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Broadcasting darts: How TV and radio hit the bullseye

Simon Mahon

BBC Genome

Jasmine Bligh and Leslie Mitchell at rehearsal for the Indoor Games test transmission in 1936

Darts was first broadcast on radio before becoming a regular in the television schedules, enjoying its heyday in the 1980s. Here are some of the 180 reasons for the success of darts programming.

Traditionally seen as a working-class pub sport, darts has at times appealed to the upper echelons - King George VI and Queen Elizabeth enjoyed a darts demonstration in 1937. The sport was occasionally covered on radio - this listing from 1937 shows a tournament from Belfast was the first darts match to be broadcast in Northern Ireland, while a match involving Joe Hitchcock was covered on The Light Programme in 1946. Darts was even used for a 1936 test television transmission of a match between Jasmine Bligh  and Leslie Mitchell, who would both go on to be prominent presenters in the early days of BBC Television. Listings weren’t printed for those early television test transmissions, but televised darts did make it into the billings for a 1938 match-up featuring a team of BBC employees.

J. T. Sutthery provided the commentary for this 1937 match

One of the driving forces in darts was Sid Waddell. The son of a Northumberland miner, Waddell had an intellect that saw him read modern history at St John’s College Cambridge, before going on to become a television producer for ITV local news. Following the success of the News of the World Darts Championship on television, Waddell launched ITV's The Indoor League in 1972, which featured various pub games including darts and was presented by ex-cricketer Fred Trueman. Fiery Fred had been described by Leslie Kettley as “a blunt Yorkshireman who speaks his mind” in a 1964 Radio Times article. He reinvented himself as a television presenter following his retirement from cricket and memorably fronted the programme while holding a pint of bitter.

Waddell later moved to the BBC and was chosen to commentate on the first World Professional Darts Championships in 1978. Alongside Tony Green, Waddell was the BBC’s main darts commentator for the next 16 years. He was famed for his colourful and creative one-liners. After Eric Bristow won one of his numerous world titles Waddell exclaimed, “When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer... Bristow's only 27.”

Radio Times put darts on their front cover ahead of the 1980 World Championship

It wasn’t just Waddell’s rich and vibrant commentary that helped darts explode in popularity and turn players like Jocky Wilson, Cliff Lazarenko and John Lowe into household names. For the first World Championships BBC producer Nick Hunter introduced split-screen technology to the sport. This allowed the viewer to watch the drama of where the darts landed as well as the tension or ecstasy on the players face as they reacted to their throw. Two players who were able to capitalise most on this were Bobby George and Eric Bristow. The two showmen clashed in the 1980 World Championship final in front of an atmospheric audience at Jollees nightclub in Stoke, broadcast on BBC Two. Bristow won the tournament and controlled the event for the next few years. Bristow was so dominant that when he lost the 1983 final to then unknown Keith Deller it was seen as one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport and became the inspiration for a Martin Amis novel. Always outspoken and opinionated, following his retirement from the playing the sport Bristow went into punditry but lost his role with Sky Sports in 2016 after heavily criticised posts on Twitter about football abuse victims.

With darts now in the mainstream, there were plenty of opportunities for top players with big personalities. No-one exemplified this more than losing 1980 finalist, the charismatic Bobby George. George was one of the first to combine darting prowess with entertainment. To get the crowd on-side he dressed up to walk on stage and played bedecked in jewellery. He continued to be one of the biggest personalities in darts long after he retired and, wearing a necklace made of wedding rings, he was a crucial part of BBC commentary throughout the 00s.

Bobby George returned to the stage to partake in Let's Play Darts For Sport Relief in 2016

At the start of the 90s the BBC scaled back its own coverage and was only showing one tournament a year. It was this lack of coverage that eventually led to the sport splitting in two but before that there was a crossroads match in the 1990 final as Phil Taylor beat his mentor Eric Bristow. Taylor went on to dominate the sport for the next two decades with that year’s tournament also notable for Paul Lim becoming the first player to hit a perfect 9-dart finish during the World Darts Championship. You can watch the iconic moment here.

With the BBC only covering one tournament a year the lack of television coverage led to less prize money and decreased exposure for players. The players blamed the British Darts Organisation (BDO) for this and a breakaway group of 16 formed what is now known as the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC), whose tournaments were broadcast on Sky Sports. The breakaway group of players included all former world champions, bar one.

The BBC continued to show the BDO version of the World Championships and in 2005 viewers were able to see every dart thrown live at the BDO World Championship for the first time. This was the first year that the BBC introduced interactive coverage on its red button service. Prior to this, coverage had to fit within the schedules and when matches overran viewers waited for the nightly highlights programme to see the winning arrow. In January 2016 the BDO World Championships was shown on the BBC for the final time with Channel 4 and BT Sport taking over the rights for subsequent tournaments.

Deta Hedman is a three time runner-up in the Women's World Championship

Women's darts has made the occasional appearance in the listings over the years. You can view these late 1930s listings, in which Nellie Foxwell represented darts in a radio special about female sport a year after the Ladies Individual Darts Championship was broadcast. Maureen Flowers was the leading player of her generation and appears in six listings from the 70s and 80s. Female darts has received greatly increasing coverage in recent times with Anastasia Dobromyslova and 10x world champion Trina Gulliver appearing in the listings. Deta Hedman also appeared in pro-celebrity charity darts programme Let’s Play Darts for Sport Relief partnering Richard Osman in the first series and Jon Richardson in the second.

In recent years the BBC has shown the PDC’s Champions League of Darts, broadcast on the channel since the summer of 2016. The sport is thriving and still enjoyed by a broad range of people. Stephen Fry is known to be a fan and the Queen’s granddaughter Zara Phillips was spotted attending a tournament in 2012. Darts also made a return to the radio a couple of years ago with BBC 5 Live broadcasting the PDC World Darts Championship final on New Year’s Day 2014.

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