When I heard that the BBC were planning to show a film about the great rivalry of 80’s snooker played by actors I was immediately both curious and cautious. Having grown up in this golden era of the baize I was concerned that they’d fail to capture just how great it really was, snooker was the obsession of millions, from kids like me to twenty-somethings, from working mens clubs to housewives and grannies, it seemed back then that everyone had their favourite players.
The biggest rivalry in those days without a shadow of doubt was between Alex Higgins and Steve Davis. Alex, the maverick and all round nutcase and Steve, the robotic humanoid next door. They couldn’t have been wired up any differently as people and their mutual distaste for each other was orchestrated and nurtured behind the scenes by the ringmaster himself, Steve’s manager, Barry Hearn.
The Rack Pack opens up with a bang, with Higgins, played brilliantly by Luke Treadaway, seeing off the old guard in the form of John Spencer to the strains of ‘Black Dog’ by Led Zeppelin, giving us a subtle clue of what is to come, to win his first world title in 1972 in very different surroundings than we’re used to these days. The portrayal of a working class hero is evident from the start.
The film is primarily about Alex and originally apparently that was the plan, until the writers discovered that there was so much more to the 1980’s snooker scene than him. This era was all about change and showmanship; ‘Dallas with Balls’ as Hearn so eloquently puts it. As Alex himself had given the old guard a firm kick up the arse in the 1970’s, he himself was to fall victim to a changing of the guard not too long afterwards in the form of Davis, played again quite brilliantly by Will Merrick, who portrays a man growing in confidence as the years go by, from being a nerd with a notebook to someone no longer prepared to be bullied by Alex backstage at The Crucible, where two of the best lines in the film are uttered, in particular when Alex is describing witnessing the birth of his daughter and why despite all the warnings this didn’t phase him.
Behind it all is Hearn, played to perfection by Kevin Bishop. Arguably, whilst Davis is perhaps portrayed a little too wet behind the ears for greater comedic effect and Alex’s role is slightly romanticised to brush over some of the more unsavoury and extreme aspects of his personality, Hearn is played more or less to the letter. The one-liners are delivered with perfect timing and mask the ruthlessness with which he operated. As Alex changed the face of the public perception of snooker in his heyday, so Hearn did in his. Arguably without Alex none of this would have been possible and The Hurricane’s belief that this was the case would ultimately contribute to his demise as those around him, including his best friend Jimmy White, played by James Bailey, thrived under Barry’s brave new world, with Matchroom Slippers and Aftershave all thrown into the bargain.
While Barry is busy changing the sport and Alex enjoys the dying embers of his snooker career to great excess we also get a glimpse of The Hurricane’s tempestuous home life. The stresses and strains of his relationship with his wife Lynn (Nichola Burley) are played out emotionally enough so as to not be disrespectful whilst still maintaining a feel of how life had changed since they took to the dancefloor as sweethearts to the strains of Ian Dury and the Blockheads, illustrating perfectly the two sides of Alex.
As well as the character portrayals, the film also has a blinding soundtrack and the sets are absolutely fantastic, in particular the recreation of The Crucible, which has been carried out to the letter. Throw in The Who, Thin Lizzy, Jimi Hendrix, T-Rex and Grandmaster Flash, which predictably accompanies a scene depicting use of illegal substances and this element of the package takes you back to the time and the place perfectly.
We are told from the start that the film is inspired by real events and that some elements may not really have happened, but that is what drama is all about. So what if Higgins is shown breaking off from the yellow side? So what if Dennis didn’t wear his glasses until a little later than portrayed? So what if Alex’s breakdown at The Crucible wasn’t in a one table situation? So what if Big Bill was twice the size of the actor that plays him? So what if Tony Knowles’s character appears to be as old as The Bolton Stud is now and so what if David Vine tells us that Steve Davis is 2/5 at the bookies and he’s carelessly chalked up at 5/2? In the great scheme of things their historical accuracy is about as important as the truth in the metaphorical and touching final scene between Steve and Alex, all represent artistic license and the factual inaccuracies would only, as Clive Everton might say, be of academic importance.
My only criticism, from a purely selfish point of view, is that the end feels a little rushed, I’d like the aftermath to have been explored deeper, but like all great watches, it left me wanting more. I’ll watch it again, and again and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before it airs on TV. But for now, the detail of how to watch it, in the UK at least, is linked below. If you enjoy it as much as I do here is an old post which sums up my own personal view of this era, snooker will never be the same, but why would we want it to be? If this film tells us anything, it’s that change is inevitable.