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Suggs And Snooker… It Must Be Love!

The Madness frontman reveals his lifelong interest in snooker, and a fascination with war history, which has shaped his current television role.

Suggs knows Jimmy White. Of course he does. Both grew up in the 1970s, both would frequent the snooker clubs of London Town throughout their teenage years (when they should both have been at school). Sometimes on the baize, sometimes at the bar. Both support Chelsea. Both were working-class heroes and, perhaps, still are. And both were, on occasion, susceptible to a bit of fun on a night out.

So an interview with Suggs about snooker inevitably includes a story or two about the Whirlwind. “I was at the greyhound racing at White City once on my birthday,” he says with fond recollection “I had been losing all night and then it got to the last race, and Jimmy suddenly appeared carrying the biggest pile of £5 notes I’d ever seen. I said, ‘Jimmy come on, give us a clue. I’ve got no idea what’s happening.’ So he gave me a tip for the last race. All of my mates bet on the dog and sure enough it won. We got our money back.” Suggs sits silent for a while then giggles to himself, presumably remembering other stories about Jimmy which aren’t fit for publication. Instead he wraps up: “I like Jimmy a lot, he’s a great character and it’s fantastic that he is still playing.”

In 1982, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. Britain was at war with Argentina over the Falklands. Prince William was born. Channel 4 began broadcasting. Italy beat West Germany in the World Cup final. White played an epic semi-final against Alex Higgins at the World Championship, losing 16-15, and Higgins went on to beat Ray Reardon in the final. And Madness topped the singles charts with House of Fun as well as the album charts with Complete Madness. They were the most influential band in Britain.

Formed in 1976 as The North London Invaders (Suggs – aka Graham McPherson – joined the following year), they became Madness in 1979. Alongside The Specials, they were soon at the cutting edge of the revival of the 2-Tone genre, which combined traditional ska with more modern pop music. The soaring melodies of Our House, One Step Beyond and It Must Be Love could be heard in discos across the land. The seven band members were ordinary men from ordinary backgrounds with a great talent for music – and talking to their own people.

The snooker halls which adorned many high streets in London were their most regular haunts. “When you’re in a band you have a lot of spare time on your hands, and a lot of that was taken up by playing snooker,” said Suggs. “That was a great snooker club in Camden, which sadly has been knocked down now. A lot of professionals used to play there, including Terry Griffiths. It was an alcohol-free club so I think that’s why some of the serious pros were based there. There was a bar next door called the Crown and Goose, and we knew the owner so we got drinks there and then smuggled them into the snooker club. It was a really nice atmosphere and we loved it. We didn’t mind if we only played one frame in two hours, we were just having fun.

“Chas Smash (aka Carl Smyth) was the best of us, but none of us were competitive because we weren’t good enough, it was just a way to spend an evening. I remember we always used to play on Boxing Day for some reason. Snooker clubs were places for working-class people and lads bunking off school, and that was what we were about.

“I used to play a mate who was an ex-public school boy. He was much better than me because at his school there was a table in the common room and they didn’t do anything expect read the Telegraph and play snooker. I wanted to beat him so I secretly got lessons with a strange Irishman. But the more I learned about the technical side, the worse I got. I was okay when I played without thinking, especially after a couple of pints. There was a brief golden window when I was in the zone, then a couple of more drinks and I’d go to pieces again. I have been playing for 40 years and my highest break is 27 so that sums up my snooker ability. I still love watching it on TV.”

Two years ago, Suggs was at Glastonbury when he found out that Steve Davis was DJing in The Stonebridge Bar. He recalls: “I heard that Steve was doing a psychedelic soul set and I thought, ‘I’ve got to go and see this!’ It was quite something to behold. I went up behind the decks and gave him a hug. We had met years earlier on a TV show. At the time he was talking about being a big soul fan and wanting to get into DJing and he said one of his dreams was to DJ at Glastonbury – and sure enough, a long time later, there he was.”

Davis retired from snooker in 2016 but, with an inclination to keep performing in a different sphere, swapped the baize for the beats. Similarly, Suggs has found his career evolving from music alone to television and stage work. On two occasions he has toured the UK with a one-man show in which he tells anecdotes from his childhood and career. He has played roles in films such as Rambo Part II and The Edge of Love. And last year he teamed up with World War Two expert Stephen Taylor for the eight-part series WW2 Treasure Hunters for the History channel, in which they unearth breathtaking treasures from UK and European military sites and discover remarkable stories. The second series starts on November 12th.

“Things have worked out that way through a series of co-incidences,” said Suggs. “Madness often took time off – during the 1980s we took a long time off. I started doing bits of television work and one thing led to another. I found myself in the history zone because I like history, I didn’t listen to any of it at school so I’m making up for lost time. Madness are still doing really well, selling out tours, but I don’t necessarily see that going on forever, so working in TV is a good parallel to that universe.”

The second series of WW2 Treasure Hunters starts off with an episode about World War One, marking the centenary of the 1918 armistice.

“I get offered the chance to do a lot of TV shows and most of them are rubbish,” said Suggs. “But both series of this programme have fascinated me and made me want to find out more and more. Both world wars still have a lot of mysteries to be resolved, because when a war is over no one wants to record what happened, everyone is just so relieved it is over. And a lot of documents were destroyed. So we have been finding out all sorts of things that just weren’t known before.

“We went to a camp in Morn Hill in Hampshire where soldiers were trained before going to fight on the Somme. They would arrive from colonies in Africa and Australia to be retrained before being sent to France. They were turning up in the middle of the British winter wearing pith helmets and khaki shorts. A lot of them died of hypothermia before getting anywhere near the battlefield.

“They were just kids. Some of them were lying about their age, they were only 15 and 16. Many of them came from poor families so to get a uniform and food and go off to another country with all your friends must have seemed glamorous or exciting somehow. They didn’t know the horror that was coming. We went to Ypres which was a real mind-blower because five million men were killed there which is hard to get your head around.

“We were finding dog tags, and when you have a dog tag you have name, and then you can relate to who the solider was and where they came from. Sometimes we found photographs as well. You look at a picture of a young solder sitting in a tent in a field and wonder if that was the last photo ever taken of him. And sometimes we were able to get those items back to members of that person’s family. That’s a very rewarding part of the process.”

The new series of WW2 Treasure Hunters runs on HISTORY. 

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