It is well known that it was a relatively youthful David Attenborough who, when controller of BBC 2 in the late Sixties, first commissioned live snooker, transforming a gentlemen’s game into the subject of a lengthy national romance (now fading in its old age, but more on that later).
There’s some symmetry then, as the World Snooker Championship started at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield this week (as it will do when only cockroaches and Sir Bruce Forsyth walk the earth), in watching the televisual techniques Attenborough went off to pioneer in the distant corners of the Earth put to curious use in rather less exotic Sheffield.
Yes, that same super slow-motion technology famously employed to capture a nine-metre Great White Shark breaching the dark sea and shutting its man-trap jaws around a sorry seal is now allowing John Virgo and Stephen Hendry to fill the short gaps between frames, talking in hushed wonderment over extreme close-up pictures at 1,000 frames a second of the little chalky nebulas that atomise in bright turquoise over the green baize when cue strikes ball. “It’s amazing, isn’t it, the chalk that comes off,” pondered Virgo, before some insufferable banter about chalk flying up compelled him to do a horrendous John McEnroe impression. Not really, no.
Snooker, of course, is not what it was. No one is going “Snooker Loopy” any more. Neither Chas nor Dave, nor the modern incarnates of Dennis Taylor or old Willie Thorne or Terry the Taff – and well done if you know all the others – will enter the charts again. They don’t have modern incarnates, sadly, but in so many ways the game is better than it has ever been.
One of the great bittersweet joys of snooker is just how easy it is to taste one’s own pathetic mortality. None of us will ever even get a tiny glimpse of what it’s really like, out on the Premier League pitch or when the lights go off at the Monaco start line. But snooker offers a reasonably clear vantage point into the Valhalla of sporting greatness. There is no easier way to stare into the gaping void between them and us than to pick up a cue in your local snooker hall and be gently blown away by your own extraordinary crapness.
“Blimey, that table is enormous,” is the first thought. “Those reds are miles away. I am really going to have to whack it to get it all the way down there.” Then you quietly slope off to buy a round of drinks while the others wait 15 minutes or so for the balls to stop careering about the table like potassium on a pond.
Potting a red is an event. A following colour, all but unheard of. Fouls are crucial – a rogue brush with the black is worth seven potted reds. Such things decide matches (a frame, of course, is a match). “Have you put my ‘one’ on?” is the only real question ever asked of whomever is doing the scoring.
Attenborough, of all people, will have noticed with little surprise the mass extinction that has occurred in recent years. The game used to be a carnival of the animals: the giant hunkers of the “Big Bill”, Werbeniuk, stretched across the cushion, folds of flesh pressing against his silk waistcoat, his tremulous hand held steady by half a gallon of lager. Higgins’ shirts, Taylor’s glasses, Thorburn’s tash, Griffiths’ hair. Now its protagonists all seem to look the same. Selby, Robertson, Carter, even O’Sullivan; the same height, the same tousled haircuts; the same age, near enough, at least in appearance. But then it’s survival of the fittest, now.
The long pots these men quietly send down time after time after time, smashing into the centre of the pocket, cracking open the boundaries of the possible, the white wheeling away like a gyroscope then slamming on its brakes of its own volition, defying the laws of physics. It would have terrified their more charismatic but significantly less talented forerunners.
Its decline in public affection can be mapped in strange symmetry with the rise of its great rival, darts, even though the same man, Barry Hearn, controls both. But snooker lacks much that has revitalised the arrows: the lager, the ritualised dancing, the signs held up for the TV cameras – it’s a good night out. Many a hungover Sheffield student still wanders into the Crucible and parts with a tenner expecting much the same. What they get are long periods of enforced silence and, with no commentary, not much clue as to the finer intricacies of what’s going on half the time. As Ted Hughes once imagined, watching a sculptor carving at a tiny ivory ornament, the artistry is present but hidden in plain sight.
It lacks that crucial moment of euphoria too, the final whistle, the double top, the penalty smacking into the back of the net, team-mates surging goalward from the halfway line. When the World Snooker crown is won, its champion usually half smiles then polishes off the rest of the colours, like securing Olympic Hoovering gold without even needing to tackle the last few troublesome corners, but knowing that simply can’t be left to fester. That’s an issue Mr Hearn may wish to address.
Something that is so simultaneously sublime and ridiculous is bound to oscillate in the public consciousness. Chas and Dave sold out the Royal Albert Hall last night, and in December they’re touring with Status Quo. Only the genius remains consistent.