There is a moment, when I am in the stands at London’s Alexandra Palace, as a soup of horses, jockeys, Marios, Luigis, Christmas puddings, Santas, 118 guys, chickens, Greggs sausage rolls, nuns, Teletubbies, Beatles and at least three lads dressed as David Seaman roils beneath me, that I begin to understand in my bones the phenomenon known as “great darts”.
I am watching a second round World Darts Championships match, and the current number one darts pro in the world, Gerwyn “The Iceman” Price, is competing against the number 50 seed Luke Woodhouse. Price – a Welshman and former rugby player whose picture is there when you look up “brick shithouse” in the dictionary – has not done well so far, and the many English fans who enjoy performatively booing him like a panto villain have now started to chant “EN-GER-LAND”, growing hopeful for their countryman Woodhouse (vibe: guy who spends loads of money on the third shirts of Bundesliga teams because they’ve got a cool font on), as Price struggles to find a rhythm.
By the third leg of the match’s third set, however, Woodhouse panics. Clearly shaken by the enormity of what he could be about to achieve, he gets a bad case of the yips, unable to land his shots on target. Price catches onto his opponent’s weakness immediately, like a shark from the Valleys, and clinically claims the set. He wins the first leg of the next set, too, with a bullseye.
His final move – his “to be or not to be” moment – is a majestic 150 checkout. As he lands it, Price lets out a victorious yowl, his signature move. The room erupts. It is an electric climax; so thrilling as to be almost operatic. “STAND UP IF YOU LOVE THE DARTS,” the crowd chants to the tune of “Go West” for the thousandth time tonight. I get to my feet, powerless to resist. I do love the darts – and this, without doubt, is absolutely great darts.
It’s important that you understand the agony, ecstasy and absurdity that I describe here, because though I think that the matches themselves are actually quite a small factor in what makes the annual World Darts Championships at Alexandra Palace such a unique proposition, they do provide context for everything else you see.
Sport, like live music, is a conduit: for emotion, release, and in the case of the darts, for sinking pints and dressing in a frightening Shrek costume you got off Wish. These World Championships, while of course taken seriously by the pros (the winner gets £500,000), are a laugh precisely because of the knowing spectacle that gets made of a decidedly unspectacular sport. It is, fundamentally, hilarious for a guy who is about to stand in one spot and chuck arrows at a board to emerge onstage to “Ice Ice Baby” as he stalks the stage like a pro-wrestler, flanked by cheerleaders.
The players, organisers and crowd all know this, and it’s a big part of what makes the event so ripe for theatre. After all, without up-for-it competitors like Price and Steve Beaton (who wears the phrase “Bronzed Adonis” on the back of his shirt), you probably wouldn’t have the group of blokes sat behind me turning up as the Blue Man Group.
It’s as a result of this weird, funny, stupid and altogether unmatched atmosphere that for years now I’ve heard tell from various corners – mates from home, colleagues, friends of friends – of the notoriety of the darts as an excuse for a piss-up and some of the worst (ergo: best) fancy dress you’ve ever seen, with the World Championships at Ally Pally taking pride of place as the tour’s biggest event around Christmas and New Year.
What has always surprised me about these conversations, however, is the fact that they are pretty much always with people my own age. There’s definitely a perception of darts as a game that dads play in the pub, watching silently and seriously late at night, the commentary blaring out of the telly when everyone else is in bed – but the reality is that everyone I know who actually goes to watch live darts is in their 20s or 30s (most have got into it via clips shared on social media or put on at an afters). And when I get off the train at Alexandra Palace station at around 6:45PM on the evening of my visit, that’s precisely the demographic I meet.
The first thing I see is two guys in their 30s dressed as wizards. I consider taking a photo, until I am confronted with the second thing I see: another man of around the same age dressed as a hot dog. I follow the hot dog to the station exit, where he is greeted by around five other hot dogs, all doing ordinary things like looking on their phones or rounding up their mates. They don’t look either pleased with themselves or self-conscious – they’re just neutral, because this is the darts: fancy dress is just how it is.
Once I make it inside, I head to the venue’s fan village – full of bars and food trucks, where one minute you’ll be ordering a tray of chips with curry sauce and the next you’re looking at twelve guys dressed as that picture of The Rock where he’s wearing a turtleneck and a silver chain – where I canvass some younger heads about their reasons for visiting. Michael, 19, is in aviator sunglasses and a nun’s habit, and says the words “piss-up” before I can even finish the question “what brings you to the darts?”
Michael’s friend Tommy, 19, tells me that he’s noticed that the crowd is “getting younger and younger.” He thinks there’s an element of the darts that is similar to uni culture (fancy dress; getting bladdered) which might explain its popularity among people in their 20s. “When you’re at uni, they do events like this. Students want to come to things like this,” he says.
Will, 18, James, 19, and their pals, are a similar age, and I initially approach them because their costumes are so impressive: they are dressed as the principal cast of The Wizard of Oz (Will’s the Wizard; James is putting in an absolute shift as the Wicked Witch of the West) – minus Dorothy, who is delayed at the bar.
They’re down from Lincoln for the day, and Will, who became interested in darts via watching the World Championships on Sky at home, compares the experience to other sporting events: “It’s like a test match at the cricket, but more intense and shorter,” he says. James, by contrast, simply beams through his green face paint and says somewhat serenely: “Massive piss-up.”
Just as I’m trying to get to the bottom of exactly what, in the group’s opinion, it is about darts that is so great – and I truly could not have written this more sublimely – their Dorothy, Dylan, 18, shows up in a blue dress, Judy Garland wig and red trainers in place of ruby slippers, clutching a pitcher of beer. His mates gesture at him, the group’s resident darts savant, to answer me. He inhales solemnly and it feels like he is looking into my soul. “Come back at the end of the game,” he says, “once Price has hit a big fish. Then you’ll have your answer.” Dylan mate, if you are reading this: you were right.
The main hall is brightly lit for TV broadcast, because the action is live on Sky Sports, and as a result it is absolutely boiling: my sympathies go out to everyone who selected “Grinch” as their costume. At front is the stage where the actual darts take place, with big screens on either side, for closeups of the board. Against all three other walls are the stands, lined with people who have come as, for example, the Slinky dog from Toy Story (interestingly, most of the costumes, like the aforementioned 118 advert fits, are strangely retro, tapping into a strain of 2000s and 2010s culture which actually feels quite alien now, though I suppose if this is an event where millennials are in the driving seat, nostalgia is to be expected because we are old), and in the middle are the tables, which are separated into three pens.
I take my seat in the stands on the left hand side, between a guy wearing a promotional Ladbrokes t-shirt that reads “I’M SEXY AND I THROW IT” over a full Spiderman costume, a couple of well-groomed Germans who’ve come on holiday, and, coincidentally, two people who are mates with someone I once dated (hello Georgia and Chris!), so chaos mode is activated before I even sit down.
On my left and right hand sides, the tables are reserved affairs, with drinks service and lots of men looking serious in polo shirts. In fact, the most important rivalry in the room is not between any players, but between the fans in the stands and those at these tables (the posher, pricier seats).
Popular chants from the stands include “Never seen a table down a pint,” and are intended to let the tables know just how shite their craic is. In a limp attempt at a comeback, one guy at a table holds up a sign on which he’s written: “Bet you wish you were at a table,” and the teenage girl sitting next to me, who is wearing a gold lamé jumpsuit – and whose mum gives me a sip from her pitcher of something called a Bullseye that is bright red and delicious – leans over and says, “Nah, we’re not boring fuckers like you.”
While this is all happening around the sides, however, it is the middle of the room that feels like its glowing nucleus: a whirling tornado of polyester costumes, chucked pints and matted Santa beards gone awry and trampled into the floor under hundreds of pairs of Stan Smiths. Frequently, this central contingent sets a new chant spiralling around everyone’s heads (including, for some reason, the Harry Maguire “His head’s fucking massive” one – wrong sport of course, but I’m always happy to hear it), and even in tense moments for the players, we’re STANDING UP IF WE LOVE THE DARTS approximately every five minutes: it’s the easiest chant in the world to get going, because well, everyone fucking loves the darts (or, at least, getting pissed at it).
I’m curious as to what the players think of the atmosphere. Do they find it distracting, or is it all part of the pageantry that professional darts involves? After the event, over email, Price (!) assures me of the latter. “For us players, it brings the best out of us. Once you’re on the stage you know you’ve got to bring your best game because it’s the World Championships,” he tells me. “I get a mixed reception from the fans sometimes and it’s not easy, but you want to put on a show. They buy their tickets months in advance and it’s a big occasion for them. It might be the only time they come and see the darts in a year. You want them to enjoy it.”
This is a sentiment that the punters share, though I’m told that if you’re there mainly for the night out, it’s best to come when the competition isn’t too far along. I meet Mark, 24, and his mates – all of whom are decked out as variations on Harry Potter. He explains: “It’s known for being a good time. If you come here early doors in the tournament, it’s just all about the piss-up.”
Ollie, 24, also Potter, tells me: “I think when people get busier at work, or with life commitments, they see each other less and less. So all of us getting together… we do this every year religiously.”
While I don’t want to overegg the significance of the darts – in a lot of ways it’s very similar to any number of other sporting events, just with more people dressed as Scooby Doo characters – the main demographic I speak to are men in their 20s and 30s who are here for a festive get-together with uni or school friends that they might not have seen in a while. Darts are as good a reason as any to connect with people you love but haven’t seen in a while, and to have a laugh slagging off the tables while you do it.
As I leave the venue, after Price’s big comeback, there is a sense of conviviality that is definitely pissed up but still pretty pleasant. Banana costumes sag around waists and shoulders; a couple of shit mullet wigs litter the Ally Pally corridors. On the bus, people are singing “Gerwyn Price, Price, Price” (as in: “Feeling hot, hot, hot”), and even as far as Finsbury Park station, there’s a group of lads in Greggs’ Christmas jumpers waiting outside, arms around each other, their shouts of “180!” echoing behind me as I go down the escalator.
My thoughts turn back to Mark, Ollie and their mates. At one point, Ollie said to me of his group’s annual darts pilgrimage, “We have a good time just before Christmas. It’s really important, especially for lads.” I remember that as he was telling me this, two of his friends were next to him, hugging. A crap Hogwarts fancy dress robe sleeve went dangerously close to dipping into a pint; the affection was palpable. Great darts indeed.