1 9 7 3 – 1 9 7 8 (UK)
The Indoor League was broadcast on ITV at Sunday lunchtime in the mid-1970s. It was hosted by former England fast bowler Fred Trueman, who – being from Yorkshire – knew what he liked and liked what he bloody well knew!
The show was a homage to pub sports – bar billiards (“snooker with bunkers”), darts, skittles, Table Football and shove ha’penny – and pre-dated the mass popularity of snooker and darts.
Further series added pool and, notably, arm wrestling, precipitating a national revival of the contest supposedly invented by Genghis Khan, thanks to the runaway success of a southerner, Don ‘Buster’ Whitney, Kent’s arm wrestling ace.
In many ways, The Indoor League paved the way for the acceptance of these activities as sports by the British telly-viewing public.
Broadcasting from a pretend pub (the reality, the Irish Centre in Leeds) complete with life-size cartoons of people in flares, Trueman (a pipe in one hand and a pint in t’other) greeted viewers with a brusque “Now then” and said farewell to us with a rugged “Ahl si thee!”
Leaning on the skittles table like Dr Bronowski on a lectern, Trueman eulogised, “what’s probably the oldest pub game in England. I hear Henry VIII used to knock the old shove ha’pennies about a bit – when he weren’t bashing t’missus. Well, I don’t know how Barry Stones or Alan Brown of Durham treat their missuses, but they certainly can nudge a crafty ha’penny!”
But there was more to The Indoor League than pipes and pints – and questionable cardigans and northern gruffness. The sports which were showcased each week demanded great skill.
Consider shove ha’penny. The great darts commentator Sid Waddell once said that “shove ha’penny demands more concentration than darts, but the touch must be as light as a butterfly’s eyelash”.
Trueman himself claimed that shove ha’penny was a game that matched “the delicateness and dexterity of the miniature portrait painter”.
Both Waddell and Trueman were themselves great players of the pub game that was invented in the 16th century and referred to by Shakespeare somewhere as ‘shove grout’.
Aside from the sport’s ‘wild characters’ like “Buffalo Bill” of Scunthorpe (who shoved ha’pennies while wearing a ten-gallon hat), Fred Trueman drew tantalising sketches of the contestants, giving each one an intriguing nom de guerre: “Charles Ellis, the Dark Horse . . . he’s got five kids and he takes his arrows seriously an’ all”; “Dennis Jones, the Lad Who Crouches to Swing, owns a chip shop, and is going a bit thin on top”.
Neil Cleminson filled the layman in on arcane technical matters: “He knocks off that chalk in the bay, but still has two required in the first bay. So this means he has six to get in the top, and two in the bottom, so it’s twenty chalks already in, seven to get, and the break ends.”
Dave Lanning, meanwhile, hyped them up for all they were worth: “Ooh, shiver me timbers! The drama! The stark naked drama of table skittles! He got two successive floppers . . . Now, can he get all twenty-seven? No, he can’t!”
Pub sports are now watched by millions of Britons on television. They no longer need to take place in pubs.