“Snooker,” thunders Kevin Bishop’s fabulously mouthy promoter Barry Hearn in new BBC film The Rack Pack, is going to be so popular it “could even be bigger than wrestling.”
The businessman was talking before the fabulous explosion of the sport in the early 1980s onto millions of Britons’ newly-acquired colour TVs. An event which made the likes of Dennis Taylor, Steve Davis, Alex Higgins and Cliff Thorburn household names.
Hearn wasn’t wrong – but he could have aimed higher than wrestling. For a time snooker was the new rock and roll and it is a delicious idea to take us oldsters back to our youth and the popularity of a sport which was so huge that more than 18m stayed up in the early hours to watch Dennis Taylor beat Davis with the last black of the match to win the World Title in 1985. I remember it well. I was 10 and I stayed (sneaked) up to witness a climax which is still a record for a post-midnight audience for any channel in the country.
The centrepiece of this delightful little film is Alex “Hurricane” Higgins, played with passionate intensity by Luke Treadaway. “The Hurricane” was the “one true genius snooker has produced” according to Davis (in 2002); but he was also a man fatally encumbered by the demons of drink and a general self-destructiveness.
A lot is made of his rivalry with Davis (Will Merrick, below), the ginger-haired Essex kid who practises obsessively, doesn’t drink (he prefers milk) and is, according to Hearn, so pale he probably gets sunburn when he opens the fridge.
He likes his fridge-themed jokes, does our Barry.
“I have seen more meat in Linda McCartney’s fridge,” snorts the wide-boy promoter of his angular new asset. But he has also realised by this point that Davis is a man who could take the sport by storm.
Treadaway’s Higgins of course has other ideas and despises his metronomic rival. The Northern Irishman is the chain-smoking, hard-drinking flair player who plays shots on instinct, often with little preparation. He thinks he is the reason the sport has become so successful and fears people like Davis will kill its burgeoning popularity (and also do for his own pre-eminent status, once they play each other, which of course Davis did).
The tragic decline of Higgins as a player and a person is well known even to people with just a passing interest in the game, and this is a hard watch at times. The player fails to hitch himself to Hearn’s wagon and watches as he monetises the sport and even launches a pop single. Snooker Loopy – remember that Chas and Dave classic? Hear it once and you won’t forget it. Maybe that is another reason why Higgins drank so much – to get this out of his head…
What this is not is a cartoonish romp through snooker’s glory days. For the most part it is very moving. But despite all this, Shaun Pye, Mark Chappell and Alan Connor’s film is still a wonderful nostalgia fest for all us 1980s kids, hearing names you haven’t heard uttered for 30 years and with little cameos for players who bear a pretty good likeness to such titans of the baize as Tony Meo, Cliff Thorburn, Jimmy White, Willie Thorne and Ray Reardon. Ah those names…
Tony Meo. Haven’t heard that one in a while. And remember Ray Reardon? He was the genial Welshman who looked like Dracula and someone that the sport’s chief mimic John Virgo – never much of a player, but that didn’t matter – always poked fun at.
Anyway, I could go on with my snooker reminiscences. It has its funny moments but this is more of a tragedy than a comedy, and a pretty mesmerising one at that. The hapless, brilliant figure of Higgins and all those titanic battles in The Crucible, deserve their moment in the sun. Or perhaps that should be the light of the fridge…
BBC iPlayer original The Rack Pack is repeated on BBC2 Saturday 30th April at 9.30pm