TV Review: The Rack Pack, BBC iPlayer

“Think of it as mental snooker”

For somebody whose exposure to snooker was mainly limited to BBC1’s Saturday night show Big Break (and how I loved the trick shots), you might not have expected a drama about snooker to be high on my list of things to watch. But I’m nothing if not tricksy and the announcement of a play about snooker in Sheffield, The Nap featuring a rare foray into theatre for Jack O’Connell, has left me wondering if indeed I really want to schlep up to South Yorkshire to sit through a play about a sport of which I know very little.

Plus The Rack Pack also has a Treadaway (Luke) in it, which always ranks highly in my book, and so I sat down to watch it, hoping that John Virgo might at least have a tiny cameo in it. Written by Mark Chappell, Alan Connor and Shaun Pye, the comedy drama focuses on the rivalry between Alex Higgins and Steve Davis during the 70s and 80s when televised snooker was becoming increasingly popular and so the game became more professional but also more commercialised, each man having their own role to play in this.

The Rack Pack proved to be a lot funnier than I imagined, initially at least – Higgins’ extrovert character saw him ruffle the feathers of an establishment unsure what to do with him and Treadaway captures this ferocity of spirit well. The arrival of Steve Davis – good work from Will Merrick – as a methodical antithesis in turn shakes him up, especially as his manager Barry Hearn, a cocky Kevin Bishop, converts his success into commercial terms, making Davis the unlikely star of his own chat show as well as several advertising campaigns.

BBC/Zeppotron/Emilie Sandy

The latter part of the 90 minutes follows Higgins’ career into its severe downspin. Always too fond of a drink and a woman, his marriage suffers (Nichola Burley does her best in the only role of any substance for a woman as his wife and mother of his two children) as does his snooker playing. Treadaway’s performance intensifies well here but there’s a lack of real emotional engagement, the narrative of a genius throwing away his talent not reaching the stakes of tragic hero – at least for me – though I wonder how snooker fans perceived him then, and now.

Rather appallingly though, the script glosses right over the true extent of the decline of Higgins’ life, even neutralising the ‘and then…’ credit notes. His self-destructive ways saw him lose his fortune, his family and ultimately his health, as cancer ate away at him – he died in 2010 in sheltered housing, weighing just 6 stone. Obviously I’ve just discovered this from Wikipedia but it seems a staggering omission and an indictment of a culture that loves blokeish ‘bad behaviour’ a little too much. So an interesting if flawed piece for a snooker newbie, I’d be interested to hear what snooker fans made of it given they knew how each game, and indeed the main story would pan out. 


Interestingly, the BBC have chosen to release The Rack Pack as an iPlayer exclusive, available for a year online and so not being conventionally screened on any of their main channels. There doesn’t seem a huge rationale for this – it may be a niche interest but it’s not a particularly artistically ambitious piece of television that could be considered experimental. And it’s certainly got the production values to stack up in the mainstream so who knows, though in these perilous times for the Beeb, it is nice to see starting to adapt to a streaming-friendly world.

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