THE INDOOR LEAGUE
The Indoor League was a ground-breaking British television series launched by Yorkshire Television (YTV) in the early 1970s. The series featured a number of popular English pub games including darts and was, as one writer observed ‘Sid Waddell’s early venture into darts broadcasting.’
For many years indoor pub games had existed peacefully (and sometimes not so peacefully) in the smoked-filled public bars, vaults and tap rooms of thousands of ordinary pubs across Britain. Depending on where you lived the bar would resound to the clatter of falling table skittles, the rattle of the ‘bones’ (dominoes) being shuffled, the gentle thud-thud-thud as three darts hit their target or the indescribable banshee-like shriek as someone accidentally toppled the black mushroom and lost their entire score at the end of a game of bar billiards.
Most matches were friendly and never made the headlines. Only the more serious organised pub leagues made the weekly local newspapers and then, more often than not, in the form of league tables and results with no detailed reports. Players of pub games had never really bothered about the profile of their recreations. They were more concerned about the friendship and sociability for which such games are rightly renowned.
Then came the team from YTV (which included Sid Waddell) who produced The Indoor League and for a few years the world of public house games was exposed to the television public like never before (or since).
The Indoor League was mapped out ‘in a posh office at Yorkshire Television’ in Kirkstall Road, Leeds in May 1972, the meeting ending with an agreed format and an empty crate of ‘Double Diamond’. (For more about Kirkstall Raod and its links with darts history see the Annakin story elsewhere on this site.)
In that meeting attended by Sid was Donald Baverstock, the Programme Controller for YTV, the man who had come up with the original concept, of pitching pub and club champions against each other in various pub game disciplines. He also came up with the title whilst watching his father become worked up over a game of table skittles.
Also present was Peter Jones who was to become the Producer of the Indoor League. At the meeting he chipped in that darts had long been neglected on TV. This was not strictly true as Westward TV had been running a darts tournament since the early 1960s and ITV had first covered the News of the World darts championship in 1972 but apart from that…
Nearly four decades earlier the first pub games broadcast on BBC Television was made involving darts and shove ha’penny. At 9.25 p.m. on Saturday 29th May 1937 BBC ‘London Television’ broadcast from Alexandra Palace a programme cleverly entitled ‘Darts and Shove Ha’penny’; a competition ‘between two rival teams of two well-known [but not identified] hostelries.’
Much later, in March 1968, BBC ‘Channel 1’ began a new weekly series entitled ‘Quiz Time Gentlemen Please!’ where ‘Pubs compete with darts and general knowledge’; a forerunner of the TV quiz show Bull’s-eye (hosted by Jim Bowen) which was broadcast by ITV in 1981 and then Central TV from 1982 to 1995.
But back to that meeting…
John Fairley, Head of Local Features at YTV, who regularly played skittles and shove ha’penny, also attended and shortly afterwards became the Executive Producer of The Indoor League. Then there was Sid, at that time the reigning all-Yorkshire shove ha’penny champion, who had served his apprenticeship at the sport in the ‘red-hot Durham City Super League’ and who had been involved with television since the late 1960s.
Sid and Peter Jones waxed lyrical and reported excitedly about the News of the World Individual Darts Championship and the special atmosphere and ‘fan mania’ at the Grand Finals (at that time held at the Alexandra Palace, London). The News of the World tournament had been running since 1927 and once it became ‘national’ after the end of the Second World War in the 1947/48 season was the one major sports trophy that the ordinary workingman pub-goer could win, potentially starting out in his local pub and ending up at the Ally Pally.
Could this ‘mania’ be transferred to the studio in support of not only darts but other pub games too?
Once the format had been agreed a number of researchers were dispatched across Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Durham scouring those counties for champions of arm wrestling, table football, shove ha’penny, darts (both men and women), cheese skittles, table skittles, bar billiards and American 8-ball pool. Cricket legend Freddie Trueman (with pipe and pint) (pictured below) was drafted in to front the show and Richard Whitely (late of TV word game Countdown fame) was one of the presenters whilst Dave Lanning (who was later to spend many years sharing darts commentary boxes on SKY TV with Sid) was one of the commentators.
The first series was recorded at the Queen’s Hall, Leeds in mid-October 1972 and the audience response was better than the producers had hoped for. Among the darts players were Charlie Ellis, who had a private darts room in his pub at Wyke, near Bradford, and Colin Minton, from Easingwold, who had played darts since he was four; standing on a bar stool in his father’s pub so he could reach the dartboard.
Shove ha’penny stars included ‘Buffalo Bill’ from Scunthorpe (in full cowboy dress; six-gun in one hand, polished brass ha’pennies in the other) whilst Taffy John, a headmaster from nearby Pontefract, taught his opponents how to play bar billiards (pictured) with consummate ease that defied description.
In the spring of 1973 Series One of the Indoor League was transmitted in the North of England only and was well-received. A second series was commissioned and was recorded at the Leeds Irish Centre. With that series the programme went ‘national’; one of the major changes being that the traditional Yorkshire Board (no trebles or outer bull) used in the first series was replaced by the more common and nationally recognised London Trebles board.
At its height viewing figures for the Indoor League reached five million. It lasted for six series; the last being in 1977 having in its final years evolved into a darts-only show. The programme effectively launched the TV darts commentating careers of both Sid Waddell and Dave Lanning but, above all, the programme, however briefly, raised the profile of pub games across the nation.
But whilst darts went on from strength to strength afterwards to become a ‘monster’ in terms of TV exposure and national and international popularity the rest of the pub games featured in The Indoor League quickly and quietly returned to the public bar rarely to be seen on television again. From the start one of the most popular pub games of all, dominoes was never featured. Perhaps the producers were concerned about potential problems with crowd control!
For a full list of Indoor League darts champions see below.
In the television programme 100 TV Moments from Hell (originally broadcast in the UK by Channel 4 in 2000) Sid Waddell described The Indoor League, which was at number 84 in that top 100, as ‘low-brow, red-neck entertainment’ and in his book Bellies and Bullseyes (2007) said that it was a ‘brash, raucous show…our tribute to the unsung heroes, male and female, of shove ha’penny, table football, bar skittles, arm-wrestling, bar billiards and darts.’
…and it worked.
In that same 100 TV Moments from Hell programme Sid, clearly in a reference to The Indoor League, declared, “I’d love to be remembered as the first man to put shove ha’penny on the television.”
(Sorry Sid. See above.)
The Indoor League was certainly pub games’ finest hour on television.
But its actual finish hour, in my opinion, occurred on 4th August 2009 when English Heritage published Arthur R. Taylor’s book Played at the Pub – The pub games of Britain. No pub games fan should be without a copy.
(Text © 2019 Patrick Chaplin. Images © YTV and PC/DW Archive. Used with permission.)
THE INDOOR LEAGUE – WINNERS (DARTS)
(Note: In the first series darts was for men only.)
Colin Minton (York) Runner up – Charles Ellis (Bradford)
Men’s – Tommy O’Regan Runner-up – Alan Evans (Rhondda)
Women’s – Loveday King (Cornwall) Runner-up Jessie Catterick (Doncaster)
Men’s – Leighton Rees (Pontypridd) Runner-up – Alan Evans (Stockport)
Women’s – Greta Hallgren (Sweden) Runner-up – Millie Bergeson (Rhyl)
Men’s – Conrad Daniels (New Jersey) Runner-up – Cliff Inglis (Stockport)
Women’s – Jean Dickinson (Cheshire) Runner-up – Brenda Simpson (Derbyshire)
Men’s – Leighton Rees (Pontypridd) Runner-up – Charlie Ellix (London)
Women’s – Jean Dickinson (Cheshire) Runner-up – Margaret Lally (Leigh)
1977 (Final series)
Men’s – Tony Brown (Dover) Runner-up – David ‘Rocky’ Jones (Rhymney)
Women’s – Sandra Gibb (Gwent) Runner-up – Margaret Lally (Leigh)