This last week, I have been staying up late, watching unathletic looking men hurling feathered pieces of steel at a tiny board at the Lakeside Club in Frimley Green, Surrey. I know little about these men, except that they look even more unlikely Olympians than me, but I have been lured slowly into caring about the thing they care most about. The world of darts is a forgiving one in which pot-bellied, dishevelled players can be welcomed on to the stage like stadium rock gods and a thirtysomething can still be described as "the youngster". The two rival world championships are fortuitously scheduled in January, when nothing much else is on, to buoy us up after the post-Christmas slump.
Darts, I discover, is enjoying a renaissance. Last week Jarvis Cocker was spotted at
Lakeside; Stephen Fry is a fan and has been known to join Sid Waddell in the commentary box. One of the attractions for me is that, compared to the globalised mercenary trade of premier league football and other elite sports, the players are always identified as coming from a specific town or place. Local newspapers get more excited about the sport than national media. "We are the world capital of darts. Arrows central," declared the Stoke Sentinel after Adrian Lewis retained his PDC World Championship a fortnight ago. North Staffordshire's players, it said, were "the darts equivalents of Sachin Tendulkar or Pele".
Perhaps there is also a sense of non-vicarious liveness and realism, something of the old atmosphere of the tap room and the working men's club coming through the screen. Darts, said Sid Waddell last week, is "pure working class theatre". This, in fact, was the reason why ITV took it off the air in the late 1980s, because its aging working-class audience was less appealing to advertisers. But as Patrick Chaplin points out in his recent book Darts in England: A Social History, it has long been a working-class sport with cross-class appeal, dating back to the interwar era when the pub trade used it to attract custom in the face of declining beer consumption. Unlike snooker, which took a long time to shake off its seedy image, darts was a reputable game without the taint of illegal gambling. Long before Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall graced the PDC World Championship with their presence, the King and Queen gave darts the royal blessing by playing a game in 1937 at a
Slough community centre.
What the success of darts on television really demonstrates, though, is the law of unintended consequences. Two serendipitous events brought darts to a mass audience. First, in 1972, the home office minister Christopher Chataway ended all restrictions on broadcasting hours. ITV began broadcasting on weekday afternoons, and one of the cheap programmes it commissioned was The Indoor League, set in a pub which, along with games of dominoes and shove halfpenny, showcased some of the best darts players in the world. Up to five million viewers, many of them also in pubs, watched it on weekday lunchtimes. Second, in 1978, the BBC came up with a technical innovation that coincided with the first darts world championship: the split screen showing both the dart board and the thrower, one of those ideas which seemed unmissably obvious only once someone had thought of it.
The new consumerist ethos that has developed in the multichannel television era treats viewers as rational choosers, flicking through the channels to find what they want and needing to be instantly attracted to a programme. In fact, we do not know what we want, and the things to which we attach meaning and significance are often entirely arbitrary and illogical. Darts, like most sports, is fundamentally silly and meaningless and relies on viewers becoming incrementally familiar with its previously unfathomable rituals. Like that other late-night filler, the snooker, the more you watch it, the more you want to watch it. If I were ever in a focus group, I'm sure I would never say that I wanted to see more darts on television. But, as it turns out, I do.