John Virgo still regrets the TV cameras missed his greatest snooker triumph – but the nation’s favourite Crucible commentator has had a ball ever since.
The news this year that the 77-year-old Virgo, due to be ditched by the BBC, had been given a reprieve was greeted with near-euphoria by his army of armchair fans.
Tournaments including the current World Championship lacking his ‘Where’s the cue ball going?’ refrain would just not be the same, but the Salford-born Virgo is far more than a catchphrase.
- Brecel reaches first world final
“Wonderful Talent” Si Jiahui Helps Lift Chinese Gloom With Biggest Career Win
- Betfred's Latest World Championship Odds*
A fanatical Manchester United fan who grew up watching the Busby Babes in the mid-50s before tragedy struck in Munich, Virgo still reels off that famous team from memory.
And his ready wit and natural showmanship saw him first win over tough crowds in exhibitions, and then move successfully to the commentary box.
Virgo’s impersonations of other players at the table, notably Alex Higgins, Dennis Taylor and Ray Reardon, caught the eye of BBC light entertainment bosses.
And that directly led to being cast in the long-running hit snooker-based quiz show ‘Big Break’, where the unlikely partnership with comedian Jim Davidson of a “dour northern socialist and a crafty Cockney Tory” flourished for 10 years. Pantomime bookings then duly followed.
But Virgo’s 1979 UK Championship win is not there in the television archives, with camera crews on strike for the decisive frames.
Virgo, who has just been inducted into the World Snooker Hall of Fame for his lifelong contribution, said: “It was the best and worst day of my life.
“I was docked two frames for being late when 11-7 up as the start time had been moved forward to be on Grandstand. And then there was an industrial dispute, so there is no footage – nothing.
“All the time I spent doing exhibitions around the country and winning the crowd over are a big part of who I am.
“When I first turned pro there were only two tournaments. And you had to supplement that. I was lucky enough to get a holiday camp circuit gig.
“The tables weren’t very good so you couldn’t rely on your playing ability – you had to entertain the crowd. That’s what you did with the trick-shots and whatever, and that was a great grounding.
“The commentary chance came along and I enjoyed doing the impersonations – but ‘Big Break’ was just that for me. In the pilot it was Mike Reid of Eastenders fame and Len Ganley, the snooker referee.
“They liked the format, but wanted a change in presentation. I thought it was going to be eight episodes – but it ran for 10 years and peaked at 14million viewers, giving me a whole new career.”
Even one BBC moment for which he had to issue an apology somehow saw Virgo’s stock actually rise for the humour involved.
Watching a marathon frame between Mark Selby and Marco Fu and thinking the mic was off, Virgo commented: “I wanted to watch some racing this afternoon, but I’ll be lucky to watch some ******* Match of the Day.” It was what everyone else was thinking.
Snooker, the Crucible, Manchester United, and horse racing remain among Virgo’s greatest loves.
He said: “My first Manchester United game at Old Trafford was in 1955 against Luton. We could see the floodlights over the fence from our yard. They gave you credibility, coming from Salford.
“George Best used to come and watch me practice in Chorlton after training, though I have to say Bobby Charlton was the best player I ever saw.
“One time in Croydon I was doing panto and George and Alan Mullery were doing a show nextdoor. I had all my rouge and eye-liner on and dressed in a silly policeman’s outfit.
“There’s a knock at the door and someone is asking if I’d go and have a drink with George before going on. He’s taken one look at me and said ‘John…what’s happened to you?’
“I just told him that Steve Davis had won all the money in snooker, so I was having to do this!”
Qatar have expressed an interest in taking the World Championship when the deal with Sheffield and the Crucible is up in 2027.
But Virgo said: “The Crucible is made for snooker. Yes, it’s 980 seats and there are bigger venues. It adds to the atmosphere, the number is perfect. You just feel ‘this is it – this is the real deal’.”
*18+ | Be Gamble Aware