The Rack Pack is a new BBC film, and the first produced exclusively for BBC iPlayer, which concentrates on the rise and fall of Alex Higgins, World Snooker Champion for 1972 and 1982, as well as his rivalry with Steve Davis, a young up-and-comer in the early 80s who went on to take the same crown in 1981. And then again in 1983, 1984, 1987, 1988 and 1989, which really stuck in Higgins’ craw.
Anyone who doesn’t follow snooker may not be au fait with the fact that, like a lot of sports, it needs the personalities as much as the talent. In the modern game, Ronnie O’Sullivan can still power through a frame when he puts his mind to it, Mark Selby jokes his way to victory and was dubbed The Jester From Leicester, while Judd Trump has his own brand of “naughty snooker”, but back in 1972 when Higgins was World Champion, he was to the game what James Hunt was to motor racing, leading up to winning the Formula One World Championship in 1976, as shown in Ron Howard’s 2013 movie, Rush.
Higgins gave an air of cool and one of a man who just didn’t give a damn, hence he helped take the game from one that was solely watched by old men in private clubs to the masses, appearing on BBC2’s Pot Black 73 and giving it a kick up the backside. Personally, I watched that programme mainly in the ’80s, and religiously, but it wouldn’t really work today because frames could quite happily last around 25 minutes for its running time, yet nowadays they can be wrapped up a lot more quickly, especially if Ronnie was taking part, as his 147 break in 5 minutes and 20 seconds at the 1997 World Championships shows .
The whole drama feels like a powderkeg waiting to go off, repeatedly, which Fortitude‘s Luke Treadaway does in spectacular style as Higgins, the man who had it all and lost it all, mostly due to booze. And when things go wrong, he’s shown forever trading on his moniker as “The People’s Champion”, and desperately trying to save his marriage to Lynn (Nichola Burley). Major kudos also goes to Will Merrick as Steve Davis, looking more like that man he’s portraying than Treadaway does but once the latter begins to embody his role, the lack of likeness doesn’t cause any issue as he really becomes the Belfast champion. Hats off as well to – and I never thought I’d say this after his impressions show faltered in 2009 – Kevin Bishop as promoter Barry Hearn, who Higgins saw as destroying the game but who continues to take it from strength to strength.
There’s a superb script from Shaun Pye, Mark Chappell and Alan Connor, giving a number of wisecracks to Bishop, who comments on pale, lanky newbie Davis, “I bet he gets sunburn when he opens the fridge” and “I bet there’s more meat on Linda McCartney’s fork!”, as well as bringing out the best in all the major characters, including Higgins’ friend Jimmy White, while giving a nod to the likes of the debonair Cliff Thorburn, plus Kirk Stevens, Tony Knowles, Dennis Taylor, Willie Thorne and also ‘Big’ Bill Webeniuk. John Sessions also gets a small role as commentator Ted Lowe. He sounds nothing like him, but thankfully, that’s reserved just for one scene when he’s in shot. Any of Ted’s commentary is from archive footage.
And if you’re a snooker fan, you’ll find it difficult not to have a tear in your eye as it ends.
I presume a lot of the snooker pots were done with CGI since not every actor will pull off large and perfect snooker breaks as well as the sport’s legends.
If I had any reservations it would be – Why is this an exclusive to BBC iPlayer? The BBC are not Netflix, and with them having to make cutbacks to the point where they’re closing a channel (if BBC3 still exists by the end of 2016, I’ll eat my hat. And first I’ll have to buy a hat), then it makes no sense to show this solely on demand while the broadcast channels are packed with repeats. I also have to question the timing – this is going live on Sunday night at 9pm, at a time when the Masters tournament is coming to a close. If I was doing the scheduling, I would’ve aired it on BBC2 *and* before The Masters started, since once it’s over, the sport will drop out of viewers’ minds until the World Championship begins in April. Yes, there’s also the Welsh Open next month, which I will also watch, but it gets relegated to the Red Button, with the final weekend only airing on BBC2 Wales, which not everyone can access through their TV (and not everyone has a ‘connected’ television).
Given that the Masters began on Sunday January 10th, I would’ve put this on the Thursday before at 9pm. Any 9pm slot on BBC2 from Monday to Thursday is a good time for drama. Friday, less so because viewers have shut their brains off for the weekend, and definitely not on Saturday. Over the years, I’ve deduced that Saturday night BBC2 is where good dramas go to die. The BBC3 2004 drama Conviction was a good example of this. It eventually was given a BBC2 repeat, but… on a Saturday night.
In addition, we’re told at the start that some chronology has been altered and that some scenes have been created for the drama. I would like to know more about that. For some elements that don’t matter too much, Davis is seen playing the arcade version of Pac-Man, long before its official release, since it didn’t even come out in Japan until mid-1980; and there’s Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing accompanying the 1981 Final.
I once met Alex Higgins at some point around 2001/2002. I can’t divulge the exact circumstances, but while he clearly wasn’t a well man, I was in awe of his presence, and also honoured to have spent time with him and to talk to him. I even got his signature. It’s a shame it wasn’t in the age of the selfie when I had a phone that could take *a* picture, let alone a decent one.
Finally, if you’re wondering whether this can be viewed as a family drama, if this were released on Blu-ray and DVD, I would expect it to be awarded a 15-certificate, generally for the strong language including a lot of f-words and two c-words.
The Rack Pack is available on BBC iPlayer from Sunday at 9pm, and click on the top image for the full-size version.
Running time: 88 minutes
Released: January 17th 2016
Director: Brian Welsh
Producer: Barney Reisz
Creators/writers: Shaun Pye, Mark Chappell and Alan Connor
Alex Higgins: Luke Treadaway
Steve Davis: Will Merrick
Barry Hearn: Kevin Bishop
Lynn Higgins: Nichola Burley
Robbo: Daniel Fearn
Jimmy White: James Bailey
Cliff Thorburn: Russ Bain
Tony Knowles: Marc McCardie
Ted Lowe: John Sessions
Dennis Taylor: Caolan Byrne
Bill Werbeniuk: Gary Davis
Terry Griffiths: Jimmy Watkins
Oliver Reed: Bob Crouch
Willie Thorne: Konstantine Osipenkov
Pete: Tom Fisher
Miles: Daniel Ableson
Floor Manager: Ross Gurney Randall
Red-Faced Irishman: Chris Corrigan
Liam: Fergal McElherron
Paddy: Phillip Laing
Rookie: Eamonn Flemming
Nearest Waiter: Chris Grahamson
Lauren Higgins: Maisie Jenkins
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.