You can safely claim to have ‘cut through’ when the longest serving Prime Minister of 200 years specifically asks to sit with you and then shake your hand at a fireworks display.
Or when 18.5 million people stay up after midnight to watch you play a game of snooker and, 38 years later, can tell you exactly where they were at the moment it happened.
John Virgo and Dennis Taylor are swapping stories inside Sheffield’s Crucible Theater about how snooker went from an obscure pastime in working men’s clubs to its status for a period during the 1980s as the nation’s leading sporting obsession .
“Jim Davidson was a big Tory supporter – this Crafty Cockney Conservative,” says Virgo, recalling how he came to spend a surreal evening with Davidson, co-host of the hit quiz show Big Break, and Margaret Thatcher.
“What Mrs Thatcher meant was, ‘Oh we love that TV show you do Jim’. She then turned to her husband Denis and said, ‘Who is that snooker player we like Denis? John Maiden! We love it!’ She held my hand for five minutes while we watched the fireworks.
“I’m a dour Northern socialist and what I’m thinking is, ‘I hope my friends in Salford don’t see me holding Mrs Thatcher’s hand’.”
Taylor giggled, before recalling how he accepted offers on every TV show imaginable after hitting Steve Davis on that unforgettable blackball finish in 1985. “I went to Wogan three times in year and I did tricks with Sooty and Sweep,” he says. .
When Hollywood star Paul Newman was in England to promote the film The Color of Money, he told BBC presenter Barry Norman that he was jumping up and down on his hotel bed in excitement as he watched. on Taylor’s Masters victory in 1987 against Alex Higgins.
‘The people gave their opinion’
Virgo and Taylor are now returning to the same spiritual home for 46 of their 50-year friendship and were among 16 hopefuls when the World Snooker Championship moved to Sheffield for the first time in 1977. “Remember the t -creaky floor?” said Maiden. “If Bill Werbeniuk was on one side, and Len Ganley was the referee, it was like a herd of wildebeest. Many people questioned the wisdom when we first came here. Everything a little strange … but it worked. Thank God.”
Both of them have been behind the microphone for many years to be compared to the great doyens of sports commentary – men like John Arlott or Dan Maskell – and the big welcome news is that the predictions of their demise are too early.
Virgo and Taylor expected 2022 to be their last. And then this year was supposed to be their swan song but, after almost two years of thinking that the end was near, news has come of an indefinite stay of execution.
“It’s business as usual for a long time: That’s the message, thankfully,” says Maiden. “It was music to our ears. We love the game.” Taylor nods and remains convinced that no one can read snooker better than them.
“Age should have nothing to do with it,” he says. They didn’t plan to go public back in 2021 with a whisper that they would be leaving. The Virgin had answered a direct question with a direct and gracious answer – “I understand, nothing lasts forever” – but it then provoked a huge backlash against the idea that they would still be more BBC veterans move on.
“Suddenly there was a bit of an outcry on Twitter,” says Maiden. “We discussed it. ‘Do you think it was the right thing to say [publicly]?’ but as it turned out it was the right thing. He put it out there. People give their opinion. Otherwise we could have just drifted away! ‘Wait where are they this year!’”
‘When we say we’re on TV, people are happy’
Their combined years before the maximum break are now 147 but an hour in their company provides a tantalizing reminder of what would be wasted. Humour, knowledge, experience, natural storytelling and, above all, an insight into snooker and British culture in general providing an uninterrupted personal connection from Joe and Fred Davis all the way to Ronnie O’Sullivan and Judd Trump.
The response in the live shows shows that they are still playing with Steve Davis on fixed lists around the country which further shows what snooker fans think. “When we say we’re still going to be here [on television]They love it,” says Taylor.
More shows are planned after this year’s World Cup (including old haunts like Reading’s Hexagon Theater and the Crucible itself) and these displays still tell you the most about what made their generation so golden.
They were fierce competitors, to be sure, but they were also entertainers in an era when the sport operated without the sense of entitlement so often felt today. When Taylor reached the Pot Black final in 1975, he wrote to hundreds of snooker clubs asking for work.
He funded his entry into Australia’s World Championships that year by personally organizing 10 shows at a brewery in Lancashire. As part of his sales pitch, Virgo would challenge a club’s best players to a showdown with a combined 200 starters and offer to refund his appearance if he lost. He also began perfecting his fellow professionals who would eventually appear on the BBC.
‘No one beats the umpires anymore’
Both of them worked in holiday camps, where Taylor noticed that he would tell Irish jokes whenever he played tricks on the crowd. “If I had a new gag, you’d try it on at 10am,” he says. “If it worked at that time, you could keep it in. Tell a story, entertain people, make them smile.”
“We wanted to sell the game, make it visible, and we were lucky to have this contrast of characters,” says Virgo, who describes the legendary Alex Higgins as the “icing of the cake” for a very popular sport.
Then they both stick out their cheeks before telling a random series of Alex Higgins stories. He had the specially made ‘A HIGGINS’ ink stamp in Hong Kong and he briefly insisted on using it instead of making the mass of signed applications by hand.
And then the day he won a week’s supply of pie and beer in the snooker club he often had with Taylor had answered the owner’s challenge for eight years evening breaks. “He had this panache that I’ve never seen in anyone else and he was as bright as a button,” says Maiden.
“He could do The Times crossword. He brought people on board to love the game and yet, if everyone was like him, the game would end up in ruins.
“I always prefix it in the show now by asking Dennis, ‘What’s your history with Alex?’ And he replied, ‘What, besides threatening to fire me?'” Taylor smiles and added: “And Steve Davis always says, ‘We don’t have any characters anymore! We don’t have anyone who goes up and punches the tournament director or punches the judges!”
Handling Higgins, says Virgo, was the perfect training for his second career on Big Break and then in pantomime with Davidson. “I had one advantage with Jim. I worked with Higgins. Because it is [Davidson] he could turn sixpence on it when he went out in company. Just like Higgins. But it couldn’t be worse than that. So it wasn’t going to affect me.”
And what is a Virgo’s strategy for dealing with a moody social partner? “Hide them and walk away,” he says. “A lot of people run after them.”
‘Did the commentators die there?’
Both Taylor and Virgo started commentating as players in the 1980s and never received any instructions from the BBC hierarchy.
“Snooker was one of the first where we put a bit of humor into the commentary,” says Taylor. “I always went in and talked as if he was watching someone in their living room.”
Maighdean remembers getting advice from the famous ‘whispering’ Ted Lowe “let the pictures do the talking” but she recalls that style was once offensive to the North American director.
“We were in Thailand and Ted and I didn’t say a word for 30 seconds. Suddenly this director was shouting in our ear, ‘Did the commentators die there!?’”
Virgo is also about providing color, context and a relaxed feeling rather than machine-gunning statistics into the audience’s ears. “Be welcoming. Watch it. Get the viewer involved. Often people are telling you about statistics from 15, 20 years ago and it seems to be countering what is happening on the table.”
Taylor believes that the art of commentary is to be effective when the viewer is not sure what will happen next. It’s been a typically eventful fortnight, with everything from a maximum break of 147, the shock of Ronnie O’Sullivan’s sudden departure and a Just Stop Oil protester throwing orange paint across a table.
And yet, as they nod and say hello to almost everyone who walks through the Crucible foyer as we speak, there is a great sense of two great gentlemen at the head of an ever-changing family.
“We’ve known these lads since they were kids – going through all the emotion when they won, and barely talked to anyone,” says Virgo, before coming up more later that evening with Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry, John Parrott and Ken Doherty.
“The game gave us everything. It’s been a great journey … and we’re still going. How long that lasts, I don’t know. But, as Dennis always says, we’ll keep talking until they tell us to stop.”