The Rack Pack

The Rack Pack is the first feature-length film to debut on iPlayer. This is presumably because the BBC wants to be seen as cool and modern and edgy like Netflix but, in reality, it’s just BBC2 with added buffering.

Brian Welsh’s hugely enjoyable film tells the story of one of British sport’s greatest rivalries – the battle of the green baize fought by snooker legends Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins and Steve Davis in the early 1980s. Higgins was the swaggering, cocksure, coke-snorting rock star of the scene who described himself as ‘the box office’; Davis, by contrast, played with robotic precision, drank nothing stronger than milk and spent his spare time playing Space Invaders.

Perhaps the real player, though, was Barry Hearn, the savvy snooker Svengali who transformed the game into a multi-million pound concern that culminated in the 1985 world final being watched by 18.5 million people. He was also canny enough to use his young protégée’s shortcomings to his advantage, creating Brand Davis – a man so boring his nickname was ‘Steve Davis’.

Higgins was too much of a loose cannon for this new corporate era and, when Davis stole his crown, his resentment boiled over into obsession and alcoholism. After a spell in rehab, Higgins had his Rocky moment and reclaimed the world title, but his destructive personality and volcanic temper soon resurfaced: too busy whoring with Oliver Reed, he ended up losing his game, his house and his wife and children. Davis, meanwhile, shared the Rear of the Year trophy with Su Pollard.

The Rack Pack started out as a broad, cartoonish romp – with Kevin Bishop, in particular, channelling the spirit of Del Boy as Hearn – but gradually became more sober as Higgins became more sozzled. Luke Treadaway was fabulous as the dissolute Irishman, perfectly capturing his distinctive, strangely effeminate voice, while Will Merrick was suitably deadpan as Davis.

Though Hearn refused a desperate Higgins’ plea to sign him up, he did concede that the game had benefited as much from his boozy showmanship as Davis’ robotic professionalism. ‘They watch for the soap opera,’ Hearn told him. ‘It’s Dallas with balls.’

That description could equally apply to this delightful film. It’s so good, in fact, they should show it on telly.


TV extra:

Tracey Ullman’s Show

Tracey Ullman’s been off British screens so long I’d forgotten – or perhaps never appreciated – what a brilliant mimic she is. Her impression of Dame Judi Dench, in particular, is fabulous (and the make-up artist surely deserves a BAFTA).

The writing on her new sketch show is a more hit-and-miss affair, sadly, but I did enjoy the running gag about the couple (Ullman and the fab Steve Pemberton) giving a refugee a crash-course in British culture – which basically amounted to Eggheads, Ian Beale and Findus Crispy Pancakes.


Call the Midwife

Call the Midwife is an odd fish. Sunday’s sixth series opener was brave and unflinching in its approach to the Thalidomide scandal, with a heartbreaking performance from Liz White as the mum of a baby born with severe deformities. Yet much of what surrounded it – a vicar with an Easter bonnet crisis and Nurse Trixie’s rousing speech in defence of keep fit (‘There are women in my class who can’t even name parts of their own anatomy!’) – felt like a Victoria Wood spoof. But eight million viewers can’t be wrong. Can they? 

Published in Waitrose Weekend, January 21, 2016

(c) Waitrose Weekend