When Sir Ian McKellen appeared in Chekhov’s ‘Swan Song’ as part of a new Sheffield theatre’s opening programme on November 9th, 1971, few could have predicted what worldwide and iconic institutions both actor and building would become.
And as the venue celebrates its 50th birthday this week, if the Crucible Theatre is a household name far beyond the arts world it is mainly thanks to hosting the World Snooker Championship each year since 1977.
Like so many other industries there have been huge challenges and tough times for performing arts in the last 20 months. And the pandemic has seen a real impact on jobs, livelihoods, and the ability of the Crucible to improve the lives of Sheffield folk with its offerings.
However, not only is it thankfully pulling through, but the blue-riband snooker tournament in 2020 with a reduced-capacity crowd on just three days, and then this year with a full house for the final as a pilot event, helped pave the way back to some normality.
While acutely conscious of the Crucible’s original function, I have probably spent a year of my life in total covering the Betfred World Snooker Championship in the small and intimate venue with its 980-seat capacity and seating on three sides. So it is mainly about the snooker experience there I will speak.
All the same reasons that make it so special for actors, directors and the theatrical crowd make it unique for sports fans who love their snooker. And all those who work on that event, including the media. There is an atmosphere created found in few other environments. It is Wembley for snooker’s players, and a Mecca for the audience.
Is it an ideal venue for such a major sporting occasion? In some ways, no it isn’t. It is small, there are nooks and crannies everywhere and every single bit of space backstage is utilised whether it be for the BBC studios, practice table or the media centre.
But there is a reason the World Championship has remained there for so long, and is contracted for a while yet. There probably have been bigger offers from countries and cities willing to throw more money at World Snooker Tour to prize the tournament away to China or elsewhere.
However none of those alternatives would have the history or the legacy attached, the highs and the lows, the memories both good and bad, the trophies lifted and the dramatic matches won and surrendered against the same soulful backdrop.
You know when you walk along the narrow corridor and past the small dressing rooms that everyone from McKellen, Sir Kenneth Branagh and Sir Anthony Sher through to Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry and Ronnie O’Sullivan has made the short walk from there out to their stage, given the call and ready to perform.
I first went to the Crucible as a snooker fan in 1996 seeing a session between two then young pups called O’Sullivan and John Higgins – it was all over in what seemed a flash and finished 4-4, meeting the very highest standards of entertainment demanded by the place.
And since then I have spent the best part of 20 years heading there every year and spending 17 days covering the Betfred World Championship for a variety of newspapers in the UK and overseas. Those many hours, days, weeks, months and even years become a big part of your life, to say nothing of all the years watching avidly at home on TV.
And I know for a fact that many have spent four or five times as long there working or viewing. It is for others far better qualified to recall the greatest ever theatrical productions at the Crucible in its 50 years.
But drawn in by the unique combination of atmosphere, setting, and history of tension and drama I was moved to write a book called ‘The Crucible’s Greatest Matches’ which I hope reflected not only on the quality of the contests, but also the special nature of the theatre built by MJ Gleeson and mercifully identified as a venue for snooker by the late Mike Watterson.
Those epic and classic matches included the unforgettable 1985 final between dominant force Davis and huge underdog Dennis Taylor. The Nugget, the overwhelming favourite to win the world title for a third year in a row and fourth occasion in total, led 8-0 early on.
But Taylor mounted the most improbable of comebacks and at around 12.19am and after a 68-minute final frame he took advantage of Davis missing the final black to win for the only time at the Crucible. It remains one of the most iconic moments in snooker, and forever ensured the Crucible’s place in sporting folklore.
And so many others. The series of finals between Stephen Hendry and Jimmy White that set the Scot on his way to a record seven successes at the Crucible – and agonisingly left the Whirlwind without a triumph on the stage he cherished the most.
A thrilling semi-final in 1982 between ‘The Hurricane’ Alex Higgins, coming through - just - against young pretender White. A magical first maximum 147 break from Cliff Thorburn in his match against Terry Griffiths in 1983 that went to finish at 3.51am.
And the regular breath-taking brilliance from six-time world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan and more recent winner Judd Trump, plus the poignancy of the late and much-missed Paul Hunter’s semi-final loss to Ken Doherty in 2003.
At least three generations of first kids and later snooker professionals have grown up with one aim, to walk out from behind the curtains rigged up at the back of the stage and down some steps to take the applause of the crowd at the Crucible – so named as a nod to Sheffield’s steel-working reputation.
So on behalf of us all that have enjoyed watching the drama, be it in a play or on a snooker table, a very happy 50th birthday to the Crucible Theatre and may there be many more to come.
The Crucible’s Greatest Matches, by Hector Nunns – published by Pitch and available at Amazon and elsewhere