Saturday, January 06, 2007

Best Of Order, Please

The 100 Most Influential Television Programmes In My Life

#97: BBC Darts Coverage

Whenever I tell people that I am a fan of the sport of darts, they always give me a look of disbelief.

"But, don't drink" they gasp.

"You don't sit around the house in a string vest" (that's what they think).

"You're not an intimidating thug with a loud voice!"

This is all true. Yes, I'm here to bust the stereotype of darts fans. I'm teetotal, 6'3" and wouldn't hurt a fly. Unless it was buzzing infuriatingly around my face. And even then I would politely ask it to stop doing so before resorting to violence with a copy of the Radio Times.

My head is shaved, but a thug I am not. Having said that, my appearance does come in handy if I need to get out of a sticky situation. Take recently for example. I was walking through Penarth when I couldn't help but admire a lovely young lady in the street. What can I say? Her breasts were bouncing in a very provocative manner. Her boyfriend, noticing me staring, was about to give me a glare when he thought better of it. Instead, he seemed to be either a) hiding behind his good lady due to fear or b) trying to push her towards me, as if to say "here, you have her. I don't feel man enough anymore!" Of course, I wasn't going to say "my good man, there is no need to be scared of me. Look, I have The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde in my jacket pocket!" No, I did what any red-blooded male would do in the same situation.

I gave her a shy smile and quickened my pace.

Now where was I? Ah yes, darts. What a game. Most darts fans have a choice to make. Do you follow the BDO (British Darts Organisation) or the PDC (Professional Darts Corporation)? Personally, I'm a fan of the BDO "dartists" as I like to call them. The guys (and gals) throwing those arrows have a flair that would put Michelangelo to shame.

The BDO has a more old-school feel to it. Watching footage of the World Championships from the Lakeside Country Club every January feels so...traditional. It's like taking a post-Christmas time warp back to the seventies and is the perfect way to get set for the new year ahead.

My problem with the PDC is not so much with the players, after all they don't play any differently to the BDO competitors, it's more to do with the presentation. PDC games are shown exclusively on Sky Sports. They have a habit of treating even the smallest tournament like a Jean-Michel Jarre concert. Lights, lasers, explosions, chanting....and those are just the sounds coming from Phil "The Power" Taylor's dressing room. However, the biggest annoyance for me is Sid Waddell, the commentator.

There are some who hold Sid in high esteem. They regard him as a genius because of quotes such as:

"That was like throwing three pickled onions into a thimble."

"That's the greatest comeback since Lazarus."

"He looks about as happy as a penguin in a microwave."

Now, in soundbite form, these quotes are quite chucklesome. Unfortunately, he tends to say the same thing (or variations on a theme) at every match. They become predictable and boring after a while and I usually have to mute the man to put him out his misery. By pressing a button on the remote control, you understand. I don't personally march up to the Blackpool Winter Gardens and throttle him in the commentary box.

No, it's Tony Green on the BBC for me. OK, so he comes across as a bit of a perv with outbursts such as:

"Oooh, there are some lovely ladies in tonight"

"That's a great double top....and his shot wasn't bad either"

"She's giving him a look that says "you're not getting any treats tonight""

But somehow it's forgiveable. Maybe it's because I grew up watching Tony on Bullseye (the darts game show hosted by Jim Bowen) every Sunday night for about twenty years. It's hard not to think of him as anything other than a long-lost uncle who turns up at weddings and birthdays, then spends the whole time squeezing the arses of all the female revellers. But at least he doesn't have to keep spouting off bad puns like Waddell. I'd let him squeeze my arse if it meant Sid would shut up for a couple of minutes.

I watched my first ever darts tournament when I was fourteen. I was bored one Saturday evening and was idly flicking through the channels. The darts coverage was just about to begin on BBC2. It was the semi-finals of the European Championships 1994. Peter Manley was playing Mike Gregory in a nail-biting match, but what impressed me most was this man:

Martin Fitzmaurice. He took the stage and silence descended upon the room.

"Are yooooouuuu readyyyyyyyy" he yelled, before being greeted by a huge cheer.

"Ladies and gentlemen..." he paused for dramatic effect.


Wow. I've seen some sporting events in my time. Olympic opening ceremonies, World Cup kick-offs, the firm thighs that dominate ladies' hockey. Nothing, I say, nothing can come remotely close to the buzz that Fitzmaurice generated that evening. And he still does it today. It's his trademark. The crowd even join in with him on the "let's play darts" as if he is some sort of rock star singing his most famous chorus. He's that good.

Then Tony Green started talking. I didn't even know that he even had a job outside of Bullseye. I was just under the impression that he was Jim Bowen's buddy, tagging along for the ride. But no, he really knew his stuff. And he had an eye for the "lovely ladies" that really appealed to my 14-year-old mind. Why hadn't I discovered darts sooner? This was great stuff!

In the crowd, women waved banners that said "Oh Peter, You're So Manley" - Waddell would kill for a pun like that. I've only ever seen one banner that beats it. At the 1994 Smash Hits Poll Winners' Party, a group of Take That fans had a sign that said "Robbie - Point Your Erection In My Direction!" It was clearly a vintage year for crazed fans.

The atmosphere during the match was tense. It drew me in like no other sporting event had before. From the sweat on the players' chubby faces, the doubles missed by a millimetre, the pensioners in the front row who seemed to keeping score (although they could have just been playing bingo). But it was this man who really stole the show:

George "The Puppy" Noble. This man had started umpiring at darts competitions during that very year (hence his nickname). These days, he is one of the most respected umpires in the business. His mistakes are rare and he is always the complete professional. What impressed me on that Saturday evening back in '94 was the way in which he dealt with a group of rowdy men in the front row. Stopping the game, he said:

"Gentlemen, if you continue to persist, I will have you escorted from the building."

He was then wildly applauded. In other sports, the referee is often met with a torrent of abuse should he say a word out of place. In darts, he is respected. Applauded. What a feeling!

Puppy's other great talent is the disdain that he shows for a low score. Even non-darts fans are aware of the scream of

"Ooooooooonnnnnnnnneeee HHuuuuuuuuuuunnnnnnnnnddddddreeeeeeeeeeddddddddddd Annnnd Eightyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy"

whenever a player achieves the maximum score of one-hundred and eighty. George does that too, but what you really want to see is a player get less than sixty.

I once witnessed an abysmal score of twenty-three. George gave the player a look as if to say "you absolute idiot. My grandmother could play better than that." He then put the microphone close to his mouth and almost whispered "twenty....three." The player didn't make that mistake again.

Mike Gregory went on to win the match, leaving Peter Manley drenched in a mixture of sweat and tears. There was no blood though. All darts had hit the board safely that evening. From that moment on, I was hooked and always made sure that I tuned in to any games that the BBC decided to broadcast. It's a tradition that continues today, although The Puppy has now sadly moved over to the PDC. However, even that can't spoil an annual tradition that is matched only by the World's Strongest Man competition in rounding off the Christmas and New Year television experience in style.

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