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Sunday 17 November 2019

Sid Waddell

Miner's son and Cambridge scholar who became the colourful voice of darts on television

Sid Waddell, who died last Saturday the day after his 72nd birthday, was one of the greatest sports commentators of his generation, an achievement made all the more remarkable because his descriptive fireworks graced what, to many, was hardly a sport at all: darts.

If anything, this only added to the allure of Waddell's bravura patter, which depended on yoking two contrasting idioms to form expostulations at once ludicrous and inspired. Thus: "When Alexander of Macedonia was 33 he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer. [Eric] Bristow is only 27."

Other historical notables, from Milton to Wittgenstein, were called on to elucidate the huge achievements of, say, 20-stone "Big" Cliff Lazarenko ("If Cliff gets back in this, it will be the greatest comeback since Lazarus") or Phil "The Power" Taylor ("William Tell could take an apple off your head, Taylor could take out a processed pea").

Waddell's effusiveness in moments of excitement could lead to some equally delightful malapropisms ("the crowd is sitting on the end of their tenterhooks") and the odd gaffe: "There's only one word for that -- magic darts." Waddell would maintain that such solecisms were intentional.

If the content of these Waddellisms was breathtaking ("I am the Jackson Pollock of the commentary box"), it was the volume at which they were delivered that drew the biggest gasps. Waddell described his style as "like a banshee with piles".

His 30-year career amounted to a tireless campaign on behalf of an activity even he would concede amounted to "fat men throwing things at the wall". But his proselytising zeal was aided by the emergence of Phil Taylor, a player of sublime talent and 15 times the world champion.

Nothing incensed Waddell more than the idea that "The Power" was anything other than a genius. "The idea that he is anything other than one of the greatest British sportsmen of all time doesn't exist for me," Waddell insisted. "It's a control of the metal that no one has come anywhere near."

Sidney Waddell was born on August 10, 1940 in Alnwick, Northumberland, and raised in a colliery cottage at Lynemouth, near Ashington. He was a miner's son -- the Waddells had worked the pits near Bedlington since the mid-19th century -- but his parents were determined that Sid would not work down the pits.

Instead, he attended Morpeth Grammar, and won a scholarship to Cambridge to study Modern History. At both school and university he was a keen sportsman: he played rugby as a colt for Northumberland, won the 100-yard dash for Northumberland and Durham against Scotland in 1957 and played football as a winger for Lynemouth Juniors, which at the time was a feeder team for West Ham United. He also dabbled with mixed lacrosse, and was a lifelong Newcastle United fan.

Unfortunately, he was also injury-prone, and as sprinting and then rugby proved beyond him, he turned his attentions to the less strenuous sport of darts. At Cambridge he instigated the first ever inter-collegiate darts championship. The low point came in 1962 when he led his St John's team to defeat against four trainee vicars from Selwyn College.

After Cambridge, he pursued a research degree at Durham, and while there he formed a duo, The Gravyboatmen, who toured working men's clubs. Dressed in sunglasses and fisherman's smocks, Waddell (on vocals) and Charles Hall (on guitar) performed satirical ditties, with responses varying from bemusement to open hostility.

Waddell was tone-deaf and Hall had mastered only two chords, and their musical career came to an end at the South Bank Sporting Club, from which they were escorted for their own safety.

Waddell won a playwriting competition, which encouraged him to move away from the academic life and into TV, joining Granada as a researcher in 1965.

Jobs as a producer with Tyne Tees and Yorkshire followed. It was with the latter that Waddell worked on Indoor League, a show that featured less athletic sports -- table football, shove ha'penny and arm-wrestling. But it was soon recognised that darts was the prime attraction.

Waddell joined the BBC in Manchester in 1974. When, in 1977, the broadcaster began covering darts, Waddell's knowledge and enthusiasm made him the obvious (perhaps only) choice to commentate, and from 1978 he was at every British Darts Organisation world championship, eventually covering 16 consecutive BDO events.

When a faction of players formed the World Darts Council in 1994, Waddell moved to Sky. Asked for his views on the schism, he said: "I'm not daft and neither are Sky. All the big box office boys are now with the WDC, and Sky has the major events. I would rather commentate on Newcastle United than Blyth Spartans."

Despite the split, Waddell was not finished at the BBC, which hired him in 1999 to announce the winning numbers for its Saturday night National Lottery show. His comeback was short-lived -- the show was panned by critics and Waddell was axed after one appearance. There was a suggestion that viewers could not understand his accent.

Apart from darts, Waddell commentated on pool, clay-pigeon shooting and tenpin bowling. Although none attracted ratings of any note, they were delectable, often hilarious cameos.

Waddell was a prolific scriptwriter. Jossy's Giants, which first aired in 1986 on the BBC, was a children's TV show that was followed by more than six million viewers.

He was particularly close to Jocky Wilson, the two-time world champion who died a recluse earlier this year. Behind Phil Taylor, he rated Raymond van Barneveld the greatest player he had seen.

About his own "tungsten talent", Waddell was modest, saying: "I used to play a lot with my wife and another couple, but it was a case of diminishing returns. At the end of the second pint, I was deadly. By the end of the third, diminishing returns set in."

Sid Waddell and his wife, Irene, had five children.

Sunday Independent

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