Whitlock.And their was still the taylor-barney rivalry and countless 9 darters to follow.

    Thought I might as well read it again as it shows you just how far the coverage and standard of darts has fallen on the BBC.The darts this year has to be up their with the worst televised sport in history.A player who hit double 1 when aiming for treble 20,some of the lowest 3 dart averages in living memory,the BBC pulling the most dramatic matches off TV to show gardening/cooking style programmes,that awful set with the BDO blazers walking round the place like in a retirement home.martin fitzmaurice insulting seemingly taunting everybody in the audience,tony green describing just about every match as the greatest ever seen in the history of the lakeside,ALAN “?” Norris as a co-commentator.”oh and dont get me started on rob walker and colin murray.its all too much to take.This is truly darts “USA 94″ moment.

    Surely the BBC cant show this farce any longer.A sad story to a once great tournament and tradition.

  2. Wilma Haswell on January 11th, 2010 12:25 pm

    Colin Murray best presenter yet!!! he really got into the spirit of things – please bring him back next year, fantastic!

  3. MartS on January 12th, 2010 2:35 pm

    12 shots – from the same player, not both of them – at a double 12 was the pinnacle of my BDO World Darts 2010 watching this year. Truly awful.
    Lucky I have Sky Sports to show how the game should be played, where if a player doesn’t get 120-180 per visit to the board they are booed. In the world of the BDO the rafters rattle when the score goes past 110.

    Colin Murray was a welcome addition to the coverage, injecting a bit of childish enthusiasum to the presentation, but I bet the BBC can’t wait for the day that either Martin Adams or Ted Hankey retire, so they can slide them in to the expert analysis role, as Bobby George seemed to be on a loop when talking about each match (‘ard for the looser, winner can now go awll the way to ver finol in my book).
    David Croft obviously loves the sport and it shows in the commentary. Tony Green sounded a cross between bored and embarrased during the early stage matches.

    The one thing that the BBC do, and Sky don’t is count up the running score. Nice little touch that.