Snooker. It’s not the most exciting sport in the world – well, if you’re not a fan of watching people knocking tiny balls around a table with a stick. But ask Barry Hearn (Kevin Bishop) back in the 1980s and he saw great things ahead. Heck, it “could be bigger than wrestling”, he tells a young Steve Davis (Will Merrick).
In 2016, someone at the BBC clearly agrees with him, as The Rack Pack makes its debut on BBC iPlayer tonight. The streaming site’s first original scripted feature film, it marks a major step in iPlayer’s evolution from catch-up service to digital hub, but compared to its previous original movies – experimental documentaries that tackle the way we perceive the Middle East or compile clips from horror movies – The Rack Pack is still about as niche as they come. Even Shane Allen, the BBC’s Comedy Commissioning Controller, has joked that they only made the film because he bought a John Virgo waistcoat off eBay and wanted an excuse to wear it.
But snooker really was once a headline event in British homes. In 1985, 18 million people tuned in to watch Dennis Taylor beat Davis to win the world title and that remains an all-time record for post-midnight viewing. Taylor and Davis, meanwhile, were household names, along with Alex “Hurricane” Higgins and Cliff Thorburn. The novelty pop single Snooker Loopy, featuring a bunch of players, even made it to the top 10 in the charts.
The Rack Pack takes us back to the start of those giddy, waistcoated days and captures the thrill of the sport, both off and on the baize. Snooker has always been a more intimate sport than most – and director Brian Welsh appreciates the power of a close-up of a player’s face, as they sit and watch a match slide away from them.
The script, written by Shaun Pye, Mark Chappell and Alan Connor, pays equally close attention to the blokes holding the cues. We follow the sport’s growth from the eyes of young Steve, who is taken under Barry’s wing when he’s spotted in a club.
Will Merrick is uncanny as Steve Davis, gormless and gawking at everything around him, while Kevin Bishop has a whale of a time as the loud-mouthed businessman, dispensing quips and marketing babble as smoothly as he styles his hair. (As Barry puts it, in one of many quotable lines, Steve is so pale he’d get sunburn just from opening the fridge.) Together, they make an entertaining odd couple, as we watch Steve learn to pretend to have a personality for the camera – the sight of Merrick’s blank facial expressions, as he rehearses sipping water, is laugh-out-loud funny. (After stints in Skins and Doctor Who, this film marks the young star out as one to watch.)
That endearing awkwardness is accompanied by a steely-eyed focus, which is where Hearn spies an opportunity to usher in a new, professional era for the game. Enter Hurricane Higgins, who’s everything Barry is trying to leave behind.
Photo: BBC / Zeppotron / Keiron McCarron
Luke Treadaway is heartbreakingly good as the legendary player, who loved sinking pints even more than he loved sinking reds and blacks. The actor doesn’t just adopt Higgins’ slurred, Northern Irish accent, but delivers a completely physical performance: while Merrick’s Steve strikes balls with slow precision, Treadaway’s Hurricane whirls around the table like a dancer. Welsh follows suit, directing the action like a big budget set piece – a dynamic approach that climaxes in a crucial break, which unfolds in a quietly stunning single shot.
The production design is as convincing as the cast (James Bailey as Jimmy White is also eerily believable), with the costumes and hair – my goodness, the hair – immediately capturing the retro feel. It helps that some of the UK’s snooker halls haven’t changed much in the last three decades, immediately adding to the smoky realism of the period.
There’s more to The Rack Pack, though, than nostalgia. History tells us that the story won’t end well for Higgins – as Steve rises, the Hurricane’s fortunes blow in only one direction – but the doomed romance of his addiction and ego is never over-romanticised: the script sympathetically shows us the serious side of Alex’s problems, not least in his marriage to Lynn (an excellent Nichola Burley). Their confrontations, and the exchanges between Davis and Higgins, convey both the winning charm and sincere tragedy of Higgins’ success and failure, crafting a bittersweet tribute to a sportsman who simply wouldn’t exist nowadays. “I’m going to win,” remarks Davis, as he prepares to face Alex. “Somebody’s got to stop you celebrating the last one.”
The result is a big break for BBC iPlayer as much as its talented cast. The Rack Pack is an accomplished and absorbing movie that proves that the Beeb’s streaming service can make even the most niche topic accessible to a wide audience. Snooker, though, does still captivate. Ronnie O’Sullivan has trended on Twitter multiplied times in the last week, as he cruised through The Masters. BBC iPlayer’s decision to release its first original film at the climax of the 2016 tournament, then, is a smart move, reminding us that it’s the players as much as the potting that grips viewers. Less a sports movie and more a moving human drama, it’s one snooker film that everyone should go loopy for, whether they’re fans or not.
The Rack Pack premieres exclusively on BBC iPlayer at 9pm on Sunday 17th January. For more, see what the cast and crew of the film had to say about it at the film’s premiere.
Main photo: BBC / Zeppotron / Emilie Sandy