Picture the scene.
It’s just gone midnight on a Sunday night. There’s work tomorrow. School. You should be in bed.
Instead, you — along with 18.5 million other people around the country — cannot drag yourself away from your TV.
On the box is playing the 1985 World Championships Snooker final between reigning champion Steve Davis and outside-shot Dennis Taylor, a match that has gone down as being one of Britain’s greatest sporting moments.
At its best, snooker is an addictive, geometric dance of balletic precision, featuring expert cueing and tactical nous.
The sport’s flagship event, the World Championships, got underway in Sheffield this weekend and in doing so became one of the first events to welcome back crowds in England since the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Snooker has been a bastion of British sporting television since the championships moved to the Crucible Theatre in 1977.
In 1985 though, the sport was the hottest ticket in town, so much so the World Championships final became one of the most watched sporting events in British television history — with millions tuning in to the closing stages after midnight.
Snooker was big business throughout the 80s, pulling massive TV audiences and making genuine stars of the top players.
In an interview with the BBC, Taylor remembers snooker being “bigger than any other sport, even football and golf” in the mid-80s, with the players becoming household names — even featuring in pop songs of dubious provenance.
The reason for this was circumstance and visibility.
“There was only four channels, something like that, to watch,” Taylor said, “so everyone seemed to watch [snooker].”
Davis went even further, describing snooker’s popularity during that era as “stupid”.
“[There was] a trapped audience, nobody had anything to do on a Sunday evening, Sunday afternoon, [so] they sat and watched the snooker.
What was the 1985 final so enthralling?
The enduring appeal of the 1985 final comes from the myriad of storylines that developed during its playing.
The 11th seed and clear underdog, Taylor — complete with a unique set of glasses that left you in no doubt which decade you were in — found himself 8-0 down in the blink of an eye as Davis, who would win six World Championships in nine years during the 80s, dominated.
However, a missed green in the ninth frame handed Taylor an opening and, buoyed by the fervent support of a crowd desperate for more action, fought back strongly.
Over two gruelling days’ play, the pair traded blows, sending the match into a deciding, 35th frame.
That final frame took over an hour to complete — 68 minutes of the most gruelling, high-pressure sporting action you can imagine — the enthralled audience at home and in the room seemingly oblivious to the fact that Sunday had turned into Monday.
Later, Davis described the final frame as “a trauma” — and not just because of how it ended for him, but for how much pressure the players were under.
“Nerves have now taken over,” said BBC commentator Ted Lowe when Davis missed a regulation blue mid-way through that marathon final frame, a miss typical of the contest in the closing stages.
Incredibly, after 14 hours and 50 minutes of game time, the match came down to the final ball of the final frame — the only time this has happened in World Snooker history.
After potting the pink, Taylor, now trailing in the final frame by just three points, went over to the World Championship trophy and prayed in an attempt to summon some last-minute divine inspiration.
The final ball created drama though, with both players missing their mark amidst the suffocating tension.
An attempted double in off the cushion from Taylor missed the centre pocket by millimetres, Lowe muttering, “I have never known an atmosphere like this,” as the crowd struggled to contain themselves.
Taylor appeared to throw caution to the wind, attempting outlandish shots as playing safely was put on the backburner.
Leaving a tough, but gettable pot to win, Taylor’s chance appeared to have gone, only for Davis to fluff his lines.
“No,” a surprised Lowe said, the crowd roaring for the penultimate time as Taylor was left with a straight-forward pot to finish the match.
Taylor did sink the black, prompting an eruption of unbridled joy from the enraptured crowd.
The then-36-year-old brandished his cue above his head, before wagging a knowing finger at his supporters and kissing the most coveted trophy in the sport.
Will there ever be a communal viewing experience like that again?
The Black Ball Final is still the most watched post-midnight program of any show in UK television history.
That 18.5 million was a third of the United Kingdom’s population at the time.
To put those viewing figures into some perspective, the 1985 Live Aid concert — a once-in-a-lifetime event that took place throughout an afternoon — earned the BBC a TV audience of 24.5 million.
Admittedly a similar percentage of the population watched England’s 2016 World Cup defeat to Croatia, which was the highest rating British TV program in 2018 — but that happened in prime time, not after midnight.
In contrast, the highest rating Australian sporting event on TV in 2018, game one of State of Origin, was watched by just 13 per cent of the population.
Both players said that it was unlikely anything like that would ever happen again.
“I think it’s because of the choice nowadays.” Taylor told the BBC.
“When you think of the viewing figures they used to get … nowadays you get four or five million people tuning in for any sporting event it’s big numbers because of the choice that people have.”
Davis argued the same, saying that there is too much choice now.
“That can’t necessarily happen again anywhere now that there are multiple television channels.”
An unmatched viewing experience
That people are still talking about that match in such reverent tones 35 years on speaks volumes of snooker’s enduring, albeit slightly nostalgic appeal.
In an era where you can watch everything from wood chopping to competitive pizza tossing on ESPN (yes, really), it’s perhaps not surprising that the game’s grip on the public consciousness has slipped ever so slightly.
“[Snooker] was ideally placed as great theatre,” Davis said.
Ideal lockdown-viewing, perhaps.
That the World Championships is being used as a guinea pig for fans to attend the UK’s sporting COVID-19 recovery is perhaps incongruous considering its history as a television product.
Five-time World Champion, the enigmatic Ronnie O’Sullivan, is not a fan of fans being allowed in.
“I just think it’s an unnecessary risk [to have spectators].
“I just don’t think you want to be putting people’s lives at risk. You look at the NHS and you think ‘this is like a war at the moment … anything to take the stress off them is paramount’.”
But with attendances capped at a third of capacity, just 300 fans, the vast majority will, once again, be glued to their screens instead.
And, in the chastened circumstances the world finds itself in at the present time, that may be no bad thing, although the likelihood of any match this year matching the interest of that 1985 final is remote.
Davis, who would go on to win the next two World Championship titles and become known as one of the greatest of all time, said the contest helped define him.
“The fact that I was involved in something where so many people remember what they were doing and where they were when they were watching it, you know, wow.”