Saturday, January 13, 2007

SPORTIN' LIFE: Darts and more darts

A month that began with the horror of a young girl mauled to death by the underclass prat's weapon of choice (a pitbull) perked up with another underclass pleasure (darts). On New Year's Day Raymond Van Barneveld beat Phil Taylor on Sky in the Greatest Darts Match Ever (TM) and then came the BBC's own 'World Championship' which had its own delights.

For the uninitiated, this glorious game (not sport) split into two governing bodies a dozen years ago; simply, Sky got the better of the two resultant world championships (the moneyed Professional Darts Corporation as opposed to the traditionalist British Darts Organisation). But Barneveld, who won the lesser of the two a few times but who lost in the last final of that lesser tournament, has punctured Taylor's aura of invincibility (oh, do try and keep up). A reunification, long talked of, seems nigh-on inevitable.

Darts is a game that is -in various forms - ageless but was only popularised and formalised in England by brewers in the 1920s, and as such assimilated as another piece of urban mythology ingested by the urban white male's craving for 'tradition', as per the Queen Mum, Dunkirk etc. This rubbish can be found in Martin Amis's writings on the game, the roots of his rather bad 1989 novel London Fields. In it, he essays a monstrously proletarian and stupid darter, Keith Talent (Amis was still in his funny-name phase), rudely and nomenclaturally based on the blameless Keith Deller, the 1983 world champion, who, laudably, refused to diss the author.

Sky have keyed into this with surgical precision - which is why the PDC championship takes place at a tawdry roadhouse in Purfleet in (where else?) Essex, and is basically the world according to Garry Bushell. It's... well, um, flashy. And quite ridiculous. Anyone who remembers Viz's Cockney Wanker need look no further - a sov on every finger. Lavverly! This is why that after Keith Deller's world championship in 1983 the snooker route wasn't taken - to those Thatcherite upwardlies, it was all too, well, like, crap, wannit?

The BBC, for their part, do the BDO championship in the (relative) dignity of Frimley Green in Surrey and do it all a little better. No Hazel Irvine, but we can't have everything.

This year, for the first time on the Beeb, there have been multiple mentions of the breakaway PDC championship, whereas before it was airbrushed from the world with the panache of Stalin's NKVD, in spite of Taylor's supreme brilliance. Barneveld, last year's losing BDO finalist having beaten Taylor has, though, conferred on the BDO a sudden cachet. With Barneveld's conqueror, the lanky and swarthy young Dutch looker Jelle Klaassen already on his way home, the BDO and the BBC look like they have a product on their hands. And the Beeb should make it count.

It's smashing stuff. The paunchy lad Fitzmaurice, our 'Master of Ceremonies' leads the ritual chant; 'Are. You. Ready? Ladies. And. Gentlemen!!! Let's!! Play!!! Darts!!!!' Everyone knows the drill. Everyone loves it. Martin Adams can take the piss out of himself something rotten in the way that other minor Brit heroes, say, Andy Murray or Justin Rose cannot. The improbably blinged-up Bobby George, the gorblimey's gorblimey, whose jewellery makes Mr T looks like a Wee Free minister, was in top form, as ever disbelieving he was being paid for saying so much about nothing. The thoughtful Canadian ex-world champion, John Part, offered this after the referee had asked the crowd to refrain from flash photography because of reflections from the newly-built stage set; 'or maybe it's that Bobby George is still in the building'.

Was darts the first postmodern spectator sport? Discuss.

This of course is the shouty province of parade ground, public bar and music hall, of call and response, of pantomime. Darts is quintessentially ritual, much as ITV's wrestling was. And yet it is also a sie of resistance; no corporate sponsor will fund players who have laughter in their eyes when they have been beaten by an opponent. When cockney Adams howls and then bursts into laughter when he walks on to 'Hungry Like The Wolf', well, it's just not done. Martin, we've got to do something about your image, mate. This is not part of the discourse of televised sport; but it is, at least in part, a remnant of localised rivalries to be dissolved in a pint. Top darters are not necessarily monosyllabic, wifebeating hod-haulers. Deller was, and is, a charming, voluble man; ditto Bob Anderson, the 1988 world champion, self-styled 'Limestone Cowboy' but in real life, all-round ordinary bod and good egg.

Even children of the free-market satellite revolution, Klaassen and the coming mabn, the angelic 18-year-old Michael Van Gerwen, buy into this camaraderie. It is of course partly false; anyone who has been to a needle darts match in a hostile pub knows how much intimidation goes on, something Amis nails very well in London Fields.After all, take a closer look; those haircuts. The tattoos. The fake tans. Amis again, from Success 'the smell of panic and roused animals' (often pitbulls, one sombrely surmises). Klaassen, Van Gerwen and their fatter and older buddies know that too. But among the filth and struggle of working class existence lies decency and common humanity. Just watch them - you tell a darter's mood from their eyes when they're throwing, and you can tell them as a man or woman from the eyes when they have lost. The demeanour has been learned from soap - from Grant and Phil Mitchell.

But darts is also great, relentless, rat-tat-tat drama - cheap and cheerful TV at its absolute best. It may not quite equate to Schnabel playing Beethoven or AJP Taylor talking about, er, anything, but it sure as hell beats the shit out of most live football matches.

The BBC finally raided its darts archive (was everything really that dark as recenrly as 1981?) and female darts players are within two years of matching the men and commendably the Beeb made much of it. Trina Gulliver, who has singlehandedly held off a Dutch onslaught on the women's game to remain the undefeated world champion, was given at least a fraction of a due. Almost as commendably, given the prevalence of large and lecherous men at the event, the cameras didn't drool over Anastasia Dobromyslova, a promising young Russian. Darts, by its very prole nature, has always attracted the discourse of holiday camp kitsch, and the another sign of progress was the fact that her name wasn't prefixed by the dread words 'the lovely', not even from TV Sport's loveable Paul Shane-a-like, Tony Green.

That's a good thing; Dobromyslova is no new-Russian doll. She would whip most British pub players but, admittedly, has a truly beautiful smile that can't be coached (it's the eyes, stupid) but if collagen were on WADA's list her lips would be facing a life ban. Gulliver, on the other hand, has the worn countenance of a Grimsby fishwife but speaks lucidly and articulately in a North Midlands accent as savoury as freshly-cooked faggots. Sensibly, she talks - in properly-parsed sentences - of how hot it is on the oche under the TV lights, something no male player would ever be so noofterish as to do. Gulliver should be the mouthpiece of darts, the straight foil to Bobby George's no-less-valuable turn.

Whether she will be able to assume that mantle under a BBC aegis remains to be seen. You know the Birtite thinking; there simply aren't enough minorities being catered for by darts. So, to adopt the unspoken yet all-too-real m.o. of neo-liberal capitalism, if not everyone wants it (and we define everyone), nobody gets it. Darts? Oh no. Leave it to Sky. Too nasty. Never mind that it doesn't have to be the province of sink estates and van drivers any more than boules has to be played only by the French. This year, both the PDC and BDO championships have proved that; it only remains for the BBC to screw things up by surrendering all rights to whatever comes next.

The script's been written already, Let's do what Greg Dyke did with the wrestling in '88 (never mind that darts is for real). Let's pretend to take the moral and artistic high ground. And pay Jonathan Ross a few million more.

Set the dogs on them, say I.

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