Snooker: You live by the screen, you die by the screen: Snooker, more than any other sport, is sustained by television. So any suggestion that the plug might be pulled is more than troubling to the men of the baize. Richard Williams reports from Doncaster

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KAREN and Caroline are down in the dumps. From their vantage point in the front row at the Dome Leisure Centre, Doncaster, things aren't going well at all. Their boy, Stephen Hendry, is rigid in his chair, his face waxen and puffy, his eyes closing every now and then as if to say: get me out of here.

They've come all the way from Cardiff to watch him, have Karen, 24, and Caroline, 22, all neat and pretty in their nice knitwear and fresh make-up. 'We used to like Alex Higgins,' Caroline was saying earlier, with a sweet giggle. 'But now we like Stephen. We've gone from a bad boy to a good boy.'

But their good boy is in bad trouble.

For Stephen Hendry, 23 years old, world champion, winner of a record nine tournaments and pounds 645,300 in prize money alone last season, things have turned bad all round. We don't know this yet, but for three months he's allegedly been getting death threats from a female fan. What we do know is that since this season started, he hasn't won a thing. Tournaments have come and gone, and the boy who looked like dominating the sport for a generation has blown every one. Now here's another going down the tubes.

He sits there, eyes closed, as his opponent, Alan McManus, ranked 13th in the world, moves calmly around the table, taking his time to line up the shots that are sinking Hendry's chances in the quarter-final of the Coalite World Matchplay tournament. As McManus racks up the points, Caroline taps her hands lightly together; the smallest degree of polite applause. Karen can't even bring herself to do that.

Afterwards, when Hendry comes upstairs to talk to reporters, someone remarks that he seems short of confidence. 'I'm only human,' he says. 'If you keep getting beaten, it must affect your confidence. But I've got two weeks off over Christmas. Forget snooker for a while.'

HE'S NOT the only one, it's being said, who wants to forget snooker. Tonight, Stephen Hendry should have been among the stars of sport lined up in the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre at the BBC's Sports Review of the Year, watching the edited highlights on the monitor screens and waiting for Riddick Bowe to present the award to the viewers' sports personality of 1992. Instead, he'll be sulking in his tent. Or, as his colleagues in the snooker world might put it, striking a blow for his sport in the face of a dreadful snub.

Stephen Hendry turned down his invitation to the broadcast because of what happened last year, when he had to sit there, the world's No 1 player, and endure a two-hour review of the year's televised sport in which snooker was given no more than 20 seconds' attention. He was particularly disappointed, he said, to see that the trailers for this year's event, in which viewers were exhorted to vote, didn't mention snooker at all. He was incensed, in fact, that the trailer should feature the boxer Frank Bruno, barely in the the world's top 10, and the tennis player Jeremy Bates, not even in the world's top 100.

He seemed to have a point, given that the award was won by a snooker player (Steve Davis) only three years earlier, and that he himself had been the runner-up in 1990. But the omission seemed even more extraordinary in the light of the particular relationship between snooker and television: extraordinary and, to some people, terrifying in its implications.

To all intents and purposes, colour television invented modern snooker. In 1970, when the sport's present governing body - the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association - was formed, snooker had no more than nine professional players, and a low-life reputation. Media exposure had been just about non-existent. Eight years later, the first daily live telecast of the world championships went out from the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, and the boom had begun. In 1985, 18.5 million people watched Dennis Taylor take the title by 18 frames to 17 from Steve Davis, a man by then so famous that he had become the contemporary equivalent of a music-hall joke. At that point, as the former champion John Spencer said last week, snooker had become so popular that 'you could put two tables in a toilet and people would queue up to play on them'. Now, in 1992, there are 720 professionals, about 300 hours of live snooker on BBC and ITV each year, and millions of pounds at stake in endorsements. The prosperity is such that Stephen Hendry could arrive in Doncaster in his sponsor's Cessna jet, to be met on touch-down at RAF Finningley by an ITV crew recording an interview intended to boost the figures for the broadcasts from the Dome. So the merest suggestion that television might be cooling on snooker sent a chill down many a cashmere-clad spine.

When Hendry broke the news of his boycott a few days ago, some observers heard in his words the voice of his manager, Ian Doyle, a 52-year-old Scottish millionaire with interests in ironmongery, property and leisure. 'If you compare snooker with golf, tennis or motor racing,' Doyle told me last week, 'in terms of figures we outstrip them by a mile. The BBC's argument is that the time they can allot to each sport in the annual review is limited. My argument, and Stephen's argument, is quite simple: that since we pull in the viewers in comparison with those sports, we're entitled to at least an equal slot.'

Some people in snooker think that Doyle, who controls the fortunes of 10 other snooker pros besides Hendry, is getting to be a bit of a pain in the neck. But no one that I talked to in Doncaster last week disgreed with his stand.

'I think they're justified in being annoyed that Stephen could sit in the front row after winning nine tournaments that season and not even get his photograph on the screen,' said John Parrott, last year's world champion. 'I was disgusted, to be honest with you.'

'Stephen was making his personal protest,' said John Spencer, the present chairman of the WPBSA, 'and I agree with him. The popularity we had in the Eighties was a phenomenon, and that's why people think it's fallen off. It hasn't. It's levelled out, that's all.'

Others muttered darkly that the producer of the Sports Review, Brian Barwick, was known to look with disfavour on 'non-aerobic' sports; meaning the ones that allow you a fag and a pint during play. 'Football's his game,' I was told. Barwick, busy preparing for tonight's programme, wouldn't respond, but the BBC's head of sport, Jonathan Martin, was at pains to point out that the Review had never been intended as a compendium. 'It's not allocated by the clock,' he said. 'And, anyway, snooker is a hard game to condense into the format.' Too late: Barwick had already joined the cast of snooker's demons, in a place of honour alongside Alan Yentob, the controller of BBC2, a noted non-sports fan whose continuing crime is to schedule snooker after Newsnight and The Late Show, thus ensuring a minimal 'inherited' audience for the sport.

'It's cultural snobbery, that's what it is,' I was told by an angry snooker person. 'Snooker isn't a mainstream sport because it isn't played in public schools and universities. But, of course, if you just went by the numbers, cricket would hardly ever be on. The BBC don't have the confidence in their own viewing figures. They give snooker the worst slot, and then they say, 'Ah, but the figures are going down.' '

'I'll give Mr Yentob one piece of advice,' said Ian Doyle quietly. 'His job is to maximise his viewing figures, and if he wants to do that he should put the snooker on at half past ten at night and put Newsnight on at one in the morning.' He paused. 'That,' he said, in a tone of voice that no doubt gets things done around Stirling way, 'would be the correct decision.'

OMINOUSLY, in some eyes, the fuss over Hendry's boycott coincided with the appearance in the Daily Telegraph of a column by John Bromley, formerly ITV's influential head of sport, in which he disparaged snooker's standing as a television attraction. 'I think we have all tended to become bored with the game,' Bromley wrote. 'The skill factor is still there, but we are no longer in awe of players like Steve Davis and Jimmy White. Their unique talent is now commonplace.'

A lot of people said to me, out of the corners of their mouths, that if Bromley was so convinced of snooker's demise, how come his own independent company had been bidding for the BBC contract only 18 months ago? Could this just be sour grapes? (Not at all, Bromley told me: 'It was a commercial situation. I was making a pitch. And a lot has changed in 18 months.') But the criticism stung sharply enough to draw an immediate rebuke from the Bristol headquarters of the WPBSA, whose chief executive, David Harrison, has been working hard on the relationship between snooker and the media.

Harrison is careful not to protest too loudly. 'Of course, some people in snooker think we should be on live, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year. At this time, it's difficult to get sport of any kind on the prime hours of BBC TV. But, coming on at the hours we do, we're holding our own. We'd be second or third in any league table of sport on television.' But, like everyone in his world, he lives with the fear that snooker will go the way of darts and bowls, other television-boosted sports: one day the world is shouting 'one-hundred-and-eighty', the next day it's 'Eric who?'

'We're a TV sport,' says Barry Hearn, manager of Steve Davis and the man who brought modern marketing techniques to snooker, in his most cut- the-crap voice. 'Without TV, we're nothing. Which means we're in the hands of fashion. And if the pendulum of fashion continues to swing away, some controller will say, 'Ugghh, had enough of that]' So the viewing figures aren't the be-all and end-all. They didn't make any difference to darts.'

The thing about snooker, he says, is that it's 'not so much a sport as an enormous soap opera'. And that gets us, at last, to the heart of the matter - because the trouble with snooker is that the cast of the soap opera isn't what it was. In the mid-Eighties, the heyday, there were the veterans (Reardon, Spencer), the bad boys (Higgins, White) and the cool young gunslinger in the white hat (Davis). A lot of well-defined characters, and something for everybody. The tabloids loved it. Now many of those characters have gone, replaced by, in Hearn's words, 'a lot of Davis clones - they're pale, expressionless, they play the game ever so well and they never crack up'. But they don't have a fraction of the allure of White, whose wild past, as much as his cavalier style, is what drew 11 million people to watch him beat Parrott for the UK title two weeks ago.

The huge influx of new professionals, and particularly the new generation of absurdly gifted teenagers with abstract geometry in their heads, makes it seem likely that the game will no longer be dominated by a small elite of household names. 'The days of the consistent winner have gone,' Hearn says. And the new stars are too young to have fully formed characters, with the result that snooker seems in danger of emulating the condition of tennis a few years ago, when it looked like being swamped by well-behaved, vanilla-flavoured young Swedes. The world of boozers and carousers so vividly captured by Gordon Burn in his classic Pocket Money six years ago now seems as distant as the Renaissance.

Torn between its desire for respectability and its need for ratings, between its stature as a 'proper' sport and its role as popular entertainment, snooker has to make a choice. As Hearn says, 'You need the Alex Higginses and the Jimmy Whites.' Karen and Caroline went from a bad boy to a good boy; they may soon find themselves lured back to the wild side once again.

(Photograph omitted)

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