Sid Waddell was the ‘voice of darts’ whose unique commentary endeared him to fans. Now his son, Dan Waddell, has written about his colourful life. Chris Bond talks to him.
“When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer... [Eric] Bristow’s only 27.”
As quotes go they don’t come much better than this. There’s pathos, brevity and then the killer pay-off line. Despite the grand reference this isn’t regaling a pivotal moment in history, instead it’s Sid Waddell describing Eric Bristow, aka the ‘Crafty Cockney’, becoming the darts world champion - lines that have since entered sporting folklore.
There have been many great sports commentators down the years but few, if any, can match what Sid Waddell did for darts. As the “voice of the oche”, he helped transform it from an unfashionable pub game that people often looked down their noses at, to a hugely successful sport with a global following.
He was master of the wild epithet and his uninhibited enthusiasm and classic one-liners, all delivered in that thick Geordie accent, endeared him to millions of TV viewers.
Away from the oche, Sid was also a television news producer, screenwriter and author and when he died in 2012, the nation mourned the loss of a multi-talented man of the people and a genuine English eccentric.
Four years on and his son Dan Waddell, himself a writer and journalist, has written a warm, moving and humorous account of Sid’s colourful life and a son’s memories of an unconventional father.
We Had Some Laughs - My dad, the darts and me is also a paean to a way of life that has slowly slipped from view and people and places that linger now only as memories.
“I always thought I would write a book about him at some point because he was such a unique personality and also a story like his, where a bright working class boy is plucked out of his North-East background and goes to Cambridge, just doesn’t happen any more,” says Dan.
When Sid died, tributes poured in on social media from an array of people including John Prescott, Piers Morgan, Stephen Fry and Wayne Rooney. “I knew there was a lot of fondness for my dad but it was like the Sid Waddell rolling news for about six hours. We were totally overwhelmed by how many people he seemed to have touched through his commentary.”
The seeds for Dan’s book were first sown shortly after Sid passed away. “I wrote his obituary for The Yorkshire Post and I remember finding that very comforting at what was a difficult time and that became a starting point.”
Another reason for writing the book was so his own children could know more about their grandfather and his most unlikely of stories.
Sid was born in August 1940 to a mining family in the North East. Despite his humble surroundings he secured a scholarship to Morpeth Grammar School and then read history at Cambridge University, a fact he was never shy in mentioning in later life.
After leaving Cambridge he wound up working in television and, after a series of bizarre episodes, ended up commentating on a new sport (darts) albeit one that many people didn’t (and some still don’t) consider a sport.
He worked briefly at Granada Television in 1966, alongside Michael Parkinson, before joining Yorkshire Television a couple of years later. He created the Indoor League programme – featuring various pub games including darts – and devised children’s series The Flaxton Boys.
In the mid-70s, he moved to the BBC where he became one of the commentators on the first World Professional Darts Championship in 1978. By this time his family had settled in Pudsey and it was here where Dan grew up. “It wasn’t a glamorous town but we had a very happy upbringing, there was a lot of fun and laughter in our house,” he says.
“Sid wasn’t your typical father, he was absent for a lot of the time when I was younger because he was commuting to Manchester during the week so I only really got to see him at weekends.
“I knew what he did and I knew he was a bit of a cult favourite but I never clocked that he was famous. It was only in 1985 when we went to the world championship and I saw him being mobbed by punters in the crowd that I realised how popular he was.”
Although Sid was no darts player himself he had huge admiration and affection for those who were. “He loved the players, particularly in the early days when you had characters like Eric Bristow, Jocky Wilson and Bobby George. He loved all the macho posturing and he saw them as genuine working class heroes.
“When he came out with all those classical allusions his tongue was firmly wedged in his cheek at times, but he really loved those guys and thought it was fantastic what they were doing.”
Sid, as those who knew him would no doubt testify to, was a creature of the pub and Dan’s memoir is awash with references to well known watering holes like Whitelocks and ‘the Scarborough taps’ in Leeds, which remain popular haunts today.
Dan says Sid had a firm idea of what a pub should be. “He liked back street boozers rather than gentrified gastropubs and he didn’t believe in pubs that served food, unless it was pork scratchings.”
As well as a fondness for pubs, Sid also had a lifelong passion for reading. “I’ve never met anyone, speaking personally, as widely read as he was. Sid never differentiated between high and low culture, it was just culture. He was as happy reading the biography of a Premier League footballer as he was a John Banville novel or the latest Booker Prize winner.”
It was a pastime that fed into his work and helps explain the eclectic historical and cultural references that peppered his commentary. “He had a very agile mind and his brain absorbed all this information and when he was commentating he could make these associations quickly enough for them to work.”
Most of these were off the cuff ad-libs dreamt up in the heat of the commentary box. “I think he did some of his best commentary with the BBC because in those days it was still slightly staid and Sid pushed against that, it inspired him. At Sky they wanted volume and dry ice and sometimes he needed to dial it down a bit.”
Nevertheless, Dan is proud of what his father achieved. “People knew him as the bloke with the funny voice who made all those classical allusions, but he was the first commentator to come out with references to Shakespeare, Greek mythology and the works of Bob Dylan. He came out with all this and it worked, it didn’t sound corny or wrong. People have tried to copy that style but he was the first person to do it.”
He describes his father as “an analogue man in a digital world” and says he found the process of writing the book a cathartic experience and ultimately an affirmative one.
“I realise that I’ve learned a great deal from him. Sid was an incredibly generous man who was always keen to make sure other people were enjoying themselves. He hated bullying and exclusion and he had a generosity of spirit and that’s something I didn’t realise I’d got from him until I wrote the book.”
And what would Sid make of his colourful account? “I think he’d be happy that I was the one who wrote it. He’d probably question a few things and say, ‘hang on kidda, are you sure about that?’ But I think he’d be flattered and he would have enjoyed it, he’d like the fact there’s a lot of laughter.”
We Had Some Laughs - My dad, the darts and me, by Dan Waddell, published by Bantam Press, is priced £16.99 (hardback) and is out on May 19.
Sid Waddell’s classic quotes
“Look at the man go: it’s like trying to stop a water buffalo with a pea-shooter.”
“If we’d had Phil Taylor at Hastings against the Normans, they’d have gone home.”
“He looks about as happy as a penguin in a microwave.”
“Keith Deller is like Long John Silver - he’s badly in need of another leg.”
“As they say at the DHSS, we’re getting the full benefit here.”
“We couldn’t have more excitement if Elvis walked in and asked for a chip sandwich.”
“It’s like trying to pin down a kangaroo on a trampoline.”
“You could hear a blob of vinegar drop on a chip in this hall.”
“There’s only one word for it - magic darts.”