Why even the Queen loves darts at Christmas in the madhouse of the Palace (that's Ally Pally, of course…)
10:35 GMT, 26 December 2012
Friday night at the Palace. Her Majesty the Queen sweeps into the room, with Philip, Charles and Camilla in tow. All in her presence greet her with curtsies and cheers before spontaneously bursting into a hearty rendition of the national anthem.
But Her Majesty suddenly stumbles in her heels, loses her stately poise and crashes into Charles. The four-pint pitcher of Carlsberg she was balancing on her handbag sloshes down Camilla’s dress.
A great mocking cheer goes up from those nearby – from Mario and Luigi, from the six traffic cones and from Captain America.
Then the thudding beat kicks in, the lights go up and a party like nothing ever before seen at the Palace starts. The guests at the back start doing the Poznan, Spiderman is dancing Gangnam style on a table with a Christmas tree and the Royals spill more lager as they chant ‘Oi Oi Oi’ in chorus.
Festive fun: The Ladbrokes girls warm the crowd up at Alexandra Palace before Christmas
Playing second fiddle: The action on the oche is often competing for the limelight
The Queen is in most nights, they all are. How could they stay away It’s brash, bombastic and brilliant. It’s fancy dress, froth and frolics. It can only be darts.
For six years now, sportsmen with a build closer to Henry VIII than Adonis have congregated at the Alexandra Palace just before Christmas to chance their arm at the Ladbrokes PDC World Championships.
And while the thousands in the sell-out crowd let off steam, 72 players from around the globe compete on the oche for a 200,000 jackpot and the honour of being crowned the first world champion of the sporting year.
A very British sport played in every pub from Penzance to Penrith feels snuggly at home at a place christened by its Victorian benefactors as the “Palace of the People” – but behind-the-scenes and away from the glare of the Sky cameras, the tournament has the feel of a travelling show.
Just a couple of days before the first darts were thrown, the great auditorium in which darts legends such as Phil Taylor, Adrian Lewis and Raymond van Barneveld perform was full of nervous students sitting accountancy exams.
Stand-out dress: Pals enjoy a beer in their Where's Wally outfits
Sealed with a Kiss: This rock 'n roll fan didn't hold back with his fancy dress gear
The stands and the 120ft stage were assembled through the night. The rigs, jibs and cameras are painstakingly positioned by an army of Sky Sports technicians within hours of the start. The “best seat in the house” studio from which Dave Clark fronts broadcasts to every continent of the world is a precarious Meccano set of steel scaffolding, perspex and black drapes.
Underneath the 200ft tall ceilings of the Palace’s great function rooms, underneath the iconic classical frescoes, the Sky trailers, screens and endless miles of cables are wheeled in alongside the incalculable gallons of ale and the well-stocked pantries of pie and mash.
This fleeting feel to what is the annual highlight of the sport only adds to the earthy, all-embracing and all-round enjoyable nature of darts. It’s a formula that the sport’s head honcho, Barry Hearn, has got nailed down.
‘99.9 per cent of fans who come to the Ally Pally are there to have a good time,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot of worry in people’s lives at the moment – they’re worried about their job, about paying the bills, about affording things for Christmas.
‘But they can come here on their Christmas party or with their family, forget about all those things for a while and have a good time while not breaking the bank.
Girls night out: But most of the crowd are guys enjoying a beer with their mates
Making their point: Fans are encouraged to write their signs for the cameras
‘It’s a sport for the people because the players are just like them, just normal blokes. It’s not like football, where they jump in to a Ferrari, speed off, have a crash and then jump into their second Ferrari. I remember when Phil Taylor – the 15-time champion of the world – was earning 75 a week as a lathe operator in Stoke-on-Trent.
‘It’s that kind of game that’s open to anyone, it’s a classless sport which is enjoyed by everyone from the bloke down the pub to the Royal family.’
It’s funny that Hearn should mention the Royals – and I don’t mean those in fancy dress. Sat up in the Sky studio, surveying the magnificent arena below, Dave Clark beams as he recalls the moment last year when Adrian Lewis, caught up in the euphoria of winning a second successive title, unwittingly planted a wet celebratory kiss on the forehead of Prince Harry, who had come backstage to congratulate him.
‘That’s the beauty of this sport,’ says Clark, who has fronted Sky’s annual 100 hours of live coverage for a decade now. ‘You never know what’s going to happen. It’s unscripted drama and entertainment the entire time, both up on the oche and up here in the studio. We never prepare anything, it’s all spontaneous and based on the strength of character of these players.’
The excitement on this occasion is about the 23-year-old Dutchman Michael van Gerwen, just one of a good 10 players who have a feasible chance of winning the Sid Waddell Trophy in an incredibly open field.
The dark and claustrophobic commentary booth underneath the studio is a quieter place this year in the absence of Waddell, the “Voice of Darts” for 40 years who passed away in August. The trophy is a fitting tribute to him and the description of it – “made from the same Eritrean marble as used by Michelangelo in the Sistine chapel” – almost passable as one of his inimitable soundbites.
Where's Darth Vader Fans queue up to see the darts stars walk up to the stage
The future's darts, the future's orange: Dressing up is part of the fun
While the coverage may not be scripted,
Clark and the commentators can fall back on a 75-strong team who produce
the polished final product screened around the world. The Sky trailers
are like NASA mission control, with the producers able to see about four
dozen different feeds and every conceivable angle.
Throwing up on the oche, even when there’s nobody in the audience, is like a daunting experience – like being caught up in the glare of a great eye. It’s no wonder the players sweat under the heat of the lights, while every expression is captured by a bank of camera lenses trained at every part of your body.
For the semi-finals and finals, eight additional cameras for Sky’s 3D coverage will further magnify the scrutiny. There’s going to be a camera directly above the board, to create the effect that the darts are being flung straight through your TV screen.
The feeds are stitched together by a team who sit and control in a tiny trailer for five or six hours without pause, every second committed to industrial-sized hard drives (no tapes any more) linked by giant fibre optic snakes of wires. Replays are captured in a split-second and on air before you can yell ‘One hundred aaaannnddd eighty..’
‘Everywhere around the world, from the USA to New Zealand, people are watching the darts,’ says Hearn. ‘Watching darts take off over these last few years have been one of the most satisfying moments in my life and my career.
Leading the way: Top players like Phil Taylor are adored by the Alexandra Palace masses
‘In some countries like Germany, we
started off playing tournament in front of 50 people. Now we get 3,000
or more. Over a million watch every night in Holland (the Dutch TV
companies have started bringing their own equipment and have colonised
part of the press tent).
‘Where next The Middle East and Japan – we’ll take the superstars there, go global!’
Back in the auditorium, the 'jimmy jib' boom camera makes another sweep over the audience as ‘Chase the Sun’ – the song by Italian electronica outfit Planet Funk discovered entirely by chance by a Sky producer to become a metaphor for darts – kicks in again.
It captures the fans dancing on their chairs and waving their red signs with long-mulled over messages scrawled on them in black marker pen, it captured the dodgy dress sense and the dodgier dance moves. It even captures the bouncers turfing people out seemingly at random for getting a bit too involved in it all.
From the pub to the Palace, this travelling, sporting show of darts is genuinely unlike anything else.
The Ladbrokes World Championship is live on Sky Sports HD including the semi-finals and final in 3D. Join the conversation at #Ladbrokesdarts.