“Colourful” is the preferred press euphemism for describing lives like that of snooker’s Alex Higgins. The “bad boy” of the game, he was a genius on the baize who drank, smoked, snorted and head-butted his way to world champion status and back. Talk about colour. As the tabloids tell it, Higgins’ story is a nothing short of a kaleidoscope.
It’s harder to describe his 2010 death as similarly vibrant. Higgins died broke and alone, wilfully starving in sheltered housing after throat cancer left him toothless and skeletal.
That’s the bit of these stories we prefer to ignore. Stories of men like Higgins and his Belfast contemporary George Best, whose talent comes packaged in a personality that erodes it. Men whose self-destruction isn’t just tolerated by their public but celebrated. It’s easy to watch someone slowly kill themselves if you frame it as a rock and roll act. Focus hard enough on the glamour, booze and trashed hotel rooms and eventually you won’t even see the sad, small endings. Calculated blindness is how we keep our “legends” legendary.
The Rack Pack, an original film made for BBC iPlayer, glosses over Higgins’ last days. Its final scene sees him in slow-motion striding drunkenly away from the press and into a blast of white light. Though billed as a comedy drama, to its credit the film isn’t blind to the tragedy of Higgins’ binges. It’s his story as much as that of snooker’s exploding 1980s popularity, and that’s unavoidably the tale of a man whose excesses, anger and paranoia chip away at his life until he has nothing left.
The problem is that Higgins’ descent, having already been told in almost every rock and sport biopic ever made, is so depressingly familiar that it’s hard to feel much about it. Tot up the number of times you’ve watched a character lob a TV out of a window, shush the ambient partying when the wife calls, or break down alone in the now-grubby but once-opulent house they can no longer afford. It must be in double figures by now. That alone says something unflattering about our obsession with following celebrities down the road to ruin. It’s not the fault of Luke Treadaway, who plays Higgins with real intensity and showmanship, that we’ve seen his character done countless times before, but it remains the case.
As a comedy, The Rack Pack is much more successful. The early odd-couple pairing of Hurricane Higgins and clean-cut Steve “I’m so boring my nickname is Steve Davis” Davis is huge fun. Will Merrick makes a very good Davis, but the comic high point is Kevin Bishop as his canny, jovial manager Barry Hearn. Bishop is great in The Rack Pack, his scenes are kept light and bright, even when delivering home truths to Treadaway’s desperate Higgins. A nod to newcomer James Bailey as Jimmy White too. His rapport with Treadaway felt likeably natural and gave the film its most touching moments.
The script also has its moments, most of them filthy and pouring out of Higgins’ mouth. “They’ve stolen UB40” is irresistibly funny, and the rest of the laughs are legitimate, thankfully not relying on easy jabs at the trappings of the seventies and eighties.
The question we’re left with is how many more times are we going to see this story played out on screen? Not the snooker stuff, which was great to watch, but the story of a genius drowning in booze and pissing his talent away. “I am the box office”, Higgins said more than once in The Rack Pack. He was right. And we just keep queuing up to buy tickets.