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26 May 2021

BBC Two’s Gods of Snooker is brilliantly told social history

I love this series almost beyond words. It is a masterpiece.

By Rachel Cooke

I don’t believe that you need to be of a certain age to enjoy Gods of Snooker (available on iPlayer). My hunch is that even people who weren’t there at the time will have found themselves strangely bewitched by the sight of so many rayon-clad bottoms pointing ever skywards (the table-side contortions of the average Eighties snooker star would bring to mind Nijinsky about to get saucy in L’Après-midi d’un faune if it wasn’t for the fags and the lager, and the fact that in place of Debussy we get the Pot Black theme and a resonant blast of Boston’s “More Than A Feeling”). I certainly hope so, anyway. But what I can say, as one who was there, is that I love this series almost beyond words. It is a masterpiece. If its social history is brilliantly told – here, on the baize, is Thatcher’s  Britain in microcosm – it has also, at moments, explained me to myself.

It seems that I wasn’t, after all, the only teenager to be made weak-kneed by Jimmy White’s gleaming cheekbones, blades that brought to mind oyster shells in candlelight even on a telly as rubbish as ours. Nor was it weird of me to have thought that the moment Alex Higgins openly wept while clinging to his baby daughter after he won the Snooker World Championship in 1982 was just about the most shocking thing I’d ever seen (I could hardly look at my father; men just didn’t cry then). Everyone, I now realise, felt exactly the same. Listen to Gary Lineker, one of the series’ talking heads, say the names “Jimmy” and “Alex”. Isn’t there something in his throat? Don’t you half expect him to start reciting  a sonnet?

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The producers have organised their smorgasbord of hoary fable, pop culture, sporting triumph, Tory politics and toxic masculinity so deftly; each time you think this is just the same old story – of the rivalry between the lonely and wild Higgins and his technocrat young rival Steve Davis – the coloured balls click and clack again, and you realise that, no, there’s so much more going on here. The third and final episode achieves a kind of symphonic intensity in the way that it brings together the series’ themes, some quiet and some loud, some eternally redolent and some wilfully bombastic. As the sports journalist Julie Welch points out, the success of snooker in the Eighties – a marketing triumph that was due, in large part, to Barry Hearn, Davis’s manager – represented the two sides of Thatcherism. If Hearn, red-faced and thrusting, was an archetypal Essex boy, interested mostly in his bank balance, his protégé Davis represented the prime minister’s Methodist roots,  careful and hard-working.

Why did so many women love the sport? I’m sure some relished the shots. But as Welch also says, televised snooker might best be described as “men in captivity”: the long sessions, the close-ups, the groins pressed hard against the table, one leg cocked like a gun. And the clothes! Higgins’s green three-piece suit and purple fedora. Hearn’s Kaffe Fassett-style knits. Doug Mountjoy’s red, frilled shirt. Watching the clips brought it back to me that, even as a teenager, I understood snooker as a kind of “I Spy” Book of Blokes.

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Here was the one who’d break your heart (Higgins, as beautiful and as fragile as dried honesty). Here was the one who’d be fun, but only for a while (White, later a crack addict, would rent two chalets when he played display games at Pontins – one for sleeping in and one for partying). And here was the safe, boring one who’d buy you a brand new Mini Metro for your birthday (Davis, always sober, always on time).

Naturally, this series is particularly nostalgic for me, Sheffield born and bred. When the BBC broadcast vans would pull up outside the Crucible Theatre ahead of the World Championship in late April, the whole city seemed to crackle with electricity (though this might just have been the static coming off all the synthetic fibres backstage). Nevertheless, I urge you to watch it. Back then, the world changed very quickly. Some things got better, some got a lot worse. But if you’re interested in where we are now, it’s all in Gods of Snooker, however preposterous this may sound.

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Gods of Snooker 

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This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism