Patrick Chaplin: Darts History

Katie Durose

CALLING TIME ON OUR GREAT BRITISH PUB GAMES

Katie Durose In 2008 University of Sheffield student Katie Durose, 21, approached me asking for information and advice in relation to two papers she was preparing as part of her BA (Hons) degree course in Journalism. I helped where I could and as a result of her hard work Katie, from Winsford, Cheshire, received a 2.1 degree.

Following her success, Katie has agreed to her two papers being published on this website. So, many congratulations to Katie on her success and my thanks to Katie for giving me her permission to reproduce her papers on www.patrickchaplin.com

CALLING TIME ON OUR GREAT BRITISH PUB GAMES

It may be last orders for the great British pub, but what about the future of our traditional pub games?

‘Dennis Priestley walk on – Photo courtesy of PDC / Lawrence Lustig’.

‘Dennis Priestley walk on – Photo courtesy of PDC / Lawrence Lustig’.

Emerging out of the tunnel in a puff of smoke, sporting a combed moustache and a garish Hawaiian shirt (in tribute to Wayne Mardle), Dennis Priestley is relishing his return to the big stage of the darts Premier League.

The crowd goes wild, as ‘The Menace’ steps into the bright lights of the Sheffield Arena, unbuttoning his shirt to reveal his trademark red and black stripes. It has been two years since the man from Mexborough graced the arena of the big money Premiere League darts tournament. And doesn’t he know it.

It is difficult to spot a member of the audience older than 25, and the fans are singing and swaying as they would at a Wembley World Cup final. They have turned the orderly fashion of the seating plan into a football terrace with chants like ‘There’s only one Dennis Priestley’ and ‘Walking in a Priestley wonder land.’ Almost each and every one of them is brandishing a 180 placard with irrelevant scribblings such as: ‘Alright Ben’ and ‘Hi Amy! Wish u were ‘ere’.

After his performance, that may have just knocked all the energy he had out of him, 14 times world champion, Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor is next to steal the limelight, as his sequin-glittering darts walk-on girl leads him through the crowds to meet his opponent. I can only assume the pantomime cheers and jeers that follow and the spiel that dribbles out of the Geordie lips of commentator Sid Waddell, as Taylor takes the first leg on a double ten.

Why?

Because just five miles down the road from the centre of world darts that night, I’m sat in front of a flat screen TV, munching on fish and chips and watching the coverage against the background noise of 90’s pop ‘classics’. Unfortunately, this is one of few establishments in Sheffield where I can feed my darts addiction on a Thursday night (universal darts night). And what a depressing and sad one it is.

In every corner of the room there is a flat screen TV. Half of them are tuned into Sky Sports News, the other half are showing the latest teen sensation music video. It is a Varsity Bar (owned by giants of the gastro pub trade, the Barracuda Group), whose current motto is ‘Crazy, sexy, cool’. I’m not sure if there is anything quite ‘crazy’ about it - or sexy and cool at that - unless you count the fact that in places like this you can order a glass of Pinot Grigio, a selection of Greek meze alongside a mock basket of scampi and chips with a cheap pint of real ale and packets of pork scratchings with chocolate fudge brownies for desert. It seems like the modern pub goers want it all. Or perhaps not, because when you strip away the faux leather couches and mock renaissance mirrors (with stickers that read ‘Ruby! Ruby! Ruby! Enjoy a curry for £3.50’stuck across them) the place is actually quite empty.

There is a darts board to the far right of the room, surrounded by flash sponsorship deals and a rather unwelcoming sign that reads ‘Please ask for assistance.’ I can’t help but think it is just there for show.

I pull out the three darts stuck in the bull, toe the oche, and move an inch closer to the board (women get a head start in this game). By fluke, the first lands in the twenty spot, the second in double seventeen and the third somersaulting in the air bounding off the board and planting itself into the sticky carpet. After a few disconcerting looks from the table of poker players sat behind me I give up and go back to watching the muted darts match. Taylor won 7 – 4 in legs.

In the search for darts in a city that has produced a handful of world-class players, (BDO player John ‘Boy’ Walton being the most famous) I head just a couple of miles down the road to Fagan’s, a traditional pub that stands on the edge of the post-industrial Sheffield wasteland. Behind the bar landlord Tom Boulding pours me a pint of Moonshine, a pale ale brewed just ten minutes down the road. Despite an insurgence of cranes pulling up the latest city living residence, there are few clues of what this neighbourhood was once like and what Fagan’s once represented.

It’s seven o’clock on a Wednesday night. Tom is recovering from a busy dinner time rush. The pub used to serve just lunch but in order to survive extended its food hours a few years back.

“All day opening wrecked it for us,” says Tom, as he jumps up to serve another pint of Moonshine to a soggy regular who has just stepped in from the rain. “It used to be the case that supermarkets couldn’t open on a Sunday. We would get people in for the day but now Sunday has lost all its shape.”

After pouring a half-pint of Tetley for himself he perches on a stool, guarding the entrance to the bar. ‘Historically, this is an Irish pub’ he tells me.

The sleek glass towers and sophisticated student accommodation that now surround the pub, means it is often passed over.

“This whole area was where the Irish once lived,” says Tom, sprawling his arms to establish the areas where their houses once stood. “All the old pubs round here were Irish pubs and every one of them had a darts board.”

Although the area outside the pub may have changed, Fagan’s is trapped in its charming but musty wood panelling, clinging on to a dying tradition in city centres nationwide. Inside there are a cluster of rooms centred round a small bar littered with pub paraphernalia collected over the years. Most of it is of WW2 combat aircraft. However, above the optics there is a tidy row of police badges. One of them is from the Dutch police, brought in by a man who never fails to drop in every April when the city hosts the Snooker World Championships.

In the corner of the bar is a tidy stack of pub games; a chess board, cards for cribbage, darts and dominoes. Tom insists that he does have a small group of regulars, who play cribbage and chess, but tonight their chairs are empty and the lights in the back room where they sit are switched off. The conversation turns to darts.

Fagan’s is one of very few pubs left in the city that still has a board. “We have a few lads who come in from the banks. They will play a couple of games of darts before heading off for a curry” Tom told me. Tonight however, there is no one queuing for a quick game of round the board and the closed cabinet doors hiding the board may as well display a ‘Do not disturb’ sign.

“We haven’t had a competitive darts match in here for at least 15 years,” says Tom, now pulling pints of Guinness to the surge of customers who have just walked through the door. Tom’s wife, Barbara, joins us at the bar. She puts it down to the demise of industry in the area.

“Women used to line the streets outside the steel houses around here waiting for their husbands to finish up work on a Thursday evening. They would take the majority of their wage so that it wasn’t all spent in the pub that night.”

“They used to call it ‘tipping up’,” she says. “There weren’t that many working women, you see”, before disappearing through a hidden door behind the bar. Apparently that’s the cellar. She emerges soon after with a bucket full of ice, closing the cellar door with one foot before continuing on the subject.

“Games night was such a traditional thing. Once a week, even the men would stay at home so the women could come out to play darts.”

“There was a time when you could stay out drinking all day, then drive home. I think more people used to play then,” says one regular, whose honesty has caused him to blush slightly. Tom’s not sure he even misses the game. “Can you imagine darts flying around in some of the places in Sheffield? They could be classed as an offensive weapon.”

And indeed they were, in Huddersfield. The local council banned the game in pubs after a dart bounced off the board, implanting itself in a startled punter.

“I used to play in Crewe,” says one Fagan’s regular. “The women over there are better than the men. That’s why I stopped playing.” The bar breaks out with laughter. “The darts leagues over there are thriving,” he adds. Tom disagrees, and with a grin on his face declares that is only because Cheshire is thirty years behind the rest of the country. “Next thing you know, they’ll have electricity.”

Sixty-five miles down the road, across the south Pennines and into Cheshire is the Prince’s Feathers Inn. A busy Winsford town centre pub, surrounded by four big housing estates. It is what is described in the business as an “urban local” - the largest category of pubs facing closure. However, there are no such tell-tale signs tonight.

It’s Thursday night, it’s darts night, and the two boards that occupy their own room in the pub have been swamped by the Feathers’ first team frantically throwing their tungsten arrows in last minute preparation. Tonight they face local rivals, The Top House, the first team to come from the pub in over five years. Much to the regulars’ discontent the pool table has been moved and now occupies a big chunk of the bar side as a buffet table.

In recent years pubs have cleaned up their act and so have the punters in this case. So far it’s been an easy night for the staff because all those participating in the evening’s darts are drinking cans of coke and pints of cordial. Although sobriety is one of the most startling developments in the game at the top level, I never realised it had seeped down to the grass roots.

However, as I am later made aware, this doesn’t last for too long. And as competitors are gradually knocked out of the match so are the soft drinks and pints of bitter and lager start to flow – though not quite to the levels of consumption of giants of the game such as Jocky Wilson and Cliff Lazarenko, who, combined, kept the pub trade going throughout the 1970’s and 80’s.

The traditional pursuits of pub games are being kept alive and well here. A large cupboard behind the bar is overflowing with dominoes, pin boards for cards, darts flights and cigar tins full of silver coins (the small stakes the card school play for on a Friday night). It should come with a warning sign, as each time it is opened half a dozen darts come toppling from the shelves, point side down.

Landlady Lou Hale agrees the games are essential for the survival of the pub: “At the moment the pub leagues are very important to us, they occupy three nights a week. Dominoes is played everyday in the pub but not many people are coming out for it now, it’s dying off in that way.”

A year ago, Lou changed the family’s four-door saloon for a people-carrier so the dominoes players had one less excuse to not make it to a game. The team has been going for as long as anybody can remember and it still attracts the odd player, including the landlady’s daughter, 22-year-old student, Natalie.

She says, “I asked one of the locals to teach me how to play. I was pretty good at it and once I got my confidence up decided to join the pub team. In terms of enough people playing it, no I don’t think there are, a lot of teams struggle sometimes to get a team together to even take part in the league. There have been a few younger people playing dominoes but generally people who play are over 40. It doesn’t have the same following or enthusiasm about it as darts, which is now considered a young game I think. Dominoes is renowned for being an old folk’s game. But I like it, it takes concentration and I like the people on our team, we have a laugh together.”

Landlady Lou is quick to agree. She says if it wasn’t for people playing darts her takings would be down £200-£300 a night. However, it seems the game isn’t as cemented as it would appear. “There’s always somebody on the darts board,” says Lou, “But not that many people are playing in a league. Last year we had two men’s and two ladies’ teams, now we are down to just one of each. I just think people can’t afford to come out these days.”

It’s a trend that nobody quite understands.

According to Arthur Taylor, author of ‘Played at the Pub’, there are lots of regional variations in pub games and in areas where some games are becoming virtually extinct, others are thriving. Arthur says, “In the West Country, skittles is still enormously popular and Aunt Sally, a kind of one-pin skittle game, is played enthusiastically all over Oxfordshire is as popular as ever with the next generation of players coming through all the time.”

However, there is no denying that nationwide there is an overall decline in traditional pub pursuits. In early May this year one of the few surviving shove ha’penny leagues based in Louth, Lincolnshire wound up after dwindling to only a handful of players. “The generation that would be coming up are not interested,” says Arthur. “Those who have matured through the computer age are a completely different set of people. This has never been seen before. They are not playing dominoes, skittles or any other games.”

The demise of pub games is not a singular phenomenon, and goes hand-in-hand with the general state of pub life across the UK. According to the Beer and Pub Association total beer sales are down nine million pints a day since 1979, and CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, puts the number of pub closures at six a day.

Arthur is quick to blame it on the rise of the gastro pub (or ‘ghastly pub’ as it is more commonly referred to in the business): “The J D Wetherspoon chain, for example, is the sort of place that people go to when they don't know of a real pub. J.D. banned games from the word go. They also sell beer very cheaply to undercut their rivals.”

However, while other games are disappearing, darts is still the most popular game played in pubs, and according to Arthur, over 50 per cent of pubs have a board. Dr. Patrick Chaplin, aka ‘Doctor Darts’ believes the new interest in the game is not necessarily being reflected in the pub. “The future of darts at the moment is the response of people watching Sky,” says Patrick. “The majority of people who went out to watch the old News of the World tournaments years ago were darts players. They had respect for the players. Now it is people that want to go out and socialize and they are much younger – they want to go out and have a good time and not to worry too much about what’s going on around them.”

According to Patrick, the nature of darts has gone full circle. “In the 1930s, 40s and 50s you had the same fanaticism. People would come along to major events in their coach loads carrying crates of beer.

Then the BDO (British Darts Organisation) came along and brought respectability to the game. Sky TV and the PDC have brought back the noisy crowds that have little or no respect for the players. It is an event where darts seems peripheral to having a good night out on the beer.”

For Arthur, it is not necessarily something we should be looking at through rose-tinted spectacles. He thinks that pub games are as fluid as anything else in life. “Of course the latest sensation is poker” he declares, adding. “Gambling has been frowned upon and players prosecuted, for centuries” yet since the Gaming Act 2005 was introduced, people can now play poker in pubs and clubs for small stakes.

However, without the pubs it is hard to say how long any of these games can survive. “All the organisers are saying that in twenty-five years we will be looking back at this time as a golden age.” says Arthur with a sigh of nostalgia. If numbers continue to dwindle in pub games across the land, the great British pub may have to call last orders on its few remaining teams. “It has become a bit of a worry,” says Arthur, “and I think this time they might be right.”

© 2009 Katie Durose

Note:

Arthur R. Taylor’s book Played at the Pub is part of the ‘Played in Britain’ series sponsored by English Heritage and will be published in August 2009<

To read Katie’s other paper ‘Superstars of the Oche’ click here

© Patrick Chaplin 2009