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Baizing a trail - how snooker went loopy

Alex Higgins, John Pulman, Percy Thrower, Jack Rea, Rex Williams, Fred Davis and Ray Reardon R.T.
Stars of the 70s: Alex Higgins (bottom left) and Ray Reardon (right)

By Oliver Brett
BBC News

Snooker's best player Ronnie O'Sullivan says the game is "dying" and in desperate need of fresh ideas. But how did this most unlikely of TV sports become a national obsession? And click here to find out where snooker might go from here.

Back in 1969 a young David Attenborough convened a meeting of fellow BBC executives in a bid to dream up the best possible avenue for the new "big thing" in television - colour pictures.

The suggestion of the then head of sport Bryan Cowgill was snooker - a sport in apparent decline - and the tournament Pot Black soon appeared on a nation's TV screens.

Sir David Attenborough in 1967
A young David Attenborough shortly before he gave snooker a go on TV

"I had a few colour cameras in existence, and I was absolutely strapped as to how to employ them," Sir David tells the Magazine. "I wanted to put stuff on BBC Two that didn't appear on anything else. But then I realised I could do 48 hours of transmissions in three days on that one simple screen.

"In terms of production of colour pictures it was an absolute godsend and absolutely invaluable in getting the service on the air. Then there was the sport itself, and the obvious drama with all the characters involved. I watched it all the time when it was on."

Cowgill had already created the Saturday afternoon all-sport spectacular Grandstand in 1958, and had added football highlights show Match of the Day in 1964 and Sportsnight (1968) to a burgeoning CV.

His golden touch, though, was surely Pot Black. Nobody had previously ever considered televising a pastime associated with smoky working-men's clubs, and the sport was an instant hit, quickly becoming one of the channel's most popular shows.

The 1978 World Championship was the first to be broadcast, and the sport really took off from then.

Dracula and Hurricane

The names of those in this early stable of snooker stars are ingrained in the memories of millions. Steve Davis won most of the big tournaments in the 1980s and became the sport's first millionaire, but people really tuned in to watch other characters who lacked the icy consistency of the man from Romford.

An early entertainer was Ray Reardon, who grew up in the coal-mining community of Tredegar in south Wales, and sported a jet black widow's peak that earned him the nickname Dracula.

Bill Werbeniuk
Canadian Bill Werbeniuk claimed alcohol helped him deal with a tremor

Then there was the Canadian "Big" Bill Werbeniuk. A 20-stone giant who died of heart failure aged 56 in 2003, he claimed he needed copious quantities of alcohol to stop shaking while he cued.

"I've had 24 pints of extra strong lager and eight double vodkas," he said after his last professional match in 1990, "and I'm still not drunk."

Just as tennis had its bad boy in John McEnroe, snooker had Alex "The Hurricane" Higgins - a Northern Irishman blessed with tremendous talent but flawed by a tendency to go off the rails. Even McEnroe was no match for Higgins' volatility - personified in his head-butting of a tournament referee. He also had numerous run-ins with referee John Williams.

The sport's seemingly unstoppable rise reached a new high in a 1985 final between Davis and Dennis Taylor. An apparent no-hoper at the start of the tournament, Taylor sunk the final black long after midnight to win an epic contest 18-17.

A record viewing audience of 18.5 million tuned to BBC Two, the largest after-midnight figure ever recorded and the channel's best-ever figure.

But gradually the sport was becoming more professional, taken more seriously by a new generation of talented cuemen like Stephen Hendry, eager to get their hands on the growing financial rewards.

Whirlwind blows

By the 1990s, satellite broadcasters offered more choice - particularly in the field of sport - for TV audiences.

Alex Higgins
Alex Higgins was a notorious "bad boy" of the 1980s snooker scene

Jimmy White, nicknamed the "Whirlwind" because he played so quickly, rose to become world number two in the 90s as the sport started to lose its audience share.

"Snooker is still popular as a sport all over the country but the players have become more professional now," says White.

"I think the TV audiences maybe liked the players joking around, like Ray Reardon and Dennis Taylor did all the time. They were trying to win, but put some laughter into what they did.

"Now it's gone more serious and the stats have improved. Ronnie [O'Sullivan] is a perfectionist who loves the game and he is frightened that we are not getting the sponsors - but we have got a recession out there.

"You have to remember there were only three channels to choose from [in the 80s] and there's a lot more choice now."

Veteran commentator Clive Everton was one of the voices of the sport in the 80s, along with Jack Karnehm and the famous "whispering" Ted Lowe.

Billiards was the game in the 1920s and 30s but players got so good they killed it as public entertainment
Clive Everton

To him the larger than life characters of snooker's past, like Alex Higgins, with their colourful off-the-table lives, were easy to write about.

"But look at tennis - I wouldn't describe Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as great personalities but their rivalry is very interesting.

"What snooker needs is some rivalries at top level, because at the moment O'Sullivan can afford to skip a tournament and still be world number one. If he shows up and plays to his best standard then he will win."

And yet it was snooker's slightly rough-edged image of old that might have been its greatest asset. The single-minded professionalism of today's cast of players could be the problem itself.

Everton sees a parallel from the past: "Billiards was the game in the 1920s and 30s but the players got so good they killed it as public entertainment."

Ronnie O'Sullivan
Ronnie O'Sullivan says he feels "uninspired" at tournaments

In fact, snooker's undoing must be shared with changes over the past 20 years that are beyond its control: the smoking ban (forcing clubs to close), a change in social habits and the closure of ex-servicemen's and British Legion clubs which had tables on site.

In addition, snooker does not qualify for National Lottery funding, and has received no government aid for more than two decades.

One national newspaper has proposed cheerleaders, a mystery exploding ball and fancy dress to drive up interest. PR expert Max Clifford wants to see players "seen with beautiful girls in the right places".

Radical ideas perhaps, but the feeling pervades that snooker has not been nearly radical enough since the days of Bill Werbeniuk's eye-watering drinking sessions.


Below is a selection of your comments.

Possibly people forget that World Championship snooker was watched on black and white TV for years before Pot Black. It was hard work watching but, even in 1969, most people still didn't have colour TVs.
Ian Chandler, Cambridge, England

They could get it out and about to different locations for a start. The Crucible looks awful on TV. It might be the traditional home of snooker but it has all the atmosphere of a library.
Alex, Birmingham, UK

Introduce extra points for trick shots so instead of a single point for a red if you have to swerve around another colour or hop over the top you get two points for a swerve or three for a hop.
Neill, Bury

"24 pints of lager and 8 double vodkas" yet he still played. People call this "sport". Snooker is nothing more than a pub game that found its way onto television because it's a game we Brits might win. Mainly, it appears, because it could be played while drunk and we were the only fools who took it seriously. Lottery funding should be for sport, not pub games.
Tony , Aylesbury

Snooker decline is due to a number of complex reasons, some of which have been identified in the BBC article. However, the biggest comparison can be with darts, particularly in the London area, which has been killed off due to drink driving laws, demographics (immigrants) and the closure of many venues where the games took place. If young people do not have an opportunity to enjoy these sports, then they won't be watching them on TV either.
Ray Rapp, London

Is there any reason why snooker doesn't receive any form of National or Lottery funding? This seems very odd to me. I'm a real armchair snooker fan, and having the Masters or World championship on BBC Two in the background while I "work" at my PC is almost an institution for me. This is one fan that will never tune out.
Gary E, Belfast

Nadal has no personality? Handsome, muscular, decent guy with vast talent and never-say-die fighting spirit? Clive - we can tell you are a bloke! Sounds like just what your sport needs and ideally several of them.
Vicky, Germany

Can someone explain why Clive Everton, who has more knowledge of the game and still resonates with this golden age of snooker, has been dumped from commentating on the BBC?Much as I like and respect Dennis Taylor & Willie Thorne this is a very poor decision, that should be reversed as soon as possible, he and the late Jack Karnehm were true voices of snooker. Bring back Clive!
Tim, London

Snooker in the 1970s and 1980s was all about the personalities and the contrasts between them - Bill Werbenuik, Kirk Stevens, Cliff Thorburn, Alex Higgins and many more. Now, with the exception of O' Sullivan, snooker players are pretty much interchangeable. As with tennis, big money and the 'ultra-professionalism' that resulted from the money, ruined the game as a spectacle.
Glenn Walton, Basingstoke, UK



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