Coded messages and swimsuits on the oche

Sport on TV
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MICHAEL PARKINSON'S account of the first 100 years of rugby league, A League Apart (BBC2), opened with a dramatisation. As Parky related the story of the historic meeting at the George Hotel in Huddersfield at which the game was founded, the screen faded to sepia and a room full of actors in high collars and cravats appeared. "We need to make a stand, gentlemen," a stentorian Northern voice boomed. "I think the time has come to form our own union."

It was a worrying moment for the viewer. Was the whole story to be dramatised in this way? Would Alan Bennett be roped in to play Maurice Lindsay? How many costume changes would Brian Glover have to make? Thankfully the picture returned to full colour, with Parkinson standing in front of the present- day George Hotel, ready to continue a story that was quite dramatic enough to dispense with actors altogether.

The central portion of the programme was devoted to the matter of Eddie Waring: Good Thing or Bad Thing? The case for the prosecution was led by Geoffrey Moorhouse, the eminent historian of the game. The thrust of his argument was that Eddie trivialised the game for southern consumption. He was backed up by footage of Eddie threatening to sing all nine verses of "Ilkley Moor Baht 'at", and of an ill-advised guest appearance on the now-forgotten comedy series The Goodies. Mercifully, the producers omitted what would have been the most damning evidence: Eddie's role as the cheery Marathon-meister in It's A Knockout.

The defence was led by Alex Murphy, of St Helens and Great Britain, who put the view that Waring was guilty of no more than conveying the enjoyment of the sport. Murphy was passionate on the topic. "He was a great man, and people should be grateful for what he did for the game. Because without it, there would have been no rugby league. Anybody who knocks him in front of me, I'm afraid . . . he'll not get no change."

Murphy's testimony was marginally undermined by a sequence which followed shortly thereafter in which Waring commentated on some of the highlights of Murphy's career. "What a brilliant footballer Murphy is . . . Alex Murphy, the greatest scrum-half in English football today, without any doubt . . ." It was Eddie at his best: blaring, caring Waring.

The programme closed with much rumination on the respective merits of league and union, and the inevitability or otherwise of a merger between the two codes. Cliff Morgan, a dead ringer for Dick Emery's toothy vicar, played devil's advocate. "You have to ask yourself how many rugby union players would get into a [merged] GB rugby side," Morgan said, gloomily. "Quite honestly, off the top of my head, I can think of none." Not a thought that will have endeared him to many followers of his own code.

No such profound reflections on Sky Sports 2, where the wonderful Sid Waddell, the Eddie Waring of darts, was our guide to the World Professional Team Championship, beamed into our homes from Jester's Bar, at Butlin's in Ayr, on what Sid called "the wild and woolly coast of Scotland".

The players were led to the oche by young women in swimsuits carrying the respective national flags of the competitors: a somewhat gratuitous touch of glamour, since all the competitors came from England. "Here they come!" Waddell yelled, as we caught a glimpse of Peter Evison and Rod Harrington, "The Fen Tiger and the Prince of Style." Which was which? Evison bent to kiss a proffered baby, which seemed to rule him out of the Tiger role. "The way the crowd are treating them," Waddell hammered on, "you'd think that the touch of a darts player could cure warts and ingrowing toenails." Not to mention infant insomnia.

Waddell's incessant hyperbole is necessary to compensate for the lack of inherent drama in the sport he is describing. For all the bimbos and the bright lights, what you are actually watching is a few blokes playing darts in a bar, which anyone can see without forking out for a Sky subscription.

"Forty-five minutes of razzle-dazzle ding-dong derby!" Sid raved as the first darts were thrown. Sadly, it turned out to be 45 minutes of not very good darts. Time and again the camera would zoom in as two darts lodged in the treble 20. "We haven't had a 180 yet," Sid would hiss. "Ohhhh, it would have been . . ."

Seeking to explain the woeful play of Richie Gardner, Sid revealed that the player was suffering from a hiatus hernia. Why should this affect his hand/eye co-ordination? "He can't have a couple of pints before the match. You've got to feel sorry for the man."

As the tension fell away with every wayward arrow, Sid became ever more desperate in his search for exciting imagery. "All the body language of the jungle out there," he observed at one point, "body to body, trunk to trunk." On the closest scrutiny, the screen remained an elephant-free zone. Waddell is priceless, and when the history of the first 100 years of darts (A Century of Bull?) comes to be made, he will take his rightful place in the pantheon.