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Long Form Snooker

The BBC and Snooker - WSC 2024 in Review

I mentioned here about how the BBC coverage is basically a “who’s who” of Crucible winners from 1980 to 2005. Granted, 2 of those chaps account for 13 of those titles, but you get the idea.


As much as us snooker afficionados might not like to think it, for many people, the BBC tournaments ARE snooker. Your average man or woman on the street doesn’t really know, or indeed care, about the existence of the European Masters and the Home Nations Series which are exclusively on Eurosport. A few slightly more interested people will know about the ITV tournaments – the World Grand Prix, Players Championship, the Tour Championship, the Champion of Champions and the British Open. But they probably still aren’t overly aware of the Shanghai Masters or the International Championship (both of which come with huge prize pots). However once the UK Championship, the Masters and the Worlds turn up on BBC2, all of a sudden people you didn’t even know watched snooker are suddenly telling you about Ronnie O’Sullivan’s chances.


Therefore the BBC Commentary team arguably comes with an added “duty” if you like to sell the sport to the masses. They don’t really need to be people (like me) who will bore you about what happened the last time this player was in a decider in the last 64 of this year’s Scottish Open. The commentators have in the past been guilty of not doing their homework and saying “we don’t know much about X” when X has just come through qualifying which they could have watched on Youtube. They seem to avoid this nowadays, not necessarily by knowing more about snooker but by simply not admitting that they'd don't know much about X. They also have a tendency to live in some strange universe where no other snooker takes place other than what is on the BBC, they might say "Judd Trump is coming into this with 5 tournaments this season" but they won't tell you which ones, who he beat, whether it was close etc. There's rarely much context - even Shaun Murphy, who I suspect knows it all inside out given his knowledge of the game, doesn't seem to let on that there's another 20-odd tournaments before this one. 


However as commentators they do need to have a rudimentary knowledge of the players and ‘package’ the action to the public in an accessible, yet informed, manner. If you’re watching on Eurosport, it’s likely you’re a more ‘die hard’ fan and likely you’ve been watching the season unfold, so Foulds/McManus/Hendon and Yates’ veritable treasure trove of facts and trivia is put together for an entirely different audience.

I have no idea on the whys and wherefores on who gets to accompany who in the BBC commentary box but there seems to be two “headline double acts” of Virgo/Doherty and Taylor/Hendry with Davis and Murphy plus one of the non-commentating ancillary commentators back in the studio with the wonderful Hazel Irvine. Hazel is unflappable, she keeps things moving nicely, she has a natural authority on proceedings and you can tell the various World Champion snooker players in her midst bow to her knowledge of broadcasting. Sometimes Hazel has some time off and we get some other anchors before they are poached by Eurosport, but this year Hazel definitely put a shift in.


Dennis Taylor has one of those voices where he could be reading a Biology textbook and you’d find it comforting – snooker’s very own Test Match Special character with those velvety Northern Irish tones. That said, he does have a tendency to tell us meandering tales from the distant past, and repeatedly make quite strange points… I’ve noticed he’s obsessed with pointing out when somebody is left-handed as if it’s some new-fangled idea. He also likes to say “he’d love to make a century” when someone is on a 90 break which falls into the ‘well duh’ category.


John “JV” Virgo is probably the only one of the lot who is more famous for his media work than his playing career. Catapulted to voiceover fame on Big Break in the 90’s, it’s almost impossible to think of snooker without thinking of him, in fact a while back the BBC mooted cancelling his contract and there was some considerable outcry. His voice has the ability to go up and down the octaves and volume, snooker’s Martin Tyler, and he does have a great way of inflecting his voice to really add to the drama. JV is perhaps guilty of using stock phrases a bit too often – perhaps “where’s the cue ball going” is now a catchphrase, but “well I always say…”. What he is ‘always saying’ is usually perfectly correct but he could just say it, rather than veering into Uncle Albert “during the war” style prefacing. JV also has a habit of trying to talk over big rounds of applause and I’m not entirely sure what he’s trying to achieve here, because we can’t hear him nor can we fully appreciate the applause. To use one of his stock phrases, he’s got to be careful about that.


Behind them we have all-time colossus Stephen Hendry getting very angry at bad shot choices, and I get the distinct impression he’d be quite happy to kill someone for missing a black off its spot. While Stephen’s ability may have dipped, his competitive instinct is still there in droves: I often wonder if, under the Sky Sports desk, Roy Keane still has his boots in his bag on the off chance someone needs him to make up the numbers and put a reducer tackle in on the fella in the white boots, well Hendry is snooker’s equivalent. He’s also one of the few commentators who is quite happy to say when something is a bad shot, although he has a wonderfully Scottish pronunciation of “that’s poor”. Anyone wanting to see pure anger need only find his disgust at Stuart Bingham refusing the green to the middle pocket after the yellow with the rest in his semi final… it’s fantastic to watch.


Doherty is a bit more reserved (although he couldn’t disguise his disgust on that green either) and comes across as the more friendly loveable type who you imagine is always up for a laugh. Steve Davis is frankly peerless for me – someone who has been there, done that, won in the modern (post-Hendry/O’Sullivan) and older eras, and is now perfectly happy to offer his opinion whilst not taking himself overly seriously. I’d like to go for a pint with all of them: in between snooker chat, Doherty would have me giggling, Hendry would have me shitting myself about saying something stupid and Davis would have me ranking my favourite Aphex Twin albums (Selected Ambient Works 85-92 comes out #1 if you’re reading, Steve).


Watching as much as I do, you do tend to find a lot of repetition and you wonder how much is avoidable. “He needs to win in one visit”, “he’ll be disappointed with that last frame” etc. They all are perhaps true but it can feel like you’re listening to a set of soundbites rather than actual commentary on what’s in front of you. Again, Neil Robertson provided a great relief to this by saying what he’d be doing if that particular scenario had just happened to him, or if he had missed that ball. Sadly Neil's involvement was stunted by a dog-based drama at home, but when he did appear he spoke a lot of sense and had a lot of insight that even a seasoned snooker watcher like myself found novel. I've often considered Neil Robertson to be in the "fantastic at what he does but can never quite work out if he's a bit stoned" mould, and this seems perhaps unfair based on his insight. This is, after all, a man who once drove to the wrong Barnsley having just typed 'Barnsley' into satnav and ending up in the Midlands rather than South Yorkshire despite  having been to the South Yorkshire town many times for tournaments. But I digress... 

One phrase that does need to be eradicated is “This next frame is massive”. Especially before the last frame before an MSI/end of session. Anyone new to it all would think the only frames that actually matter are the ones before intervals or the last one of the day, to the point where some of us might think it’s a cynical ploy to keep us all watching. What makes it all the more annoying is that some of these frames genuinely are massive – the last black of the first day of Wilson v Jones being a prime example where Jones was an inch away from being 10-7 behind but instead went to bed 11-6 down, a quirk of scoring peculiar only to snooker that such differences can rest on one ball – but we just don’t know the gravity of the situation until we are in the frame itself. If Kyren Wilson won that particular frame with a relatively routine 80 break, it’s a different kettle of fish to how he actually won it, clawing back into it by needing a snooker only for Jones to have a double to win it (and missing).


In terms of the framework for a session, we have a bit of pre-amble, a frame of snooker, some punditry, another frame of snooker, then usually over to Davis or Murphy on the practice table, and so on and so forth until the MSI when usually some pre-recorded piece comes in. If watching on Iplayer you get truncated ‘stat packs’ in between the frames although someone really needs to sort the music out – it’s just the 20/30 second intro over and over again.


Some of the pre-recorded pieces are clearly aimed at promoting snooker to people who have perhaps never watched snooker, mini interludes that wouldn’t look out of place on the One Show. Which is absolutely fine, of course – anything promoting our wonderful game to new audiences is to be applauded. Some of the pre-recorded pieces are quite frankly mini programmes in their own right and it’s a shame the BBC don’t have these in some sort of library on iPlayer to watch – as I type I’ve just watched a great one about Paul Collier. I recall in previous years they had some sort of ‘technical breakout’ bits with Davis/Murphy/Hendry discussing players’ cue actions or general facets of their game in some big computer generated white cube thing. Again, I found these fascinating but they seem to have been ditched, I hope they bring them back in future or again have them available to archive.


Even the Rob Walker interviews I find bring a lot to proceedings, certainly in an era where people are moaning about a “lack of personalities”. I’ve always found this a bit of a misnomer, because what they actually mean is “we want more total trainwrecks like Alex Higgins please”. The players do have personalities, they just don’t tend to be extravagantly dressed rampant alcoholics anymore either, and these interviews and vignettes help us to find out more about them as people. Historically they used to have fully-fledged pieces about the players - I remember one with Gary Wilson driving around in a taxi because he used to be a taxi driver. They didn't seem to have such things this year, I don't know whether that's a budget cut thing or purely because 3 of the 4 semi-finalists were "surprise packages", but when Gary Wilson drove his taxi he was the surprise package and they found time to make that...


The practice table stuff is all a bit odd for me. It started off on Eurosport in the Andy Goldstein era, Jimmy White would play a shot with a weird head-cam and inevitably make a right hash of it. Ronnie would join them and it was a bit like 3 Cockney lads having a laugh in a snooker club, you half expected the Kray brothers to turn up, one time a pretty inebriated Ronnie Wood actually did. But it wasn’t really adding much to snooker broadcasting. First of all, snooker is bloody hard and it shows when watching anybody recreate shots. It only very rarely comes off and you can’t help but feel sorry for the poor bloke (often 6 time champion of the world Steve Davis, who clearly knows how to play snooker). In a matter of minutes a man who hasn’t played professionally for a very long time has to somehow recreate a shot that a current pro, usually a top 16 player, has just pulled off, with no rehearsal time, in his suit jacket, live on television. It simply doesn’t work and is “a bit cringe” as the youth would say.


However what does work is when the seasoned pros show us technical details. Alan McManus is the king of this but Steve Davis and Shaun Murphy are also highly proficient at explaining little things that we probably wouldn’t have noticed. They don’t have to play a shot, but perhaps show us why, for example, Kyren Wilson’s feather shots are much longer and the advantages/disadvantages of this. I think it was during the UK Championship where Steve Davis explained the difference between check and running side. Shaun Murphy did a good one about how to train yourself to move your bridge hand closer. Not exactly rocket science to them but gold-dust to your amateur player. 


O'Sullivan once did a whole bit on Eurosport about different break-offs including a “if the ball was a clock face, where should you be hitting it” bit (4 o’clock if you’re a left hander by the way). These things I feel are excellent additions to coverage, considering it’s a reasonable bet that a decent percentage of viewers are also players, a counterweight to the ‘One Show’ style segments I mentioned earlier. Instead of doing them hastily put together live, they could have a bank of pre-recorded ones for where there’s not much to say between frames, and just educate us a bit on some of the terms that are bandied about in the commentary assuming we all know exactly what they mean - stun, run-through, widen the angle and the like. Come on lads, explain it to us. Who knows, maybe that will inspire people to give it a go, which is sort of the point.


Maybe broadcasters could tinker with letting us choose different viewing angles (I particularly like the overhead one), muting the commentary but keeping crowd noise (I wouldn’t personally but some would). I'd also like a concurrent website with all the stats - they clearly keep them because they occasionally flash up at the bottom presumably at the behest of the producer/commentators. Nerds like me would still like to know the average frame time even if we are not watching, because with certain players it's a big indicator of how the game is going. And yes I know WST have their own version of this on their website but it’s not always the same stats as the ones that flash up… eg WST doesn’t have ‘shot success’ and ‘safety success’ but just one weird ‘pot rate’ one, whereas the BBC stats deck occasionally seen in between frames goes into much better detail.

All in all, I think the BBC do a good job. One of the most perplexing things about their coverage is that they simply do not use relatively recent archive footage. I appreciate there may be contractual or copyright stuff here that I'm not privy to, but in the Covid lockdown they had the genius idea of just replaying old snooker finals, so the footage is definitely there and they are allowed to show it. Why, when talking about Ali Carter's impressive form at the 2024 Masters, don't they show us some of it? When comparing Mark Allen of 10 years ago vs Mark Allen today, why don't they illustrate it with an example of his different approach to breakbuilding? This is the stuff McManus is doing for fun on Eurosport and it's brilliant. 

The BBC and Snooker probably need each other more than they care to admit. For a broadcaster it's hours upon hours of cheap-to-produce footage which will usually pull in guaranteed viewing figures. I have my grumbles that often the games go behind the red button so that someone somewhere can watch a repeat of Homes Under the Hammer or Bargain Hunt. Maybe there are viewer numbers which back up such decisions. But surely they could have BBC4 running during the day for these eventualities, like they do in the evening? 

All in all, keep up the good work BBC, but don't be afraid to get a bit technical and cater to the snooker nerds as well as the casual fan, you'd be surprised how many there are of both.

TL;DR – Ditch the practice tables, keep up with the technical explanations and give the viewer a bit more choice

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