Darts: Game on for orange wigs and gimmicks

Darts harks back to the old days in battle against a damaging double top.

THERE IS an entire room at the Lakeside Country Club in Frimley Green covered with small, framed photographs of the performers who have trodden its boards. Most are like headstones in a cabaret graveyard, the last remaining evidence of turns like Shazam, the Grumbleweeds and a young man called Andrew O'Connor. In his publicity shot, he is holding four metal coathangers and a hacksaw. Whatever it was he used to do with them, clearly it did not catch on.

But darts did, for a while at least, and the Lakeside, home of the Embassy World Championship, was the centre of the throwing world. Look carefully amid the crowd of long-forgotten artistes and there are more familiar faces - John Lowe, and Eric Bristow, whose World Final defeat by Keith Deller in 1983 drew a television audience of millions. Sixteen years on, arrowmen still converge on Surrey in the first week of January. The difference is that hardly anyone is watching.

Or not in the nation's living rooms, anyway. The Country Club itself, on the other hand, is packed to its 1,100-strong capacity every night. At the reception desk early on Wednesday evening, a young woman was fielding a call from the Dutch Embassy. Ray Barneveld, the reigning Embassy champion, is from the Netherlands, and so too is another leading contender, Roland Scholten. "We realise that you're completely sold out," the voice at the other end of the line must have been saying, "but is there, you know, nudge, nudge, any way you could fit a few of us in?" The answer was a polite but firm no.

Walking into the main arena, you could see the management's point, not least because most of the Netherlands - and every orange novelty wig in Europe - seemed to be there already. Thanks to Barneveld, Scholten and the engaging Co Stompe, a tram driver and amateur astronomer from Amsterdam, darts is big in the Netherlands right now. Along with the raucous orange hordes of supporters, there are television and radio crews, and enough journalists to be called a corps.

This, of course, is how it was in Britain 15 years ago, before television lost interest, the sponsors drifted away and darts reacted by splitting itself in two. The players at Lakeside this week are not throwing for the undisputed world championship, but a version of it. Five days ago, Phil Taylor, probably the finest player the sport has seen, lifted an alternative title at the Circus Tavern in Purfleet. Darts was never taken all that seriously, even in its heyday, and satirists found it an easy target. Its current position, though, is plainly silly, and all its own work.

A five-year legal wrangle between the two factions, the British Darts Organisation, which runs the Embassy, and the breakaway Professional Darts Council, reached an uneasy truce last year. Even so, there is still little competitive fraternising and both organisations insist on the right to run their own world championship.

They put a brave face on it at Frimley Green, and the audience, many of whom return year after year, seem to know or care little about the alternative world title. Many elements of the darts experience are the same anywhere. Between the first two matches, one young man from a table near the front went to the bar to get his round in. He returned with 48 bottles of lager.

And yet Taylor will always be the pudgy, moustachioed spectre at this banquet. There is little strength in depth at the Purfleet event, and perhaps as few as eight of its competitors would merit a place among the 32 finalists at Frimley Green. A world championship without him is not worthy of the name.

In his absence, they depend on old-fashioned virtues which served darts well enough in the 1980s, like nicknames and gimmickry. Scholten, according to the announcer, is "the man they call tripod". The more you think about it, the less inclined you are to ask why. Ted Hankey, meanwhile, claims a lifelong obsession with Dracula, and arrives on stage complete with a swirling black cape.

Jacobus Wilhelm "Co" Stompe is a bit of a star, too, and not simply because of his passing resemblance to Lofty in EastEnders. He throws a bit like Lofty would have done as well, all feathery and feeble, although even with a blindfold on, he would beat anyone in the Queen Vic's darts team. He drives a tram on the longest route in Amsterdam, and relaxes with his guitar or by pointing his telescope at the heavens. But the Embassy will have to do without him, too. He missed double-top to beat Scholten on Wednesday night, and went out.

There were small children hunting autographs as the two Dutchmen left the stage. At its best, darts still has not just skill and tension, but also the characters to kindle and sustain the public's interest. As long as it insists on crowning two world champions, though, it is heading down the plughole as surely as the man with the coathangers.

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