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On Location: They know that darts is daft

The board is so small even the live audience have to watch it on television. So why do they enjoy it so much? Is it just the drink?
Championship darts, the press officer explained, has to be set in a pub atmosphere. And the Circus Tavern in Purfleet, host of the world finals, tried its best to meet this requirement. But to fulfil it properly there should have been a toilet door just beside the board, which swung open at 20-second intervals, revealing a bloke doing his flies up, saying "Sorry lads", and walking in front of the players as they were about to throw.

The board would be at a slight angle, with the No 5 section so full of holes that the darts could no longer stay in. As Eric Bristow prepared to throw, there'd be half a dozen lads behind him talking about the steering circle on the new Sierra, and every game would peter out into a 45-minute struggle for a double-one, before someone said, "Sod it, nearest the bull wins."

The Tavern does heave with trays carrying six or more pints of lager. And it is swimming with the out-of-town working class: men in football tops or perfectly ironed silk shirts, and teenage girls in short white skirts with their arms around 35-year-old blokes who run their old man's panel-beating business.

But then the presentation goes to the other extreme. The MC delivers a manic, boxing-style introduction: "And nooooow - currently ranked world nyUMBer two, current holder of the Eastbourne Rowntrees Fruit Pastilles Knockout Challenge - the one and oooooonly - Alan - the ICE MAN - WARRINERRRRRRRR!!!"

At which point the sound system blares out an anthem such as "Start It Up" at glass-rattling volume, and dry ice is sprayed furiously along a corridor, from which emerges a circle of huge, bald bodyguards in black bow ties, and you wonder whether Freddie Mercury's about to descend, singing "I Want to Ride My Bicycle". Instead, a paunchy, bemused darts player strolls into view, occasionally calling out "All right Terry", when a mate in the audience slaps him on the back.

This is a tad schizophrenic. Is darts sticking to its down-to-earth pub image, or moving in the direction of glam rock; pure theatre in the mould of Seventies TV wrestling? For the latter, it would need masked players, camp blond players, and baddies who jab their opponents with a dart which everyone can see except the referee, provoking old women to climb on stage and whack the baddy with the dry ice machine.

This would have the advantage of giving the live audience something to see. Because the segments of a dartboard are so small that no one watching it could have the foggiest idea who's scored what. So the entire audience watches TV screens dotted around the room, there being no point in watching the live play itself. It's as if football stands were decked out with television sets showing Match of the Day, because the game was played with a marble and six-inch-wide goals.

The other problem is what to discuss between throws. Tactics? There aren't any. If a player's losing,he just has to get the dart in the right square more often than he has until now. And there are no controversial refereeing decisions to debate. A late tackle would be fairly easy to spot, and you wouldn't get far insisting to the ref that one of Phil Taylor's twenties was really a seven.

Nor does a dartboard ever take spin or need a shot from a sharp angle, or get wet and favour players who prefer soft going. When it's raining, players don't need darts with extra tread. And you can't seek advice from a caddie on which dart to use for a particular shot. Because darts is exactly the same thing over and over and over again. The opening anthem for every player should be "Nothing Ever Changes" by The Specials. It's the evening equivalent of chucking crumpled balls of paper into a basket from a swivel chair, although give it a couple of years and that'll be on Sky Sports 1 as well.

You sense that most of the audience knows, deep down, that watching darts is daft. Which is why they worship the commentator Sid Waddell. He provides the one spark of unpredictability, capable of conjuring a metaphor involving Socrates, King Lear and Elvis over a missed double 12. So whenever he emerges from his commentary box, fans flock for autographs with twice the vigour they would show for the players.

The live darts audience is there for atmosphere. You can carry on drinking throughout the game, and need watch only from time to time. And football songs are converted into darts songs: "Walking in a Warriner Wonderland", "There's Only One Eric Bristow", etc. Though someone should try a version of "one-nil, one-nil", that goes "167-311, 167-311".

It makes you wonder whether they're capable of watching anything in a group without singing about it. At odd moments, however, the mood changes. The best of these came during the first semi-final, with Peter Manley needing one double for the match, while Shayne Burgess needed 161. Anxious and twitchy, Burgess landed treble 19, treble 18, bull, to stay in the contest. This was the drama we all wanted. Burgess held his arms aloft, looking as astonished as he was delighted, and the place erupted. For a moment there was great entertainment, because of the human interest. We were watching the unbridled glee of a man who'd resigned himself to defeat, before discovering an improbable escape.

Like snooker in the Eighties, darts is at its most meaningful when the characters provide a soap-opera background. Which gave me an advantage. Because I happened to know that in his hotel Burgess had a licensed airgun, which he was using to shoot some of Essex's glut of rabbits, and having them for dinner as he didn't like the hotel food.

More generally, the charm of darts players is that they're more approachable than other sportsmen. They have beer guts and proper wives, not Spice Girls. The fans can appreciate them as "one of us".

But there was one other striking aspect of the Circus Tavern audience: it was dazzlingly, exclusively white. Which isn't to say there was any evidence of racism, but none the less it's hard to imagine any other gathering of such numbers which would include not a single black or Asian. Darts, it seems, is stuck in its image as the preserve of white, out-of-town, working-class culture.

So when the amenable Phil Taylor won his seventh title, who's to say whether his prize money came in the form of a cheque, or whether he was taken out the back and given it in fifties by a bloke in a sheepskin jacket, saying, "There you are son, now get darn Romford Market and get yerself summink nice".