The one thing I will always remember about darts people is that, almost without exception, they are nice folk; people who love what they do in darts whether it is in playing, organising or just supporting the sport as fans.
In early 2019 one of the giants of darts organisation, Les France, passed away. The obituary that follows was written by Wayne Baker, a former key contributor to Darts World, who knew Les very well indeed.
Wayne’s tribute to Les originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Darts World and is reproduced here with his permission. Wayne wrote:
“For he’s a jolly good fellow, for he’s a jolly good fellow…..”
The Isle of Man Darts Festival celebrated its 30th birthday in 2015 and toasted the man responsible for the successful island tournament.
Ill health meant that octogenarian Les France was unable to travel to the event but it did not stop the island’s tourist board from honouring the popular Swinton-based tournament organiser. They phoned him at home and everyone at the palatial sea-front Villa Marina playing venue burst into a spontaneous rendering of “for he’s a jolly good fellow…”
Isle of Man festival Director of Tourism Robin Bishop said: “This is the 30th one and we are very proud to support this international festival of darts, which has attracted players from the mainland UK as well as Russia, Switzerland , Holland and Belgium, plus this year for the first time, players from the World Disabled Darts Association.
The photograph shows Les in 2010 receiving an award in recognition for his work by the Isle of Man Tourist Board. (Photo © Wayne Baker. Used with permission.)
“Unfortunately one person could not be here – Les France. We are very disappointed that he could not be here for the 30th event. We appreciate his tremendous passion and enthusiasm for darts and this tournament,” he said. Previously Les had been presented with a letter of commendation from the Isle of Man’s Minister of Tourism and Leisure, the Hon. David Cretney.
The letter said: “May I, on behalf of the Department and the IoM Government thank you for your sterling efforts over the years. The darts festival really has become an important fixture in our events calendar and is seen by many as the kick-start to another season of sports events on the Island.” This was just one example of the esteem and high regard afforded to Lancashire-based Les France, who died over Christmas after a lengthy illness.
One of the most experienced and well-liked administrators, he had chalked up more than six decades in the sport. He became secretary of his local league – Swinton and Pendlebury – in 1948, holding the position for 28 years. Colin Evans, who was to become his partner in Lescol Promotions, became chairman of the league and a successful partnership was forged.
Les, as chairman of the Lancashire National Darts Association met a young Olly Croft at one of the annual matches with London during the early 1970s. At the time there were just four counties – Lancashire, London, Warwickshire and Yorkshire.
Les recalled: “Lancashire were playing London at Tongue Ward Labour Club in Bolton. I was introduced to Olly who was quite surprised at the number of people who had turned out to watch a darts match. We had a chat and discussed the possibility of getting other counties to join together to form a league.
“I came across another person – Norman Byron from Congleton. Cheshire also liked the idea and after numerous phone calls it was decided that we would have the first of many meetings. This initial meeting was held at the Wharf Inn in Congleton and lasted until the early hours of the following morning!”
Later it was decided to start a new BDO [British Darts Organisation] league with 10 counties. This was in 1973-74. Les became Lancashire secretary, BDO director, England selector and inter counties secretary.
“As time passed, clubs and pubs became interested in having the top names for exhibitions. We worked with all the top names including Eric Bristow, John Lowe and also organised Jocky Wilson’s Strongbow Cider exhibitions.”
“Sometime later while chatting with Colin we decided to build a set of equipment – costs precluded us from buying new stuff. I designed the mimic board and the numerators and Colin and my son Steve did all the electrical work – the wiring and soldering.”
Les provided the behind-the-scenes know-how when the Modern Hotels Jersey Festival of Darts was launched in 1980 – won that year by Jocky Wilson. His “baby” though was the Isle of Man Festival of Darts. With Les at the helm of the popular island tournament blossomed and is still going strong after more than three decades on the darting calendar.
“A meeting was set up with Derek Mulhearn from the island’s tourist board, Ted Toohey of the Steam Packet and Jane Quayle who represented the Hilton Hotel. They all agreed to provide £1000 each and we managed to get trophies from the Sunday Mirror – the Manx darts tournament was born.”
Les and his team weathered the industrial recession, heavy snow, foot and mouth disease and “the split” in the mid-1990s to keep the Manx festival up and running, even attracting BDO rankings points.
Les’ files of players travelling and playing in the Manx tournament were a work of art and testament to his professionalism, which was extended to his stage crew who were meticulously turned out in matching coloured polo shirts and jumpers – strictly no jeans.
Although he failed to embrace the modern world of technology his desire was always “to put on the best darts tournament we can.”
One of the sport’s great characters and administrators, Les like those players he worked with – Jocky Wilson, Eric Bristow and Lancashireman Bill Lennard – will be sadly missed.
© 2019 Wayne Baker
MY MEMORIES OF LES FRANCE
When I first met Les at the WINMAU World Masters at Bridlington about a decade ago I was enthralled by the man, his knowledge, his love of darts and his dedication to organisation, particularly his beloved Isle of Man tournament. We talked for ages and the following year Les brought several albums of cuttings to show me. We sat going through them, a process that, as you can imagine, took us a fair amount of time. The photograph here shows Les and me at the Masters in 2010. (Image © Moppix International. Used with permission.)
Les presented me with photocopies of newspaper cuttings from the New York Times from 1974 which celebrated the defeat of a British Darts Organisation’s darts team to the United States Darting Association’s team led by the legendary Al Lippman. The event was sponsored by Bob McLeod of Darts Unlimited. The New York Times headline read ‘They’ll Be Crying in Their Pub Beer As British Are Upset by U.S. in Darts. Indeed the Brits were.
But perhaps the most interesting document, from an historical perspective, that Les gave me was a photocopy of a statement issued by the World Darts Council (WDC) (later to become the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC)). It was dated 4th January 1993 and read as follows:
We, the undersigned, members of the World Professional Darts Players Association, mandate the World Darts Council to represent us exclusively on all matters relating to the 1994 World Professional Darts Championship.
In particular, we recognise the World Darts Council as the only governing body empowered to commit our participation in any darts tournament worldwide.
The statement (shown above) was signed by the sixteen so-called ‘rebels’. In order of signing they were John Lowe, Eric Bristow, Cliff Lazarenko, Phil Taylor, Keith Deller, Jamie Harvey, Bob Anderson, Dennis Priestley, Rod Harrington, Kevin Spiolek, Chris Johns, Mike Gregory, Alan Warriner, Jocky Wilson, Peter Evison and Ritchie Gardiner.
Les told me back in 2003, “At the time of the split I was asked to another meeting with the top 16 players, who all signed, along with Dick Allix and Tommy Cox [of the WDC] to join them but I stayed loyal to the BDO. Now I do regret this…”
How the WDC, the emergent PDC, would have benefitted from Les’ knowledge, experience and organisational know-how is inestimable.
© 2019 Patrick Chaplin
This full article was first published in Dr. Darts’ Newsletter #110 – May 2019.