Right now, the World Snooker Championship final is taking place.
I used to watch snooker quite a lot when I was a child. We even had a small snooker table at home, not that we had the space to play it properly. We had removed the legs it came with and balanced it on the dining table. My brother and I would often take over the room.
We had to contort ourselves at ridiculous angles just to avoid hitting the walls with our elbows as we played our shots. But we always persevered, particularly as excitement reached fever levels during the World Championship.
Over the years we began playing snooker less and less, which is probably natural as we were growing up. But I began watching it less and less on TV as well.
This year, I have not yet watched any of it. I have not seen a single pot. That wasn’t a conscious decision. I just haven’t been drawn to watch it.
A couple of weeks ago I watched a programme about 50 years of sport coverage on BBC Two. The programme climaxed with the 1985 World Snooker Championship final. It surprised me, because I had almost forgotten all about the fact snooker was once one of the most popular television spectacles.
The match attracted an audience of 18.5 million after midnight on a Sunday night. It’s the biggest audience BBC Two has ever had. It is difficult to imagine snooker ever reaching those sorts of heights again. Today the final is more likely to scrape about 6 million viewers together.
What has caused snooker’s slump in the UK? I think there are two overarching reasons that work together in combination to turn people off the sport. Firstly, the majority of today’s players are personality vacuums. This is combined with woeful TV coverage that seems like it has almost been designed to expose the players’ dullness.
Between sessions, the BBC programme often runs features about the players. These are presumably supposed to give us their background story and an insight into what makes them tick. Unfortunately, it seems as though literally nothing makes them tick, which is precisely why they’ve wound up spending their adult lives pushing balls into holes with a stick.
A few years ago I saw a pre-recorded profile of Mark Williams. He was asked what his favourite book is. He just stared blankly as though he had just been asked about his views on string theory.
Mark Williams had clearly never thought about what his favourite book was. His answer: “I dunno. I don’t really read books.”
What’s more incredible is the fact that this was deemed good enough to broadcast. Pretty much every answer he gave to each question was almost as mind-crushingly banal.
Perhaps naively, you expect sport stars to be something special. They are almost meant to be like super heroes with extraordinary talents. Watching this Mark Williams feature brought it all home: this is just a guy who plays snooker, and the reason he is good is because he spends his time playing snooker and not doing anything else.
The TV pundits are not much better. The likes of Ken Doherty and Stephen Hendry sit there explaining the game in a dull monotone. They are unable to produce the slightest hint of a smile, constantly looking so glum yet oddly unstirred, as though their goldfish has just died.
Then we come to the commentary, which these days is nothing short of calamitous. A raft of former players with not much flair for the English language proceed to describe the game in the most indifferent manner.
John Virgo is the absolute nadir. He has a disturbing tendency to repeat everything twice, as if to make up for the lack of anything truly insightful to say. This has spread like a virus to his fellow former-pro commentating colleagues.
Where is the cue ball going? Where is the cue ball going?
Yes, it has gone into the same postcode as a pocket, as we could all see anyway. Thanks for that.
This is a far cry from the days when snooker was covered by accomplished broadcasters: David Vine, Ted Lowe, Clive Everton.
It’s not just behind the mic that the TV coverage lets the sport down. Shots of the in-game action are interspersed with shots of family members and semi-celebrities that are in the audience, complete with a cringeworthy pre-scripted spiel from the commentators.
This might almost be understandable if you could even see them, but the audience is (understandably) bathed in darkness. The producers try their usual camera tricks to increase the brightness, but the result is so distorted you might as well be looking at a Magic Eye puzzle.
Then there is the apparent requirement for snooker players to be given a boxing-style introduction by some guy with a shiny jacket who looks like he should be on QVC. There are bright lights, smoke and really horrible music. It is unspeakably naff, and it leaves the viewer with the distinct impression that this is a sport for the lowest common denominator.
Sure, times change, and tastes change with them. This is not 1985 any more, and snooker feels like it needs to do something to remain relevant. But it looks to me like it doesn’t have the answers.
The great irony is that one of the protagonists of that legendary 1985 final was Steve Davis, nicknamed ‘Interesting’ for being anything but interesting. Yet today, Steve Davis is one of the most engaging and intelligent representatives of the sport, and the BBC’s best pundit by some margin.
It is a great shame that today, both the players and the broadcasters are absolutely uninspiring. I will try to watch some of this weekend’s final, if I can remember. But long gone are the days when I was riveted to snooker.