Darts is the sport that time forgot – a member of its audience thinks blacking up as Diane Abbott is OK


If you are too desperate for a seasonal fix of TV time travel to wait for Doctor Who on Christmas Day, why not try the darts? A visit to the PDC world championships, as available today on Sky Sports, will transport you to the past.

Exactly how far back is difficult to gauge. But judging by the first political furore in arrows history, it will be somewhere between the mid-1950s, just before the first wave of immigration from the Caribbean, and the late 1970s when the Black and White Minstrels ceased to be acceptable family entertainment.

The row concerns Diane Abbott and the still unnamed man who went to the event, at Alexandra Palace in north London, done up as the Shadow Home Secretary.

Fancy dress plays almost as important a part in TV darts these days as walk-on music and nicknames. When defending champion “Mighty” Michael Van Gerwen takes to the stage, the crowd chanting “Seven Nation Army” (the “oh-oh Jer-em-y Corb-yn” anthem for non-darting aficionados) will include imperial storm troopers, Santas, superheroes, Muppets, and so on.

All good, clean, innocent fun – or so it may have seemed until Friday, when Abbott made her debut due to the anonymous muppet who not only donned spectacles, Labour rosette-adorned red jacket, string of pearls and black acrylic wig. 

He also blacked up his face and hands.

Blackface hasn’t been a television presence since BBC1 removed the Minstrels from its schedules in 1978. How such sensationally offensive stereotyping survived in the mainstream until then looks like an impenetrable mystery.

Its (God willing) brief emergence almost 40 years later is less so. For all its modern reputation as a great night out for lairy lads and saucy lasses, and City twats priding themselves on their egalitarianism for slumming it with the oiks, darts is the land that time forgot.

I’ve been to the PDC event five or six times, including the occasion that produced the most savage sartorial humiliation in planetary history. A friend from The Times and I were refused admission to the players’ bar for wearing jeans. Imagine how it feels to be regarded as unacceptably dressed at the darts.

Even more old fashioned than the disdain for denim is that during those visits and the countless hundreds of hours spent watching it on telly, I cannot recall seeing a black face in the audience. I suppose there must be some, though on an average night probably fewer than the number of Page 3 wannabes doing the anti-erotic pre-match cheerleader dances on the stage.

In this context, you can understand some bozo confusing his Diane Abbott tribute act with harmless merriment. Either he hadn’t read the recent reports about her being, by a factor of ten to one, the most frequently threatened and abused female MP; or he had and made no connection between that statistic and her skin colour; or he just didn’t care.

This incident might have gone unnoticed had an obscure betting firm not admiringly tweeted the picture, with the caption “An early contender for best fancy dress costume at the #PDC #WorldDartsChampionships tonight at #AllyPally.” 

East Sussex-based Star Sports calls itself “the gentleman’s bookmaker”, which has a suitably archaic and out of touch, PG Wodehouse ring – Bertie Wooster played the ukulele with blackface “n***** minstrels”.  

After a typically elegant rebuke from that splendid Labour MP Stella Creasy, the gentleman’s bookmaker refused to back down, tweeting back that “We thought it was a very impressive attempt at fancy dress”, and inviting her to “stop taking things so seriously.” 

Many of us enjoy intransigent stupidity, though far more in the comedy of embarrassment than in reality. It was excruciatingly funny when David Brent defended his racist joke, involving Prince Harry’s grandparents and predicated on the stereotype of outsized genitalia, because a mixed race colleague hadn’t objected.

When a frighteningly ignorant, publicity-hungry bookie defends the indefensible on the grounds that its tweet broke its personal record for likes and retweets – it is just excruciating. For all his self-acclaimed guts in taking huge bets, the firm’s owner Ben Keith lacks the courage to out himself as the man responsible. 

When Andrew Marr had Abbott on his sofa today, he stuck mostly to Brexit and didn’t mention the darts. If he had, I assume she’d have shrugged wearily and said she’s seen worse (death threats, swastikas, etc). She may not have the maths skills needed to calculate odds, but she does have real courage. She copes with atrocious abuse, consciously wicked and unthinkingly poisonous, with dignified bravery. 

That she shouldn’t have to cope with this at all ought to go without saying, but sadly doesn’t. With classical British smugness, this country celebrates its tolerance for no stronger reason than that other European and Anglophone countries are worse.

Anyone who believes there is room for such complacency should use their remote as a Tardis, and visit the all-white enclave of multicultural London that is Ally Pally during the darts. 

The scariest thing is that it may not only be a trip back in time. Thanks to one those timey-wimey temporal paradoxes that now and again affect the Doctor, it might double up as a journey forward to the post-Brexit future.