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Friday, January 16, 2009

There is one crisis we've ignored: the demise of snooker. Most of the early TV snooker stars were compellingly eccentric. by Mark Steel

It's vaguely possible that some readers have neglected the current crisis in snooker, even though the best player in the world has said it's "on a downward spiral", and "the sport is dying". But it's a mistake to ignore this, as it's a part of a calamity that's engulfing us all.

Around 30 years ago, TV snooker became hugely popular, in part thanks to the late presenter David Vine, and the players were top celebrities. But it wasn't the snooker itself that was captivating, it was the characters. If you only watch the balls, you're simply following a series of geometrical patterns, and that loses its novelty, no matter how accurate they are.

Otherwise Sky Sports would show Super League Architecture, with commentators whispering, "And Sir Basil waits for the crowd to fall silent before attempting the final line – and there it is – a perfect dodecahedron. It's eleven-six and he's in the quarter-final."

Most of the early TV snooker stars were compellingly eccentric, because they had started playing when only the slightly off-balanced would spend their days in a seedy snooker hall. For example, the 1979 champion was Terry Griffiths, a postman from Swansea who looked like the sort of bloke who sits silently in the corner of a pub for 20 minutes, then says something like, "Imagine if zebras were made of milk", before returning to his own world. The magnificently flawed Alex Higgins was utterly unpredictable, so even on top form you expected him to suddenly mess everything up and the commentator to mutter, "Oo dear, he's started a small fire just behind the yellow".

Jimmy White was a lovable urchin, and the famous 1985 final represented the two opposite ends of Britain – Steve Davis, the mechanical supporter of Thatcher, accumulating points as if they were shares in British Gas, against Dennis Taylor, from Coalisland, a poor Catholic town in Northern Ireland permanently patrolled by the British Army.

But once snooker became big business, it attracted a new generation, who saw studying the angles as a lucrative career move. They quickly acquired agents, and learned that in this new sanitised environment, like Miss World contestants or ambitious politicians, they should have no outrageous habits or controversial opinions.

They became much better technically, but with little reason to watch. By the 1990s they were like the new supermarkets, more efficient than the old grocers and butchers, but soullessly sterile and devoid of any human touch. Now I sometimes watch out of habit, but it would be more exciting if they showed the Rowntree Fruit Pastille British Open Accountancy Championship.

So Ronnie O'Sullivan, an exception in this plight, has suggested snooker needs the publicist Max Clifford to revive it. But Clifford's skill is moulding and embellishing stories for the tabloids. There would be more snooker-related publicity, but it would be stories like, "TV chef took me to hotel room, covered me in chalk and used me to score a break of 29 before going in off the blue", or "Gwyneth Paltrow wants to call next baby 'Middle Pocket'."

He could try to emphasise the quirky aspects of players' characters, but then you'd get interviews with them saying, "Not only do I practice nine hours a day, but I collect Biros. I've even got one from Plymouth".

In desperation, Ronnie even suggested the saviour could be Simon Cowell, but he'd make it like American wrestling. Peter Ebdon would be told to dress in glittery wings, call himself "Angel of the Angles" and play while dangling from a piece of wire, and his surprise opponent in the first round of the World Championship would be Verne Troyer, who would be allowed to ride across the table on his scooter. Stephen Hendry would be the "jokey" player, sometimes replacing the green ball with a kiwi fruit, and Mark Williams would be the baddie, dressed as a huge Russian pirate and swapping his cue for a cattle prod to electrocute O'Sullivan while the ref wasn't looking.

Personalities can't be created in this way. It's like the attempts by call centres to create an air of community spirit, by ordering their staff to say, "What's the weather like?" It's so obviously false and off a script, so if you reply, "Not too good, we've had a tsunami this morning", they'd say, "Oh lovely, now can you give me your security code so I can access your account".

So the battle to reinvigorate snooker as a haven for the cutely deranged is part of the struggle to retain our individuality against the corporate world.

First published in The Independent on 14th January 2009

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