Scenes From The UK Snooker Craze

What Was Missing?

Joe Davis was hardworking as snooker’s ambassador. He traveled around the world with his cues, making countless reels like the one above. But, he could only do so much. Over its first hundred years, snooker had a significant problem growing enthusiasm, even at home. Requiring a different table and extra gear, the game lingered in back rooms but remained foreign to the masses. 

Why couldn’t people get interested? Because they couldn’t play along as a spectator. Major broadcasters of the 19th and 20th Centuries, news reels, photography, and television, were in black and white.

Take a look at nine ball game below. In black and white, (right) the center ball looks much like the one ball (the yellow has turned grey). But, looking at the numbers, after a break, and a viewer knows the nine ball is in the center. There is more than one way to identify each pool ball. Snooker ball identification, most importantly, is only about color.  

In the Joe Davis clip, he needed to call each ball he potted. Snooker insists on a strict order. The skill arises from the manipulation of potting the balls compared to those potted by your opponent. The reds needed to be all potted, before the other colors were permanently cleared from the green table.

From news reels to the television sets in viewer’s homes, matches aired on the black and white for over seventy years. After a break, only those with a color commentator (or an amazing memory)  could follow. Each color represents a different amount of points. For years, an on air glance at a snooker table wouldn’t provide the information needed to determine the best next shots. Every ball became shades of grey. 

Joe Davis, concerned about the lack of public passion for snooker, created Snooker Plus by adding two extra balls to the table. He thought that a chance for higher scores and longer play would bring more fans. 

Snooker-Plus-Balls

Orange and Purple couldn’t bring more viewers with black and white sets.

The new game, developed in the 1950s,  only gave current snooker fans more to love. The bright game needed another famous celebrity to save the game from obscurity.

In Your Living Room, In Color

In 1969, BBC 2 started broadcasting  a short frame snooker program in color called Pot Black. The director of broadcasting, nature commentator David Attenborough , enjoyed the game for inherently possessing a dazzling palette. He gambled the vibrant snooker hues would look smashing on the new color sets that stores began stocking. For the first shows, spectators were collected from the station’s lunch room

Color television was the shot in the arm snooker didn’t know it desperately needed. Pot Black took off like a rocket across Great Britain. The title aired in several forms for nearly thirty years. The clip below is the intro to the show in it’s prime. Strangely, the theme music used is The Black and White Rag.  

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The show, like earlier snooker broadcasts, borrowed the black tie tournament set up. Providing refreshments available at the pubs, the show found talent in both niche worlds. The commentators drank and smoked while reporting play. Viewers saw a blend of polished play and backroom pub almost every night on BBC2. 

When the two types of snooker master met in color, TV viewers realized this was a nuanced game with a unique variety of play and personalities. The pubs and men’s clubs turned out to be the some or the first places to get the new color sets. When patrons came to watch a snooker broadcast, they were tempted by the nearby tables to try their hand at a few frames. 

As a part of success, celebrities continued showing off snooker as a leisure activity in their lives. Magazines were always more colorful, than other form of publication. With introduction of color television, fans now understood that their idols were enjoying a unique game. Snooker curiosity and revenue continued to grow as people wanted to relate to their favorite artists. 

Paul McCartney and Wings’ 1975 release Venus and Mars featured a couple snooker balls on the cover. The album’s commercial spot includes the band enjoying time on the baize while the album tracks play. Game play in the clip is whimsical.

Nationwide, players became advertisers of drinking and smoking while waiting for their chances to pot balls. The prize money began to grow, along with viewership. Awards started to include decanters named after former snooker greats. Most players knew when to sip slow and play well. Some players such as six time world champion, Welsh player Ray Reardon, found additional revenue in commercials.

 

Referees also became famous as snooker became more pervasive.  Often fans would see them as venue staples, more than the players. A fun example of referee fame is Len Ganely. He gained the nickname The Ballcrusher from the commercial below. He became a beloved regular sight at the popular Sheffield home for major snooker events, The Crucible Theatre (built in 1971). 

The band, Half Man Half Biscuit, sang his praises in the 1985 tune, The Len Ganley Stance. Len added to the fame by attending weddings of snooker fans. With chimney sweep also on his resume, Ganley became an honored good luck guest that met the bride before nuptials. He was known to donate some of his sponsorship money to charities.

Alex “The Hurricane” Higgins

Pot Black was famous enough for parody on The Benny Hill Show. Benny Hill became a world wide comedy sensation in the 1970s. His naughty humor played up only the most iconic facets of British culture. Snooker is known for its audience, which, as in golf, was strictly cautioned to stay silent during play. 

In this sketch, Benny uses the name ‘Hurricane Hill’. In usual Hill fashion, he’s pretending to be an outrageous version of a very real and insanely popular snooker player of the decade. Northern Ireland’s Alex, The Hurricane, Higgins is snooker’s first television Superstar.  

Alex Higgins entered professional play about the same time snooker went color. He represented a master show man. The name, The Hurricane, came from how fast he would clear the table when his turn came up. The dichotomy of his skill and vacillating temper from match to match probably created as many viewers as color television. 

 

He brought his friends, the era’s most noteworthy train wrecks, The Who drummer Keith Moon and actor Oliver Reed, to watch him play. A famous anecdote has Reed gifting The Hurricane a bottle of perfume. The Hurricane ended up drinking most of it, already being blind drunk. The tabloids followed his partying ways, which included some violent domestic fights. 

In the following clip, The Hurricane discusses his wild decade between his two World Snooker Championships in 1973 and 1983. Take note of the amazing reward jump over a short period. The prize money ballooned over fifty times from his first world championship!

 

As the Eighties progressed, The Hurricane’s moods during matches, grew more violent than the snooker officials could fine. A tragic cycle of banishment from major tournament play and court cases began to fill his career. He was suspended and quit publicly more than once. Even after a bout with cancer, he returned to snooker. 

His obvious talent and hard working persona (he was also remembered as The People’s Champion) had a magnificent power over the crowd. People always tuned into discover what he was going to do the next appearance. 

While The Hurricane had a long period of ups and tragic downs, snooker organizers began reconsidering the use of beer and spirits at major events. The Hurricane was not the only player with a drug and drink problem. He stayed with the game the longest. He died without much to call his own in 2010. Today, The Northern Ireland Open’s trophy is named in his honor.

New sponsors at the end of the Eighties emerged as betting became organized and legal in the United Kingdom. Organizations, such as Matchroom took over as the investors for more UK sporting events. Snooker kept the fancy dress posh atmosphere that made the each tournament something special. The drinking and smoking during play, were left in the past. Organizers began trusting that the game could now advertise itself. 

The Snooker Loopy days of the Seventies and Eighties germinated in the hearts of the fans, to take root on all corners of the globe. Color technology made snooker easier to follow, then easier to fall in love. Today, it is estimated that snooker is played by 60 million in China alone. There are clubs and professional players emerging across the world, including the game’s birthplace, India.  Joe Davis would be impressed by snooker’s success as seen on Champions of Champions.