The boring but beautiful game

We should resist demands to ‘sex up’ snooker: this sport requires patience, silence, decency and dickie bows.

Patrick West

Patrick West

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Apparently, snooker has become boring. ‘Snooker’s gone to pot’ ran a headline in The Times (London) this week, referring to an outburst by world snooker champion Ronnie O’Sullivan, who bemoaned: ‘I feel like I’m in a sport that has had its good days and is on a downward spiral.’ (1)

The Times elaborates that snooker crowds and television audiences are down, sponsorship deals are evaporating, and the game no longer has any great personas, such as Alex Higgins and Jimmy White – those tearaway characters who made the game so alluring in the 1980s. In fact, BBC 2’s highest ever viewer rating for a snooker game was 18million, when Dennis Taylor and Steve Davis played each other in 1985.

Ah, snooker in the Eighties. Wasn’t it great? Alex Higgins drinking whisky to stave off the shakes… Jimmy White’s flamboyance… Ray Reardon looking spooky… Dennis Taylor’s hilarious upside-down spectacles. Marvellous. Jumpers for goalposts and all that.

But wait, wait, wait. Does that name Steve Davis ring any bells? He was the most successful snooker player of the 1980s and undoubtedly the most soporific. This idea that snooker has become sanitised is a myth. Snooker has always been boring – or at least it is a televisual sport that demands patience. The sport hasn’t changed; our culture has.

Consider that hallowed 1985 World Championship final between Davis and Taylor (2). To the uninitiated, the climax is slow, ponderous, baffling stuff. You might as well be watching chess. But to anyone who vaguely follows the game, it remains a thrilling encounter, for it is infused with tension and drama. The silences make snooker nerve-edging. Anyone who complains that snooker is too quiet might as well complain that there aren’t enough words in Harold Pinter’s plays.

Some have suggested, in the wake of Ronnie O’Sullivan’s words, that snooker should become more razzamatazz. The Times suggests it should follow the example of darts, by having more music, more women, and generally be louder. This is a bad idea on many fronts. First of all, no one should use darts as a template. This is a sport that has been beset by so much infantile infighting. Ever since the Professional Darts Corporation broke away from the British Darts Organisation in 1992, we’ve have two ‘world’ champions. At least boxing, with its own multitudinous bickering world titles, is genuinely a global sport, and not a glorified pub game played by people in Britain and Ireland and a few fat blokes from Holland.

Secondly, these demands misunderstand the nature of the game. Snooker demands silence because it requires concentration. It is not like football or rugby, which are largely games of matter over mind, and in which noise is consequently, and rightly, a requisite. Snooker is largely silent for the same reason that tennis is – and for the same reason that libraries are. They are arenas for the mind, not the heart.

Snooker as it is represents a kind of working-class aspirational respectability that the liberal left derides today. People like to chuckle at the fact that snooker players dress up as if they are hosting dinner for the Tsar of Russia, or as if they are butlers in a Ferrero Rocher advert. Snooker players dress so formally for the same reason that Orangemen in Northern Ireland bear bowler hats. The bowler hat was employed as a sign of social respectability for the lower middle classes. Likewise, working-class Londoners from the 1930s began to wear bow ties and dinner suits when playing snooker because they sought to be perceived as respectable.

The bowler hat has long since disappeared – it was never taken seriously after John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks (3) – and the snooker-man-in-a-dinner-suit appears equally anachronistic. But what’s wrong with anachronisms? We live in a time when people constantly moan that football has become too materialistic, but that snooker is not materialistic enough. Critics of snooker represent an unholy alliance between old-fashioned conservatives who deride working-class people for pretending they are middle class, and the liberal left middle-class who hate the working classes for wishing to better themselves.

Snooker should stay anachronistic. It represents decency, patience, manners, everything that is the antithesis of our culture of crass immediacy that it is epitomised in football. Yes, I agree that there aren’t enough ‘characters’ in snooker these days. But don’t blame the sport itself. As much as I hate myself for saying it, and I say this as an ex-leftie, I think it is society’s fault.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.


Read Mick Hume in The Times (London) on why reviving the fortunes of snooker will be a long shot:

‘To update the 1986 Chas’n’Dave classic, it appears that “We’re all not snook-er loo-py”. Even Ronnie O’Sullivan, the world champion, has announced that snooker is now “boring” and that “the sport is dying”. O’Sullivan is wrong in one respect – snooker is not a sport, it’s a pub game, and a good one. But it does appear moribund as a mass spectator event…’

(1) Ronnie O’ Sullivan says snooker’s gone to pot, The Times, London

(2) 1985 World Championship Final Steve Davis vs Dennis Taylor, YouTube

(3) Ministry of Silly Walks, YouTube

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