Saturday, 18 October 2008

Read All About It: The story of Darts on ITV

This November sees the Grand Slam Of Darts on ITV for a second year. The tournament features the best players from the sports' two governing bodies - the PDC and the BDO.

The competition represents a rare moment of rapprochement between the two bodies that split acrimoniously in the early 90's. It also emphasises the return of the tungsten ticklers to ITV for the second consecutive year. In fact the Third Channel has announced a deal to screen the Grand Slam on ITV & ITV4 for the next three years.

In addition, there will be further live coverage of other PDC events: The European Championships, the Players Championship and a pro-celebrity tournament. Truly the PDC is making a big step onto a larger stage.

Many viewers will only be familiar with BDO Darts coverage on the BBC or PDC on Sky. There was a time, however, when ITV was the home of the game and it covered it enthusiastically throughout the 70's and 80's. The most prestigious competition at this time was the News Of The World Championship.

The News Of The World was an annual tournament, which began life during the inter-war years. It was the forerunner to the World Championships at the Lakeside in Surrey, which started in 1978. Before then, the NOTW winner was seen as the de facto World Champion.

ITV's coverage began in 1970. Early footage shows players with throwing actions which would be regarded as bizarre by today's standards in front of a packed Alexandra Palace teeming with raucous predominantly working men enjoying each others company. Cigarettes and alcohol were in attendance both on and off the oche.

Some of the players featured were real darting legends: John Lowe, Leighton Rees, Bobby George and Eric Bristow were just a few names that resonate through the ages.

The TV coverage was basic by today's multi-camera swishy graphic standards. However, the site of barmy drunken geezers screaming their heads off is a familiar one to fans of Darts on TV today. Your commentator was sports journalist Dave Lanning whose West Country lilt pre-dates the legendary Sid Waddell, a man synonymous with Darts on TV. Indeed Lanning can still be heard commentating on all the major PDC tournaments on Sky alongside Waddell.

The News Of The World was not the only darts competition on ITV. Numerous regional and international tournaments took place on the stage and in front of the cameras. Darts also featured in Yorkshire TV’s Indoor League produced by Waddell. The programme was hugely informed by working men’s culture and featured pub games like Skittles, Shove Ha’penny, Bar Billiards and of course Darts. Take a look at this clip to see how unashamedly, gloriously regional the programme is. They don't make 'em like this anymore.

Throughout the decade, coverage of the News Of The World continued, mostly on Saturday afternoon sports show World Of Sport presented by Dickie Davies. The image of the dart player as overweight boozer so classically lampooned by Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones in their classic Not The Nine O Clock News sketch (below) was defined by the News Of The World Championship and consequently by ITV.

The tournament itself endured until 1990. By this time it had been superseeded by the World Championship. Despite a brief revival in the mid-nineties (to allow Phil Taylor the opportunity to win the trophy) it has been consigned to history.

Its demise pretty much coincided with the end of ITV's coverage of the sport. After that it was BBC all the way until a small group of elite players (including Taylor) deserted the BDO to form the WDC, which then became the PDC. There are now two World Championship tournaments and a never-ending debate as to which is the best.

The 90’s proved something of a wilderness period for Darts. While the BDO continued to screen their World Championships on the BBC, Sky soldiered on with the PDC. Eventually it paid off with big TV audiences, massive purses and loud boisterous crowds watching the modern greats John Part, Raymond van Barneveld, James Wade and of course Phil Taylor winning hundreds of thousands of pounds. In 2002, after years of waiting, Sky managed to capture the holy grail of the sport, the nine-dart finish. Something only recorded on the BBC. This time, it was live and somehow it sealed the games renaissance.

In recent years the PDC has became bolder in its ambitions and last year organised the Grand Slam, bringing top BDO players to be screened live on ITV. After a lengthy hiatus (interrupted by a one of match between Taylor and van Barneveld, then the BDO World Champion), darts is back and for these who don’t have Sky Sports, there is an opportunity to watch the best players in action for free. Game on.

ITV will be screening the European Championships from October 30th, the Pro-Celebrity Challenge from 14th November and the Grand Slam of Darts begins the next day. A further tournament will be screened in the New Year.

ITV Darts official website


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