Alan McManus and Stephen Hendry
For almost 90 years iconic voices have provided a backdrop to the sport’s biggest tournaments and greatest moments…
The first snooker broadcast listed in the Radio Times dates back to December 1935, when legendary billiards and snooker player Willie Smith provided commentary for regional radio in London. The programme covered a clash between Joe Davis and Horace Lindrum at Thurston’s Hall.
Following World War II, Davis won the last of his 15 World Championship titles in 1946 and snooker veered towards a period of domination by his younger brother Fred.
One of the key venues for the sport at the time was the Leicester Square Hall. Renowned BBC Sport commentator Raymond Glendenning was set to work on a match at the London venue, when he was struck down with laryngitis. At that point they had to find someone on short notice to step up to the plate. They opted for the manager of the Leicester Square Hall, Ted Lowe.
Lowe’s duties as manager of the hall ranged from introducing the players to publicising matches and even cleaning the toilets. When making his commentary debut, Lowe was made aware that there was no self contained area for him to work. In fact, he was positioned in the audience to commentate on the great Joe Davis.
To ensure he didn’t disturb play, Lowe adopted a hushed and quiet commentary style. He went on to establish himself as the voice of snooker and retained the style he crafted in the Leicester Square Hall, earning the nickname “Whispering Ted”, which stayed with him until he passed away in 2011.
In 1969, Lowe played an instrumental role, alongside then controller of BBC Two David Attenborough, in introducing the single frame competition Pot Black to mainstream television. The pre-recorded tournament became a massive hit and featured a frame between two top players each evening. Lowe provided the main commentary.
The idea behind Pot Black was that it would provide an ideal way of highlighting the benefits of colour television. Prior to this, there were obvious difficulties for the viewer. Around that time, as legend has it, Lowe uttered the famous line: “For those of you watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green.”
When the World Championship moved to the Crucible in 1977, the BBC provided partial coverage of the event, which John Spencer won by defeating Cliff Thorburn 25-21 in the final. The success of the competition prompted the BBC to enhance their broadcasts the following year, showing the first ball to the last. That meant that another commentator would be required to work alongside Lowe and marked the entrance of another broadcasting giant in Clive Everton, who joined Lowe on the team for the 1978 World Championship.
Everton had already been involved in the sporting world for many years, in a variety of different guises, which ranged from competing in qualifying for Wimbledon to being a selector for England’s Hockey team. However, his first love was always cue sports. Everton was an accomplished billiards player and appeared in two World Championship quarter-finals, as well as reaching the semi-finals of the prestigious English Amateur Championship in snooker.
Prior to first taking to the box for the BBC, Everton had already spent several years as a sport journalist and had previously commentated for HTV in Wales, as well as Thames Television. Everton’s audition for the latter involved commentating, in person, on a frame in the billiards room of Stoke Poges Golf Club. It was contested between the oldest member of the club and a snooker sponsor’s representative, who impersonated Fred Davis and Ray Reardon respectively. Everton passed the test.
He went on to become an iconic voice of the sport, commentating on many unforgettable occasions, including Stephen Hendry’s record breaking seventh World Championship win in 1999.
A slightly more comedic moment for Everton came when commentating alongside Dennis Taylor at the 1998 Grand Prix on a match between Gary Wilkinson and Jamie Burnett. In an extremely rare miscalculation, Everton got the number of snookers required wrong. He was so disappointed by this rogue error, that he temporarily lost his balance.
Everton explained: “I had to correct myself and I was a bit exasperated with myself. I leaned back on this chair, which had wheels and I shot backwards. I would have fallen out of the box if it weren’t for grabbing Dennis Taylor by the tie. I did it so forcibly that he couldn’t undo the knot and had to cut off the tie. I ended up on the floor like a boxer trying to beat the count of ten.”
The late 70s and early 80s also saw the introduction of two former players, in Jack Karnehm and John Pulman. They had contrasting records on the table, but both had a great impact in the box.
Karnehm played in the World Championship three times, but fared rather calamitously in the blue riband event, failing to win a single frame. He lost 8-0 to Pulman in 1974, fell to an 11-0 whitewash against Taylor in 1977 and was beaten 9-0 by Roy Andrewartha in 1978.
Despite his misfortune on the table, he was responsible for one of the greatest lines of commentary in snooker history at the 1983 World Championship. As Cliff Thorburn was just about to deposit the final black for the first 147 ever seen at the Crucible, he simply uttered “Good luck mate.”
Pulman had a slightly more prestigious playing career, winning the World Championship eight times between 1957 and 1968. He was in the box at the 1980 World Championship, when coverage was interrupted to show live pictures of the siege of the Iranian Embassy in London. Given the World Championship was sponsored by Embassy cigarettes at the time, Pulman’s opening line upon the resumption of play was: “Welcome back to the World Championship. It’s a case of from one Embassy to another.”
As the game has moved forward, players from the 80s and 90s like Taylor, Steve Davis, John Parrot, John Virgo and Stephen Hendry have all become regular fixtures in the commentary box for the BBC and still work for them to this day, as well as Willie Thorne, who sadly died in 2020.
Virgo, who won the 1979 UK Championship, shot to fame by working on the Saturday night gameshow Big Break alongside Jim Davidson. He’s become renowned for commentating on some of modern snooker’s biggest occasions and is known for his catchphrase: “Where’s the cue ball going?”
In recent times, 1994 Masters champion Alan McManus and 1997 World Champion Ken Doherty have garnered reputations as commentary favourites among snooker fans, having worked for Eurosport, BBC and ITV. McManus, who retired at the end of last season to focus on broadcasting, believes a key element of commentary is to explain what the competitors are going through mentally.
McManus said: “I tend to watch the guys not so much when they are playing a shot, but when they are in their chair, and analyse their demeanour. I think you can get a clue to how they are feeling.”
A more statistically driven brand of commentary has informed the modern era. During matches commentators are encouraged to engage much more frequently with the viewers and craft narratives based in facts and information. This was in stark contrast to the approach in the 1980s, when minimal contributions were encouraged. In fact, former BBC producer Nick Hunter very briefly even introduced a rule which dictated commentators could only speak every three shots.
The statistical revolution in snooker commentary has been largely initiated by two former protégés of Everton, David Hendon and Phil Yates. The pair, alongside Eurosport Germany’s Rolf Kalb and Eurosport Belgium’s Rudy Bauwens, have kept their own comprehensive statistical records of the sport. Hendon, who is Eurosport’s lead commentator in the UK, provides profiles of all relevant players for BBC, ITV and Eurosport commentators.
Hendon has developed a popular partnership in the box with former world number three Neal Foulds on both Eurosport and ITV. He also believes Yates deserves a large amount of credit for the tone which modern commentary takes.
Hendon said: “If I was commentating with Neal Foulds, for instance, we understand what our roles are. Neal won’t pick the mic up and do the intro at the start of the frame and when they show the replay I know he is going to analyse it. Interestingly, since the start of the pandemic, we have been in different booths. At first I thought it wouldn’t work as we would talk over each other, but very quickly we fell into the groove. We just know when we are going to speak and you learn it as you go along.
“Phil started commentating for Sky about 30 years ago, coming from a journalistic background. He is a guy who can never know enough about something and he brought that to the commentary. Clive had been doing it already, but Phil pushed that on and it became expected that commentators should know these stats. The viewers realised that if they knew it, then so should we.”