Sid Waddell: The Lynemouth Lip who always hits the target

He's the Voice of Darts but so much more – a sprint champion, Cambridge graduate, writer of a BBC1 hit... and singer with the Steaming Hot Gravyboatmen. Simon Turnbull meets Sid Waddell
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The clock has ticked past midday in the Masons Arms in Pudsey, the West Yorkshire market town where Len Hutton, Herbert Sutcliffe and Ray Illingworth all learned their cricketing craft. Sid Waddell is running a little late, understandably so. The Geordie Voice of Darts has been busy penning a 650-word article for the Varsity Match programme – yes, the programme for the annual Varsity rugby union match at Twickenham. There was a time when Waddell could run fast enough to play the oval-balled game for North versus South in the England schools' trial match. He played in it twice, in fact: once as a wing, once as an outside-centre. He was also fast enough to win the Northumberland schools' 100 yards title in 1957.

Funnily enough, the Northumbrian who won the very same race in 1967 had been playing over the car radio on the way to Pudsey. "Who's that, then?" Waddell enquires, settling down in his local with a lunchtime glass of lemonade. His successor was Gordon Sumner of St Cuthbert's School in Newcastle when he sprinted to the county title in Ashington back in the Summer of Love. He is better known these days as Sting.

The Voice of Darts is temporarily speechless. "Nah, I didn't know that," he says, after a brief pause for thought. "So Sting was following in my footsteps... I didn't realise that he had fleet feet, like I used to when I was – what? – 16." With that, Waddell is off sprinting down memory lane – back to 1957, when Harold Macmillan's Britain never had it so good. "About two months before me 17th birthday, I ran the 100 yards for Northumberland against Durham and Scotland on a grass track at Houghton-le-Spring," he says. "This Scots kid had done 10.3sec on grass and I beat him by four feet. That was as near as I got to being an international.

"Me dad was a coal miner. When he was younger he was in a betting school that used to put their money in the kitty to train up runners for professional handicap races. The same school saw me when I was 16 and said, 'Oh we've got one here'. They wanted me to turn professional but me dad didn't want me to. He wanted me to have the red rose on the middle of the chest [either as a runner or a rugby player]. But he would have rather I ran for England than played rugby for England. All the time I played county schools rugby, for six or seven years, me father begged me to give it up at Christmas and concentrate on running for six months. I think that if I had done that in 1957 I might have won the English schools' 100 yards. Might have.

"I finished fourth. It was at Southampton and it was pouring with rain. I didn't get as good a start as I could have. There was a foot covering the first six. The kid who won was a big lad from Somerset. He did 10.2. I was probably just under 10.3."

So whatever happened to that likely lad of a speed merchant, the fleet-footed miner's son from Lynemouth, an old Northumberland pit village next door to Ashington, the home town of Jackie Milburn, Bobby and Jack Charlton and Stephen Harmison? "What happened was me father had to go on to light work at the pit and me mother was scrubbing floors in pubs to keep me and me younger brother," Waddell reflects. "So I went on the buses for six months. I was a conductor on United Buses. I stopped training and got a taste for the beer at the Joiners Arms in Morpeth. I generally just went to the dogs before I went to Cambridge.

"Actually, I've just been writing about that for the Varsity Match programme. So at last I've ended up with me name in that. And in the St John's College annual magazine, The Eagle – which usually has bits by Nobel Prize-winners. They've done a 1,400-word review of Bellies and Bullseyes, next door to 'How I split the atom' and so on."

He chuckles. Like Sir John Cockcroft, who won a Nobel Prize in physics for splitting the atom, Waddell – author of Bellies and Bullseyes: the Outrageous True Story of Darts – happens to be a graduate of St John's College, Cambridge. Other notable alumni include William Wilberforce, Thomas Fairfax and Hugh Dennis. Waddell won a scholarship to study modern history there in 1959.

Now 68 and long since settled with his family in Pudsey, the Geordie Johnian is a former television producer and scriptwriter. He penned the highly successful BBC1 children's drama Jossy's Giants in the 1980s. He has commentated on darts since 1976 and will be the main man behind the mike when Sky Sports begin their coverage of the PDC World Championships at the Alexandra Palace on Friday – no doubt dispensing his inimitable one-liners, an irresistible verbal blend of stream of consciousness and word association (football).

You can get ringtones with classic Waddell cuts. And there have been some belters: "The hands of [Bob] Anderson weave their own fairytale – things look Grimm for the other bloke"; "This lad has got more checkouts than Tescos"; "William Tell could take an apple off your head – [Phil] Taylor could take out a processed pea"; "We couldn't have more excitement if Elvis walked in and asked for a chip sandwich"; "When Alexander of Macedonia was 33 he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer – [Eric] Bristow [who had just won his fourth world darts title] is only 27."

Given his background as a county athlete and county rugby player, might the Lynemouth Lip not have preferred to call the shots in an Olympic 100m final or in a Six Nations match at Twickenham? He winces at the thought. "I'd get lynched," Waddell says. "If I went to Twickenham or Lord's or Wembley and did my kind of commentary I would get garrotted – because one's role in darts, quite seriously, is to be over the top. We can't have Whispering Teds, and you can't speak as slowly as Bumble.

"In darts the drama comes when two blokes are doing the same thing – when they're both throwing 140s, 180s. In effect, 90 per cent of the audience do not know what all the excitement is about, so you've got to tell them jokes. You've got to throw in Elvis, Rod Stewart, a bit of the Old Testament. You've got to use everything – your knowledge, your sense of humour. So they never know where you're coming from.

"And for that I've got to thank me mother and father. Me mother was from Irish people, so she would have a really silly sense of humour. Me dad was from Scottish extraction and he would be dry. Me mother once said to him, 'I've got nowt to live for but the bairns and the Woodbines. I'm going to go down to Cresswell Beach and chuck meself in'. Me dad's sitting reading the Evening Chronicle. He says, 'You better wait a couple of hours, Martha. The tide's out'.

"That dry sense of humour and me mother's zany sense of humour has always been with me. I'm trying to write about it at the moment in a memoir called The Road Back Home. It's about the first 19 years before I went to Cambridge but it starts in 1923 in Alnwick with me mother selling sticks as the eight-year-old family breadwinner. It's due out in August. It's like Angela's Ashes with laughs."

Back in 2005, in a poll taken by Northumberland County Council, Waddell was voted the seventh most famous Northumbrian of all time. Below him in the top 10 were Capability Brown, Thomas Bewick and Bobby Charlton. The Northumberland schools' 100 yards champion of 1967 failed to feature. It is safe to assume that the 1957 champion did not vote for him.

"I think Sting is probably one of the biggest posers ever," Waddell confides. "He's got his music; I think that's good. But he's definitely a poser. I think it goes with the turf in music. I did it meself. I was in a group called the Steaming Hot Gravyboatmen. I was the singer and I was tone deaf. The kid who played guitar, Charlie, only knew a chord and a half.

"I was on the research staff of the Social Studies department at Durham University at the time. I was in a boozer opposite the prison in Durham one night and I started singing along when this kid got his guitar out. A guy said to us, 'Come along and play at this boozer in Framwellgate Moor and I'll give you free drink all night'.

"I put on this big smock – a fisherman's canvas smock – and me shades, and I had a Teddy Boy haircut like Alvin Stardust's. A guy wrote a piece in the Sunderland Echo and the next thing we know, Cliff Michelmore's interviewing us on Tonight on national telly, and the local radio are calling me 'the Singing Sociologist'. Me brother, Derrick, killed himself laughing seeing me singing on the telly. I got chucked out of Morpeth Grammar School choir when I was 13 because I couldn't change key."

So where did it cool down for the Steaming Hot Gravyboatmen? Where did they miss out on the musical gravy train? "South Bank Sporting Club," the Singing Sociologist says with something of a shiver. "Saturday night. March, 1964. We're on after Stockton's answer to Julio Iglesias at 10 o'clock, with 600 South Bankers on to their fifth pint of Strongarm. I've got me smock and me shades on. We're halfway through our second song, about mods and rockers, and the crowd start giving us the slow handclap. The band starts playing and we're bumped off.

"I was supposed to be having a date with the bird on the door but she didn't want to know me. She wasn't even going to let us out of the back door...

"So I do know what it's like to be a total poser. But at least Sting's not tone deaf. Best of luck to the lad."

Life and times

Name: Sid Waddell.

Born: 10 August 1940, Alnwick, Northumberland.

Education: Attended King Edward VI Grammar School, Morpeth. Represented Northumberland Schools at athletics and rugby union. Graduate in modern history from St John's College, Cambridge. Played darts for Cambridge.

Television: Worked as a producer with Granada and Yorkshire TV, on programmes with Michael Parkinson, Alan Whicker, Russell Harty and Magnus Pyke. At YTV he created Indoor League, presented by Fred Trueman. Wrote 'Jossy's Giants' children's comedy drama. Started commentating on darts with BBC in 1976. Joined Sky Sports in 1994.

Books: Wrote 'Bedroll Bella', a bawdy novel about the amorous adventures of a 17-year-old Geordie lass, was banned by WH Smith and John Menzies in 1973. Has co-written autobiographies of John Lowe, Jocky Wilson and Phil Taylor. Also wrote 'Taak of the Toon: How to Speak Geordie' (Collins, £6.99), with illustrations by 'Viz' cartoonist Alex Collier. Son Dan Waddell is the author of the crime novel 'The Blood Detective' (Penguin, £6.99).

Simon Turnbull

Sid Waddell is commentating for Sky Sports during its exclusively live and High Definition coverage of the World Darts Championship beginning on Friday