Please don’t make darts fashionable

How the fun police are sanitising the boozers’ preferred ‘sport’, by banning drink, fags and heated banter.

In the 1970s it seemed that Britain developed a taste for ‘sports’ that you could both watch in the pub and play in the pub. In other words, these ‘sports’ involved a lot of drinking. Snooker, thanks to the introduction of colour television, was transformed into something of a national obsession. The sight of Alex Higgins twitching in the corner as his opponent took his break, sipping on whisky and chain-smoking cigarettes, became a familiar one. Then there was the Canadian, Bill Werbeniuk, who drank 50 pints of lager a day, and who in January 1990 downed 28 pints of beer and 16 whiskies over the course of 11 frames (1).

The 1970s also saw the ascendancy of a game with a similar fan-base: darts. But in exposing itself to the national television audience, this aspiring, ersatz sport consequently became the subject of derision and mockery, as epitomised in a 1980 sketch on the show Not the Nine O’Clock News, in which the competitors took turns drinking as much booze, and played darts when it was their opponent’s turn (2). In the 1980s darts went into a period of decline, perceived as a pursuit for tubby, tobacco-stained dipsomaniacs with their shrill fishwives. Lacking respectability, snooker began losing sponsorship deals; three major British tournaments ceased to exist, and in 1988 ITV stopped broadcasting the game altogether.

Darts, some argue, has since recovered because it has become more professionally minded. In 1989 the British Darts Organisation (BDO) banned alcohol from the stage. In 2003 the ban on tobacco sponsoring also saw the end of such names as the Embassy World Championship. By this time the Professional Darts Federation (PDC), which broke away from the BDO in 1992, had emerged. What with the PDC offering the kind of prize money that now enables most top-ranking performers to be full-time professionals, the game has not only cleaned up its image; it is one which participants have to take a lot more seriously. Even if the ban on alcohol on the stage was lifted, I don’t imagine today’s players taking to the drink. There’s too much at stake now.

The creeping sanitisation of darts and the heightened professionalism mirrors that of football, and now it seems these ‘sportsmen’ are becoming just as precious. Having been subjected to taunts and jeers from the audience on Wednesday at the BDO tournament at Lakeside, an enraged Ted ‘The Count’ Hankey hurled a dart to the floor, and then ordered the referee to remonstrate with the hecklers (3). The BBC’s Ray Stubbs went on to blame this rowdiness on the BDO’s rival body, which permits this kind of rambunctiousness. ‘The PDC are bringing a new breed of darts fan to the game’, he said to Bobby George. ‘Perhaps they don’t understand the niceties that you like here.’

As Giles Smith of The Times (London) pointed out of Hankey’s tantrum: ‘It would not be unreasonable to place this display within the hallowed traditions of pantomime, or even within the equally hallowed traditions of Saturday afternoon wrestling, whose legendary, preening villains Hankey seems to channel. Indeed, while he is so bitterly ruing the work of a small cluster of hecklers, The Count may reflect that he is lucky not to be feeling the thick end of a pensioner’s handbag. In any case, darts fans on either side of the political divide can be excused a certain amount of puzzlement at this latest controversy. If you can’t boo a man dressed as Dracula at a darts match, who can you boo?’ (4) Not only was Ted Hankey seemingly echoing Sol Campbell’s suggestion that banter should be eliminated, Stubbs also wants to introduce the FA’s ‘Sit Down & Shut Up’ ethos.

No doubt there are some who welcome this seeming transformation, but as with football, I can guarantee they won’t be fans of the sport. When the 21-year-old Dutchman Jelle Klaasen won the BDO title two years ago, it was hailed as a sign of great things to come. ‘The new face of darts’, proclaimed the Guardian. ‘Darts champions used to be beer-swilling giants with big bellies. But the newly-crowned world champion is a slender 21-year-old with a lip piercing. So can he make the sport fashionable?’ (5) Here was a young, slim and (wait for it) teetotal player with a pierced lip and an attractive girlfriend. He was the David Beckham of the game; Andy Fordham he certainly was not.

Let’s hope darts doesn’t go down the same road as football has, and loses its charm at the behest of the fun police. It still is one of the most engrossing games to watch from the comfort of your living room, and it is quite touching to see two overweight men, the victor and the vanquished, embrace each other so earnestly at the conclusion of every match. I would hate to see the element of pantomime dispensed with, too, with the likes of Darryl ‘The Dazzler’ Fitton, Tony ‘The Deadly Boomerang’ David, or Martin ‘Wolfie’ Adams all assuming personas. Hankey is the villain of the show (‘Hankey reminds you of Hannibal Lecter’, said the BBC’s David Croft (6)) and Andy ‘The Viking’ Fordham is the loveable fattie (until recently; half of him seems to have vanished).

And where would we be without Bobby ‘The King of Bling’ George, who I’m convinced is a fictional character? Has there ever been a man so clearly based on an East End gangster, a man who always, when he delivers his throaty cackle and slaps a player on the back, elicits a nervous smile from the man in question?

Yes, for the spectators, visits to the Lakeside or Alexandra Palace are often an excuse for a giant piss-up, but so is the case for many football aficionados. You don’t hear complaints either about rugby fans getting tanked up on stout and real ale during 80 minutes at Twickenham. This is probably because rugger buggers don’t wear Burberry tops, replica Portsmouth away kits or drink such plebeian fare as lager.

No, no, don’t change darts. Keep it as it is. We should do because it is not a sport. It is only a game - but an excellent game, nevertheless. Even better than Trivial Pursuit and Connect Four.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV reviewer. Visit his blog here.

Read on:

spiked issue: TV

(1) Bill Werbeniuk, Daily Telegraph, 22 January 2003

(2) See the Not the Nine O’Clock News Darts Sketch

(3) Watch Ted Hankey and Steve West play darts

(4) Ted ‘The Count’ Hankey draws first blood from boo boys, The Times, 10 January 2008

(5) The new face of darts, The Guardian, 17 January 2006

(6) Ted ‘The Count’ Hankey draws first blood from boo boys, The Times, 10 January 2008

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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