Was there life before darts? I am old enough, just about, to remember such a time. One minute, in or around 1978, there was no darts on TV. Next minute, there was nothing else, and Eric Bristow, if he had felt inclined to stand, would have been elected prime minister by a landslide. As with snooker, the glory years of mass popularity were but brief, but once established as the chosen sporting endeavour of people who don’t like moving too quickly, darts retained a substantial fan base, and continues to thrive even in these slimmer and more austere times. There really is something to be said for a sport whose greatest exponent, Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor, looks like a man who has sat on the same bar stool every night for 35 years, eating pork scratchings and sounding off about Top Gear.
And the man primarily responsible for all this wasn’t a player or an administrator, or even one of the TV producers who first twigged that the game would be perfect for small-screen viewing. It was the commentator Sid Waddell, an excitable Geordie whose nuclear-powered enthusiasm and surreal turn of phrase placed him at the peak of his profession in the 1980s and ’90s. It is no exaggeration to say that many of us watched the darts mainly to hear what Sid would say next. Most commentators these days, on every sport, are former practitioners, and while their expertise is undoubtedly greater than the journalist-fan types who used to get these jobs, they tend to lack their flair and, crucially, that tinge of madness that separates the great from the merely good. Waddell had more than a tinge. He died in 2012, a day after his 72nd birthday. Darts has never been the same since.
Dan Waddell, son of Sid, has written a memoir of his father, full of humour and life and wonderful stories. Sid, he says was
a self-confessed bighead and the source of his cockiness was his upbringing. Though he was born into spit and coal dust, he was lavished with the sort of attention earls and barons would die for.
Of that lucky postwar generation for whom social mobility was not just possible but actively encouraged, he went to Cambridge, where he was patronised more by the college servants than by his contemporaries. Graduating with no strong idea of what he wanted to do, he drifted into television, as was actually possible in the early 1960s, and made quirky documentary films before inventing The Indoor League, in which overweight, slightly polluted middle-aged men played pub games such as table football and cheese skittles under the watchful eye of Fred Trueman. ‘Ay up,’ said Trueman, holding a pint of bitter, and ‘I’ll sithee.’ It was one of the strangest programmes ever conceived, and Sid wrote the script. ‘I don’t talk like this,’ said Trueman, when the first episode was being recorded. ‘You do now,’ said the executive producer.
The Indoor League showcased the distinctive Waddell prose style for the first time. One arm-wrestler was also a male model, so Sid called him ‘the Narcissus of the knotted knuckles’. A crack shove ha’penny player was ‘the Spassky of the sliding small change’. When Sid started commentating on darts in 1978, riding shotgun to David Vine, he was more tentative, but the classical allusions and wild metaphors could not be suppressed forever. Eric Bristow against Bobby George in the 1980 final was ‘like having a ringside seat at the Coliseum’. Of Keith Deller in 1983, ‘he’s not the underdog, he’s the underpuppy.’ When Bristow met Dave Whitcombe in the 1985 semi-final, silence reigned. ‘You could hear the drip off a chip,’ said Sid.
Drink features prominently in this tale. Although Sid was always scrupulously sober behind a microphone, the participants weren’t. Jocky Wilson was so drunk after a heavy defeat that he got Sid in a headlock while repeatedly telling him that he loved him. ‘I love you too, Jocky,’ said Sid, while being strangled. But he could never say over the air that players had had a few. Only that they were ‘overpsyched’ or, best of all, ‘guilty of over-preparation’.
Sid’s fans were legion, and sometimes unexpected. On one occasion Stephen Fry shared the commentary box. Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor was playing and, as usual, winning. ‘Once upon a time he was breaking all records,’ said Sid. ‘Now he’s only breaking all hearts. Nothing you can do, total eclipse of the dart.’
‘Ah, Bonnie Taylor,’ sighed Fry.
There were, says Dan, a few things Sid was unable to walk past: a pub, someone seeking an autograph, a shop selling Cornish pasties. He baulked at any hint of pretension. ‘I’ve never eaten yoghurt in me life,’ he once told his son with great pride. His favourite novel was Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. Like many performers he was insecure and paranoid, and like many writers he never learned to drive. He was extraordinarily gifted and much loved. Dan’s book is hootingly funny, deftly structured, a joy to read and highly recommended.