Sid Waddell: Waddell's fanfare for the commentary man

The Brian Viner interview
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It is the day before Christmas Eve and I am waiting for Sid Waddell, legendary voice of darts, on a platform at King's Cross Station.

He is on his way home to Pudsey, West Yorkshire, from Las Vegas, Nevada, where he commentated for Sky on pool's Mosconi Cup, a sub-Ryder Cup tournament between the United States and Europe. Beyond Britain, in fact, Waddell is better known for his pool than his darts commentaries. He is, he later tells me with engaging and characteristic immodesty, huge in Manila.

But first I have to meet him, so that we can both catch the 14.05 to Leeds, the arrangement being that I will interview him on the train. It occurs to me, however, that as intimately acquainted as I am with his rich Northumberland vowels, I haven't a clue what he looks like.

"Excuse me, are you Sid Waddell?" I say to several passing commuters, who are plainly startled by the question. It is a suitably odd beginning to what will prove to be one of the more bizarre encounters of my interviewing career.

Anyway, I phone his kindly wife, Irene, who furnishes me with a detailed description. I then identify Waddell as the unshaven, harrassed-looking geezer with the slightly mad look in his eye. The mad look might be because he has just travelled overnight from Vegas. Then again, it might not be.

Whatever, we hurriedly exchange pleasantries and leg it for the 14.05, which is about to depart. Then we settle down in the busy restaurant car, cheek-by-jowl with a couple of passengers who cannot have imagined in their wildest dreams that they would be tucking into their Great North-Eastern Railway lunch to a soundtrack of Waddell rabbiting about, among other things, Fred Trueman, hungry chaffinches, Alexander the Great, broken washing machines, Donald Rumsfeld, nancy boys, and J K Galbraith. Plus, of course, darts.

The Professional Darts Corporation world championship commences today at the Circus Tavern, Purfleet. Waddell, having had just three days at home with his five children and five grandchildren since our lunch on the 14.05, will report for duty late this afternoon. He thinks that Phil "The Power" Taylor, whose autobiography he recently ghosted, is a shoo-in for the title he lost a year ago.

"He had some funny ideas in his head last year. He trained for the London Marathon, and instead of losing something sensible like two stone, he lost four. I think that lost him muscle tone, and balance, and Frank Dick of the International Olympic Association said he'd seen someone lose that sort of weight and it affects the eyes, too.

"He still got to the final but he never looked himself. John Part beat him fair and square. But this year The Power has been more sensible. He has been keeping fit, but sensibly so. I think he'll stroll it.

"Of the three others who are good enough, Part has had a heavy year as world champion, with too much travelling, Wayne Mardle is too up and down, and Peter Manley hasn't got the consistency either.

"And The Power has got these new darts, with a knurl added." A knurl? "A curved groove on the underside of the dart, next to the stem."

Waddell believes, albeit with a degree of self-interest, that Taylor is the greatest living British sportsman. The mad look in his eye is replaced by something else - reverence? Awe? Love? - when he talks about The Power.

"He came to my house when I was writing his book, and he noticed that a window sash was bust. He said, 'Give us a screwdriver', and he fixed it. Then he heard a funny buzz from the washing-machine, and suddenly he's in the cellar fixing that too. What you have to remember with The Power is that he had three different apprenticeships. He was the world's greatest maker of toilet handles. If you said to him, 'Build me a patio', he'd get a kit and build you a patio. So if he can improve his accuracy by 0.001 per cent by putting a knurl in a dart ... he's got that kind of brain."

Speaking of brainpower, Waddell's own is verging on nuclear. The son of a miner, in 1959 he won an open scholarship to Cambridge University, where it is said - or to be more accurate, where he says - there were only 20 other undergraduates with academic qualifications as impressive as his.

So, as the train draws none too smoothly into Peterborough station, and the steward unnervingly leans over me to serve pea soup to the man sitting next to me, I wonder: could it be argued that the commentary box at the Circus Tavern is not the most obvious repository for a brilliant mind? Waddell has heard this one before. "Cambridge taught you to be extremely confident at anything you were good at. And I was good at patter. I've always been a patter merchant and I might be a patter genius. I can use references in my commentary to anything I have ever read, anyone I've ever met.

"I even got Donald Rumsfeld into my pool commentary the other day. The American captain said that in trying to outwit the Euro team, 'I know what they're thinking, they think they know what I'm thinking, so what I gotta do, is get them thinking I'm thinking what I'm not thinking'." Waddell hoots with laughter. "Which is pure Rumsfeld."

And here is some pure Waddell: "Dennis has bags under his eyes like the belly of a hungry chaffinch." That was his classic reference to the former world champion Dennis Priestley, but he doesn't just do classic, he also does classical. "When Alexander of Macedonia was 33 he shed salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer. [Eric] Bristow's only 27." A huge grin. "That was the most complex idea I've ever had in my head." So much for the notion that darts is a waste of a brilliant mind.

Maybe a brilliant mind is just what darts needs. Besides, there is much more to Waddell than darts. He captained North of England Schools at rugby, and was a decent schoolboy sprinter. After Cambridge, he joined the research department at Durham University, where he discovered all there was to know about Indian politics. Then he won a play-writing competition. And later wrote a novel, Bedroll Bella, about the romantic adventures of a Geordie lass, which was banned for its obscene content by both WH Smith and John Menzies. Later still, he wrote Jossy's Giants, a long-running children's television series. He also became a producer at Yorkshire Television, in which capacity he was responsible for an iconic series of the 1970s, Indoor League.

You have to be in your late 30s at least to remember Indoor League, which as I recall ran every weekday lunchtime, and gave sporting status to pub pursuits such as arm-wrestling, shove ha'penny and bar billiards. The presenter was the former Yorkshire and England fast bowler Fred Trueman, to whom Waddell introduced the autocue. It was not a happy relationship.

"Fred never did get the hang of it. There was a guy called Sinclair-Scott in the arm-wrestling. He came from Chelsea and dressed in leather. I wrote a line for Fred calling him 'The Narcissus of the knotted knuckle' but Fred read it as 'The nancy boy with natty knuckles'." Waddell chuckles, as do I, as does the man eating pea soup, as does the woman across the aisle pretending to read her newspaper.

"And we had a fight break out at a table football match. One guy jumped up and accidentally hit one of the opposition fans. It was at the Leeds Irish Centre, and a fight had also broken out upstairs between some Paddies at a wedding. Their fight joined our fight. It was like a John Wayne movie."

Indoor League also featured darts, and it soon became obvious to everyone involved that darts could sustain coverage on its own. Thus began television's love affair with the oche, with Waddell, always a mustard-keen player, as commentator. Much to his dismay, the love affair began to cool at the end of the 1980s, just as the standard of play rocketed. The same, I venture, could not be said for the standard of physique. Those who refused to accept darts players as sportsmen had only to point to the Weeble-like Leighton Rees and Jocky Wilson.

Again, Waddell is used to the gibe, and has a ready answer. "If you're on a beach with your sister, hitting a tennis ball at each other, it's not sport. But as soon as you draw a line in the sand and say that's the net, as soon as there's competition and rules, then it's sport. And what requires better hand-eye co-ordination than darts? As for Jocky, yes he was a big guy, but then he'd had lots of manual jobs. He'd been a miner, a coal-deliverer humping sacks. He lives in a tiny council flat in Kirkcaldy now, suffers from clinical depression. His front room is the width of this train. But he's not had a drink for six years.

"He never did drink at home, only when he was with the lads. In Bristow's immortal phrase, one pint was plenty, but 50 wasn't enough. He used to live in Newcastle, Jocky, but he did a moonlight flit just before Christmas '95. Left his car and his house. Now he just sits there looking at a massive picture of himself with the world championship trophy. It's the biggest thing in the room, apart from Jocky."

An umistakeable tear enters Waddell's eye, but he pulls himself together in time to choose vegetables to accompany his GNER bangers and mash. "I'll have some broccoli, and what's them yeller things?" Parsnips, says the steward. "Aye, and one of them." I ask him what his darts-playing skills are like these days? "I don't play much. I used to play a lot with my wife and another couple, but as J K Galbraith would have said, it was a case of diminishing returns. At the end of the second pint, I was deadly. By the end of the third, diminishing returns set in. I'm not competitive. I'm a dilettante."

While I savour his pronunciation of "dilettante" - Bamber Gascoigne in his choice of word, Paul Gascoigne in the delivery - he explains why. "I was dropped from the school rugby team because I dropped a goal when there were two guys outside me who could have scored a try." That was 45 years ago, yet I have no doubt that he could give me the names of the two guys on his outside. His recall of his life is extraordinary, his enthusiasm for it irresistible. It is rumoured that an Oxford-Cambridge boat race is being organised for television, both crews to be drawn from celebrated graduates, and coached by Sir Steve Redgrave. Ann Widdecombe is among those who have agreed to take part, and Waddell has been approached to be the Cambridge cox. If he does it, the light blues will certainly not want for encouragement.

For now, though, he has only "arrers" on his mind. He has to add a chapter to Taylor's book when the World Championship is over - the only World Championship, in his view. He insists that the rival British Darts Organisation event - soon to be held at the Lakeside, Frimley Green - has no credibility. "The BDO is a dodo. And I don't think much of the BBC's coverage. I don't think the BBC have kept ahead of modern television techniques." With that knock for his former employer, he wipes some gravy from his chin and sits back. We are approaching Doncaster where I am to get off.

There is time for one more question. If he had the chance to commentate on another sport, perhaps to grace cricket or rugby or tennis with his patter, what might that sport be? He looks at me, eyes gleaming. "Aye, there is one I'd love to do," he says. "Dominoes."

Sid Waddell the life and times

Born: 10 August 1940, in Alnwick, Northumberland, in a street about a mile away from the castle that features in the Harry Potter films. Grew up in a colliery cottage in Lynemouth, 15 miles south of Alnwick.

1951-59: Attended King Edward VI Grammar School, Morpeth. Captain of the rugby team, he looked on course to play for England. A promising athlete, he ran for North of England against Scotland, clocking 10.3sec for 100 yards on grass. Distracted from his athletics career by the attractions of the billiard halls. His father was a very good snooker player who interested him in the sport, as well as darts.

1959-62: Won scholarship to St John's College, Cambridge to read modern history. A serious injury to his right hamstring hampered outdoor sporting activity and led him to take greater interest in darts. Instigated the first-ever inter-collegiate darts championship and, inspired by the fact that a Cambridge "blue" could be won at tiddlywinks, tried to persuade the athletics union to award the honour for darts. The low point in his sports career came in 1962 when he led his darts team to defeat in the inter-collegiate championships against four trainee vicars from Selwyn College. The darts movement which he began finally bore fruit with inter-universities matches and he was invited to present the prizes at the 1982 annual Oxford v Cambridge darts match. He also won a BBC award for a play he wrote.

1965: Began working at Granada Television as a researcher with Michael Parkinson. Worked on documentaries.

1972-75: Created Darts League for Yorkshire Television with a programme presented by Freddie Trueman. Left to work for Iranian national television making documentaries about countries to whom Iran sold oil.

1976: Became darts correspondent with the BBC on the strength of his fascination with the potential of darts as a TV sport; knowing the players enabled him to develop his personalised style of commentating.

1986-89: Wrote the popular children's comedy sitcom Jossy's Giants, about a boys' football team, for the BBC. At its height in 1987, it attracted 6.8m viewers.

1994-95: Wrote the children's light drama Sloggers for the BBC about a cricket team.

1995: Joined Sky TV in time for the PDC World Championships. Became renowned for lively, adventurous use of language (as in: "He looks about as happy as a penguin in a microwave"); style based on "speaking very quickly in evocative words, and knowing when to shut up".

Peter Parker