Tuesday, 19 January 2016

The Rack Pack (2016)

When the BBC announced that they were axeing BBC4's original drama budget in 2013, we all presumed that that year's Burton and Taylor would be the last bijou biopic of the tumultuous lives of our homegrown stars.

However, with the arrival of this BBC iPlayer original drama - the first of its kind; a straight to the digital service free-to-download production - focusing on the glory days of snooker in the 1970s and 1980s, there may be a revival yet.

The Rack Pack, a comedy drama about the fierce rivalry between chalk and cheese snooker players Alex 'The Hurricane' Higgins and Steve Davis, is also possibly the first really good film about the sport - just beating that old cheap and cheerful Bob Geldof favourite Number One.

Luke Treadaway stars as Higgins, the hard drinking, chain smoking, trick shot taking Northern Irish braggart whose cavalier playing style revolutionised the game in the 1970s, dragging it out of the smoky back rooms of working men's clubs and a few idle spectators into the living rooms, hearts and minds of the general public, at its peak over 18 million to be precise. But just as Higgins so successfully rode the wave of one revolution, he badly underestimated or simply failed to see the wave that roared up in the '80s and has kept on to this very day - that of wheeler dealer promoter and manager Barry Hearn's businessification of the sport. The key proponent of that change was a young player from Romford called Steve Davis. 

Played uncannily by Will Merrick, Davis was everything that Alex Higgins wasn't; a gawky nerd, he preferred milk to alcohol and his personality was (initially at least) so non existent that the shrewd Hearn (played by comedian Kevin Bishop) chose to capitalise on what anyone else would call a flaw, proclaiming his boy to be 'The Robot' of the game, whose impenetrable, stony faced aura quickly got under the skin of his fellow players, chief amongst them Higgins, of course. 

Naturally it is Treadaway as Higgins who has the showier, more dramatic role. The Alex Higgins story is the story of a man whose talent was quickly submerged by his excesses, his wild temper and the inner demons that chipped away at him until eventually he had nothing left, not his game nor his wife played her by Nichola Burley. The problem with such a story of course is that it is one that is now very well known thanks to numerous documentaries and biographies on the man himself, as well as being a tale as old as time. Virtually every rock star and sport biopic (and virtually all of the BBC4 ones prior to this) follows this very same familiar path which means viewers are left with something akin to compassion fatigue towards Treadaway's fine performance of The Hurricane's downfall. No matter how great Treadaway is in the role - and he really is great, and this is despite having to adopt the Northern Irish accent and having to work extra hard to convince as a man he doesn't physically resemble - it's ultimately hard to get that involved in this well-worn, poignant scenario. It wasn't the only aspect of The Rack Pack that was familiar either; the heavy jukebox saturation of the film became quite irritating long before the first half was even up. I love my music, but did we really need the hits of ELO, Cream, Ian Dury and The Blockheads etc playing over every other scene?

The film is on much safer, more enjoyable ground with its lighter aspects which are delivered brilliantly by the almost Del Boy and Rodney like pairing of Merrick's Davis and Bishop's Hearn. It's also smart funny too and nicely avoids the usual knowing gags at the expense of the era it is set in. The script by Shaun Pye, Mark Chappell and Alan Connor plays for keeps and in the hands of these performers it's onto a winner, just as Hearn's Match Room was at the time, second guessing the corporate potential of snooker with its tie-in's to everything from aftershave and coffee to pop music and TV chat shows. Cast as the go-between from Higgins' world to that of Davis and the players of today is James Bailey as the young Jimmy White. As 'The Whirlwind', White was Higgins' protege but he rode the waves and managed the transition better than his mentor could. He's still hanging on in there now, playing alongside the younger 'stars' with their pasty expressions, prematurely balding hairlines and paunchy frames. But unfortunately, the game is nowhere near as lively as it was in Higgins and Davis' heyday.

"Remember this," a washed up Higgins says in the final scene, a teary eyed final confrontation between him and the smart and assured Davis "When I die I'll get the romantic obituaries, you can keep your fucking money"

When The Hurricane died in 2010, he was proved right. He got them in droves.

The Rack Pack is available to view on iPlayer.

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