A soap opera without the sex

 

ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES THE DARTS WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP, JANUARY 1998:  Tom Humphrieswas at Purfleet to witness the English working class's annual celebration - darts,
beer, bellies and ONE-HUNNERD AND EIGHT-EEE

ONCE UPON a time there was an obesely-handsome sports journalist, who was a little down on his luck. And lo, there appeared unto him a genial sports editor who sucked upon his cigar and said: "You shall be the top features guy and the top features guy shall go to all the top events. Expenses in the high two figures."

And in the gloaming, his Pikeur took on the majesty of a wand.

Many years later the roundly-handsome sports journalist found himself flying to London on the very day that Chelsea played Manchester United in the glamour tie of the FA Cup, the world's most celebrated knock-out competition.

And as he boarded his taxi and headed for the Professional Darts Council World Championship in the Circus Tavern, Purfleet, he thought fleetingly of the sports editor and asked the driver to turn up the radio coverage of the cup game.

Of course this isn't the World Championships of darts. It is one of the world championships of darts. And that's just this week, folks.

Darts has been part of a televisual consciousness for 25 years now. For most of that time, however, it has enjoyed a more conspicuous place in the calendar and schedules than it does now.

Hard times have fallen upon the arrows men who once ruled the airwaves with fists of tungsten and bellies of jelly. After the initial breakthrough, no succeeding generation of wideload ochemen took up the challenge of their ancestors and pulled the dart of Excalibur from the board.

So the old faces and the old outfits tread the boards like panto dames in a huge public house in Purfleet. A soap opera without sex. They still carry the same poundage as in the days when they first became image conscious and rejoiced when a thin player won the world championships because it was good for the game.

They just have different ways about fretting over the image now. The men who transformed darts from something which your mother warned you might take your eye out if you weren't careful, into, well, a Sunday afternoon game show with Jim and Bully, still tend the flame.

How they got here to lonely Purfleet is more of the same old story. Where there is a split in the ranks of a sport, cherchez le Rupert. How many daydreams have died now in order to sell a satellite dish or two? To the list add darts which made its Faustian pact a few years ago when Sky TV waddled up to the oche and offered a tubload of loot.

The rest is history. Obscure history. The best players in the world are tubbies, Tellytubbies, just not terrestrial Tellytubbies.

To make matters worse things had gone awry at the BBC not long before that. A new controller who didn't appreciate the beauty in the arc of a well-thrown 22-gramme piece of flighted tungsten arrow as it sailed to the meat. The barbarian Alan Yentob doesn't get Christmas cards from arrows men.

Sixteen pros swooned at the sight of the Sky loot and quickly got themselves in cahoots. The Professional Darts Council (formerly the more intergalactically-threatening World Darts Council) thus evolved bitterly out of the British Darts Organisation and disappeared into the near monastic seclusion of Sky 3. There are 135 hours of darts on TV on Sky a year, but who cares and who knows?

While stout arrows men hotly dispute that their sport has fallen upon lean times they will grant you that the nasty split in the ranks in 1994 has led to some unfortunate confusion, not least of which is the fact that one World Championship is beerily unfolding this week on the BBC in the spacious confines of the Lakeside, Frimley Green in Surrey, while another is climaxing right here in the glassy precinct of the Circus Tavern, Purfleet (coming soon: Lap Dancing every Thursday, Hen Nights and Roy "Chubby" Brown).

Lakeside gets the coverage. Purfleet gets the stars. When the war came with the 16 top pros trying to break away and organise their own tournaments, the Professional Darts Council got the glamour and the British Darts Organisation kept the tradition and the blazers. Ever wondered what happened the Crafty Cockney? No? Well, anyway, he is alive and well and playing in the PDC. A 100 to 1 long shot too. The Crafty Cockney's craftiest deed was being crafty during that slender window in time when it was both popular and profitable to be crafty at throwing pointy pieces of metal at a board.

The PDC got Sid Waddell also, the all-singing, all-dancing poet laureate of the oche, the man who described Dennis Priestley as having a heart of flint beating in his breast. Waddell and his excitable north-eastern voice is the essence of the game and having him in Purfleet is a coup.

He hops about for the afternoon, a thin, lively man who sinks or swims with the fortunes of a sport. They have all the coverage of the week's tournament stuck up on the wall of the portacabin which is the press office at the back of the Circus Tavern. Most of them are about Sid. A sponsor sticks his head in. The sponsor's guests want to come to the commentary booth during the final to watch Sid.

"Long as they are certifiably sane," he says, "I'm the only lunatic allowed in there."

And he buzzes on, extolling the virtues of Purfleet above Frimley Green, the merits of an ordinary person's game above the contrivances which pass for middle-class sport.

"Can't have a pro game with an amateur heart," he says.

That's the nub of it, the heart of this unfortunate transition. Twenty-five years of darts and it still looks the same. Old enough for seniors and splits and nostalgia. Little gems of good news still ooze out occasionally. This summer Barry Hearn, the PDC's negotiator, concluded a deal in China with CCTV guaranteeing the people 31 hours of darts programming each year. What they'll make of these calorific giants of the arrow is anybody's guess.

Back in Purfleet, the Circus Tavern is windswept on the outside and full of dry ice on the inside. Dry ice and sloshing alcohol. Sky have tarted up the game with crazy camera angles and tiny on-board cameras (on board the player that is) and lamentably Rod "The Prince of Style" Harrington (he wears a tie) has changed his entrance tune from Gary Glitter's Wanna be in My Gang to something by Blur.

No amount of new production values, however, will take the alcohol out of darts. Somebody in San Diego opened a non-drinking non-smoking darts facility a few years ago. Might as well have opened a brothel for Opus Dei members.

There are 1,800 people here in the Circus Tavern and not one of them has made a New Year's resolution. These are people who burn personal trainers at the stake.

Today it's Phil Taylor against Dennis Priestley. Again. This is the third year straight that Taylor and Priestley have clashed in the final. Worse, it's the fourth year out of five in which "The Menace" has stood trembling on the oche with "The Power".

Priestley has been scoring well this week but he has the cheated, craggy face of a man who has lived well always and as a reward added six months on to his life, only to discover that you get the six months right at the end and they aren't too sweet anyway. Every time he looks at Phil "The Power" Taylor he sees the Grim Reaper. With a gut.

There have been 23 of those fabled, orgasm-inducing 180s over the week for poor old Priestley, who must lumber his daft comic-book nickname about with him like a curse as he takes his annual drubbing from Taylor. ONE-HUNNERD AND EIGHT-EEEE! ONE-HUNNERD AND EIGHTEEE!

Twenty-three times he has hit the 180. Heady stuff, but not enough to fend off Taylor, who, despite his anonymity in the world at large, is reckoned to be the greatest arrows man ever to inhale secondary smoke. Two years ago poor old Priestley lost the final while throwing 15 180s against the singularly unimpressed Taylor.

Taylor, a protege of the Crafty Cockney himself, is a pub landlord from Stoke who fits the darts stereotype to convenient perfection. Ample of girth and tattooed of forearm, he wears the sort of hairstyle and wispy moustache which central casting might have sent out for a '70s disco pastiche.

Tonight "The Power" is on. Bad shirt. Bad Hair. Big Gut. Perfect.

They wore clown masks (In the Circus. Get it?) and slurped golden lager and roared for Priestley.

In the boozy bowels of the hall, (like a Las Vegas supper show without the supper and without the show) they roared their ill-will towards poor Phil Taylor. His easy dominance has become boring. He is Manchester United without the pizzazz. The champion who is computer matched to date Naff Spice.

He won last night and they reckoned it would add another 50 or 100 quid or so to his appearance fees. Up around the 1,000 quid it costs now, they said, to hire "The Power" for a night. All that plus the £20,000 he pocketed for his week's work.

It's easy to laugh at darts and chuckle at the current misfortunes of a pub game which achieved an unlikely prominence in the late 70s and early 80s when Jim Bowen was a personality. There is pathos aplenty on offer watching a good lime game fighting slowly against grim decline. Darts will never be the lifestyle choice favoured by the quality Sunday supplements, but who cares?

There is an honest feel to it. A frank and very English love of brass and beer and the fun of partisanship without getting wet and without staying sober. It's about pubs and fun palaces and holiday camps and the thrill of going treble top.

"For the working class people who come to darts this is the annual celebration, the biggest, most glittering public event in our year."

It looked like nothing more harmless than a good night out as the gale whipped up and Phil Taylor set about seizing his piece of history. He has become the first arrows man ever to win six world championships. A very private affair. Who did Man United draw in the Cup?