The first thing to say about The Rack Pack, a BBC drama charting the rise of snooker to the 1980s and in particular the rivalry between Alex Higgins and Steve Davis, is that if you are an aficionado of the sport you are going to love it.
One challenge for the makers of the film, released on BBC iPlayer on Sunday 17th January at 9pm, was presumably put something so compelling on screen that others would also be sucked in and here, too, they should succeed.
If great sporting rivalries should feature clashes of styles and personalities, then this one had it in spades. Perhaps the only thing missing was a more even split in the head to head record, but unquestionably that made the victories sweeter for Higgins (played by Luke Treadaway) and his devoted fans.
The narrative sweeps at a cracking pace through a number of famous matches and notorious incidents, with the odd bit of old BBC footage dropped in for good measure. You also realise how much you still miss the tones of David Vine, Ted Lowe and Jack Karnehm to name but three. It is also nice to see Len Ganley and Eirian Williams on screen again.
We start in 1972 with Higgins winning his first world title, and the later shock of realising Davis (Will Merrick) a pale-faced young kid with a mop of red hair based at the Lucania club in Romford owned by Barry Hearn (Kevin Bishop), could be the one to rain on his parade in the years to come.
Davis’s portrayal as a younger man in this film is fairly harsh, but uncontested even by the great man himself. As he told me this week, “they have played me like a nerd at that age, but I was”. However the film at least depicts the maturity and growth in confidence that came with the success and titles.
We see early money matches between the pair, the win for Higgins at the Crucible in 1980, Davis reversing that a year later during his first run to the title, and in one of the best sequences of the whole film the famous break by the Northern Irishman in his 1982 semi-final against Jimmy White (James Bailey).
The cast themselves described the internal war as ‘Cavaliers v Roundheads’ and that captured the mood among my snooker-loving mates at that time. Higgins, White and Knowles were the mavericks, Davis was a ruthless winning machine. Like so many, that impression of his personality was to totally change when I actually met the Nugget and started to have journalistic dealings with him.
And he kept on winning, with the effect on Higgins starkly highlighted. Not only was Davis winning, but by playing the sponsor and commercial game, he was reaping the rewards that Higgins felt were due to him for being the big box office draw. There was a line to be toed for that, and he never did.
The drinking and gambling were Higgins’ self-destruct tools of choice, but though the behaviour becomes too much for long-suffering wife Lynn (Nichola Burley) and many others, White, in awe of his friend’s talent and trailblazing efforts, remains loyal.
Hearn is played amusingly by Kevin Bishop as the benign dictator the promoter usually describes himself as, a wisecracking Essex entrepreneur, and a sort of cross between Arthur Daley and Del Boy but with a rather better business plan.
I bumped into Davis in the media centre at the 2016 Dafabet Masters just after he had watched a preview. He said: “The fact this has been made at all shows you that the rivalry and that period as a whole captivated the nation.
“I am aware that originally this was going to be just about Alex, without him there is no story – but when the scriptwriters sat down they realised ‘There is a bigger story here’. They introduced other characters, including mine, to make sense of Alex and what he did, and how he behaved.
“It is a celebration of snooker but a very strange thing to have somebody play you on screen, but what an honour. There is a scene with me and Alex, and people will probably recognise it when they see it, that did not actually happen and artistic licence was used.
“But the power of this film was it could have happened, and I think the it accurately shows how I grew up from being a total nerd, and I matured. I became a lot more confident as my career blossomed.
“It will stir the emotions, there is comedy but also sadness. I absolutely loved it, it was real and stirred a lot of memories. Anyone who lived that era or took notice will lap it up, and maybe many more too.”
The Rack Pack, a BBC comedy drama feature film starring Luke Treadaway, Will Merrick, Kevin Bishop, Nichola Burley and James Bailey, is released only on iPlayer on Sunday, 17th January at 9pm. The film is directed by Brian Welsh, and written by Shaun Pye, Mark Chappell and Alan Connor.