Big Break star John Virgo on trick shots, snooker legends and his Cobham home
- Credit: Various
Former UK snooker champion John Virgo has won many playing honours, but is best-known for his showmanship away from the table. The Cobham-based Big Break star shares his thoughts on the modern game and reveals how he likes to relax here in Surrey
John Virgo has no doubts about the highlight of his career. It wasn’t becoming one of the youngest snooker players on the circuit when he turned professional in 1976. It wasn’t winning the UK Championship in 1979 either. It wasn’t even securing a coveted place in the BBC commentary box.
What he relished the most was performing trick shots on the long- running BBC TV gameshow Big Break alongside its anarchic host, comedian Jim Davidson. “The times we had on that show were the best ten years of my life,” he says in his soft northern accent. “It was a pleasure getting out of bed in the morning.”
And that, perhaps, is the irony of John’s career. Despite winning many playing honours, we remember him most fondly for his showmanship away from the snooker table.
We first got a taste of the Virgo magic when he performed impersonations of fellow players during a lull in the 1982 World Championship. His take-offs of the likes of Alex Higgins, Terry Griffiths and Dennis Taylor were uncannily accurate, delighting viewers. But what strikes you most watching back old television footage is how poised he was as a performer, something that didn’t go unnoticed at the Beeb.
Was this in the back of his mind when he donned Dennis Taylor’s famous glasses or imitated Steve Davis’s purposeful walk? Was he using it as an audition platform?
He laughs: “I always remember the commentator David Vine pointing out that I’d had £25,000 worth of free publicity – and he was right. But it turned out to be a lot more. That was the main reason the BBC gave me the job on Big Break. They could see I had a sense of humour and thought I’d be perfect for the show. But I started those impersonations as a bit of fun, never thinking I’d perform them live at the Crucible!”
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On cue in Guildford
Next month John, 67, will be entertaining the punters again, this time as the host of Snooker Legends, an exhibition tour featuring some of the UK’s best-loved players. Coming to G Live in Guildford this month, memories of four great Crucible World finals will be rekindled with a face-off between ‘The King of the Crucible’ and seven times world champion Stephen Hendry and ‘The Whirlwind’ Jimmy White.
Virgo, who will be commentating, says it promises to be quite a night. “Stephen and Jimmy are great legends. Stephen has made more century breaks competitively than any other player. He’s about 100 ahead of Ronnie O’Sullivan. And when people come along to see Jimmy, they’ll wonder why he isn’t winning the World Championship.
“Funnily enough, the greatest match I ever saw them play together wasn’t a final. It was a second-round match at the Crucible, before Stephen won his first world title, where Jimmy beat him on the odd frame. You could see then just how good Stephen was going to be. Jimmy might have been more experienced, but Stephen kept coming back for more and had tremendous attitude.”
While Stephen and Jimmy will be keeping their eyes firmly on the ball, John will be doing what he does best – amusing the audience. “I’ll start with some trick shots based on Big Break, then pick out volunteers from the audience to have a go, before commentating on the match. Normally, I work from a soundproof booth, but at these events the players can hear what I’m saying and it’s amazing how it’s worked. If I call a shot they’re not going to play or hadn’t thought of playing, they always have a joke at my expense.”
One player who he’ll be taking the mickey out of, however, is six times world champion Steve Davis, who was recently booted off I’m a Celebrity: Get Me Out Of Here. John, who was glued to the show, is already polishing jokes based around his jungle antics. Would he ever consider competing in a Bushtucker trial himself?
“No – I like my food too much! The undoubted highlight for me was when Steve fell into the water before a trial. He has a very dry sense of humour, but it obviously wasn’t appreciated by viewers, who voted him off early. He will have been disappointed not to have reached the later stages, but I’m sure he relished returning to five-star luxury back at the hotel!”
At home in Cobham
John’s own luxury pad is his home in Cobham, which he shares with his wife Rosie, managing director of John Blake Publishing. He moved to the county in 1976, lured by his old pal Jimmy White, who lives in nearby Epsom. “Surrey is beautiful. I used to drive a lot between Cobham and Woking, and the back roads near Fairoaks Airport are just lovely in the autumn.”
Naturally, he also makes the most of the county’s leisure amenities. A keen racegoer, you’ll often catch him at Sandown Park Racecourse in Esher, where he enjoys a flutter on the horses. He even owned his own racehorse at one time. “I’ve been to racecourses all over the world, but Sandown Park is equal to any of them. It’s perfect for spectators because you can see all the way round the track.
“Surrey is also blessed with terrific golf courses. I’ve been an honorary member of Hersham Golf Club since it opened and was president for a few years. Quite often, I have breakfast at the club, before hitting a few balls. I also play at Effingham Golf Club. If you stand on some of the tees, you can see right across to the London Eye, which is wonderful.”
But snooker, of course, is his first love, a game he adopted while growing up in Salford, near Manchester. “There weren’t many snooker clubs at the time, but I was lucky – there was a club just off our road. Six months after picking up a snooker cue I was the Boys Champion of Great Britain.”
His fortunes peaked in 1979 when he reached the semi-final of the World Championship and he went on to become UK champion in a nail-biting final in which he beat reigning world champion Terry Griffiths. The game was not without controversy, however, when he was docked two frames for turning up late.
“They changed the starting time without my knowledge, so I was still in my hotel room when the match was due to start,” he grimaces. “To make matters worse, the BBC cameramen were on strike, so I have no record of me lifting the trophy.” Did it overshadow his victory? “Yes, but listen, it could have been worse. I could have lost!”
John went on to reach the Top 10 in the world rankings before retiring in 1995. “I was lucky. When I was nearing my sell-by date and missing important shots, I had the opportunity to do Big Break, which revitalised my career.”
Nowadays, of course, John is one of the BBC’s most respected commentators, last heard covering the UK Championship in December. He says the game is much more attacking than it was in his day – and faster, too. “As soon as a player gets a chance to pot a ball, they think about clearing up and winning the frame.”
How would the old guard have fared against today’s players? “It’s very difficult to compare, but I’ve always said that if someone has ability they can compete in any era. I like to think that Ray Reardon, who won the World Championship six times, would have been able to compete at the highest level. The same with Steve Davis. He was practically unbeatable in the Eighties and if he was at his peak now he’d be up there challenging, though he’d be playing a different kind of game.”
One thing is certain, however – John’s enthusiasm for snooker is as strong as ever and these are momentous times for the game. “I think we’re seeing a changing of the old guard. Ding Junhui, the Chinese player, has won three major tournaments in recent times. And Neil Robertson, the world number one [who has just won the 2013 UK Championship], is Australian. The British players have got to look at themselves and stand up and be counted, though the UK is still the hotbed of snooker.”
But if you didn’t make it to Sheffield, why not head for Guildford to see two of snooker’s all-time greats. You’d better start practising those trick shots, though, because it might be you John picks from the audience!
My Favourite Surrey…
Restaurant: The Toby Cottage in Ripley, where I proposed to Rosie and we held our wedding breakfast four years ago. The food is great and they look after me.
Shops: Bentalls department store in Kingston. They sell quality clothing and designer labels. I also like Jeremy Hobbs in Cobham.
View: From one of the boxes at Sandown Park overlooking the winning line!
Place to relax: Our garden in the summer.
Place to visit: Elstead Lakes. Quaint little villages like Shackleford remind me of how it was a century ago.