Top Crown – The BBC Crown Green Tournament
On a Sunday in September 1968, a BBC-TV Outside Broadcast unit established itself at the Waterloo Hotel in Blackpool to record a crown green bowls tournament to be transmitted on BBC 2.
This was a complete innovation, because it was the first time a major competition for prize money was played on this famous green on the sabbath. Previously bowling was only allowed for pleasure on Sundays and the organisers strictly adhered to the wishes of the Lord’s Day Observance Society by not charging admission fee.
Also, no betting was allowed. Nevertheless there was a full house and the only drawback to the day from the television point of view was that it ended in near darkness.
The series was called the BBC Crown Green Masters Singles and the Producer was Ray Lakeland, Senior Sports Producer in Manchester. The commentators were Harold Webb, the political and industrial correspondent for BBC TV North, and George Woodcock, the TUC General Secretary, both keen bowlers.
It was the first time crown green bowling had been presented on television and sixteen top bowlers were invited to take part. The leading pair were the inimitable Billy Dawber and a young potential star called Noel Burrows. The competition was won by the favourite Dawber, who beat Dick Meyrick 21-12 in the final.
It was an instant success, and the BBC immediately commissioned another series for the following year. It was a personal success for Ray Lakeland and the crown green fraternity were overwhelmed at this breakthrough into what they called ‘the big time’.
The following year Ray decided to sharpen up the presentation and also bring in a new commentator to replace Harold Webb, who was unavailable. Harry Rigby had assisted Harold in the first series, and was an acknowledged expert on the game. Harry virtually became a star overnight with his personalised style and colloquial Stockport phraseology. So Ray Lakeland, pioneered Rugby League on television and discovered Eddie Waring, had found another TV natural.
That 1969 competition was won by one of the great characters of modern-day crown green, Roy Armson, who easily beat Larry Greene 21-5.
A change at the top of BBC2 during 1970-1972 meant a break in the progress of crown green bowling on television and the next series was not actually transmitted until 1972. Once again there was a major change in personnel, but Harry Rigby had now become the number one commentator. Another up-and-coming TV personality was teamed with Harry, the jovial Stuart Hall, who made an instant impact on TV viewers – particularly the ladies!
During this period an experimental series had been made for television. The players consisted of four ‘panel’ bowlers – professional players – who competed in a ’round robin’ tournament: Geoff Wardle, Roy Armson, Jack Everitt and Dennis Mercer. The idea was to brighten up the crown green game for television and specially coloured bowls were made.
Unfortunately, the idea didn’t work very well and consequently, in 1973, the TV series reverted back to what was then the standard amateur game. That 1972 series was won by the great Dennis Mercer, who defeated the 1970 Waterloo champion Jack Everitt in the final 15-9. What did stick from the experimental competition was the use of the coloured bowls.
So in 1973 the Top Crown programme was introduced with the contestants from the quarter-final stages to the grand final (the televised part of the tournament) playing with blue, yellow, red and black sets of bowls.
Eddie Elson had taken over as Secretary of the British Crown Green Amateur Association in 1972, so he had the job of organising this new competition with the coloured bowls. The players were perplexed and unhappy at this, as they had always played with their own bowls and literally took them to bed with them at night so as not to lose sight of them. They also argued that Tony Jacklin wouldn’t be asked to play with coloured clubs and golf balls or snooker players with coloured cues. Another problem arose. As the coloured bowls were only being used from the quarter-final stages onwards, the players complained that they couldn’t really play with their own bowls in the preliminary stages and suddenly change to the coloured ones, which they had never had in their hands before.
They might be too heavy, too big, etc. Poor Eddie had the task of sorting this out. Eventually he told the players that it was an invitation tournament and if they didn’t want to take part in it, there would be no difficulty in finding players who did!
So the tournament went ahead in 1973, the year the word ‘amateur’ was taken out of the British Crown Green title. The significance of this was that the first official prize money was played for in Top Crown, with the top prize worth £400. Even the first-round losers received £12 and 10 shillings – which paid for a couple of days in Blackpool!
When the 1973 competition reached the quarter-final stages, coloured bowls were allocated to the players who had won through from the earlier rounds. Again there was an uproar – each player complaining about each pair of bowls. The red ones were too heavy, the yellow were too light, the blue bowls were so weak they virtually had no bias at all. Only the black ones were accepted. In fact, the makers of the coloured bowls, Clare’s of Liverpool, had checked and double-checked and all the bowls were exactly the same: evenly matched. Of course, it was all psychological and the bowlers had convinced themselves that they were different.
Eventually this first traumatic series was won by Brian Duncan, ‘the panel bowler’, which still caused concern to some of the established amateur players. He defeated Dennis Mercer 21-6 in the final and Dennis blamed poor performance on the blue coloured bowls. It was set to be the first of three victories for Brian in the Top Crown Singles Competition, and he was firmly establishing himself as the number one crown green bowler.
1974 saw the addition of coloured clothing to go with the bowls and once again there were protests. The anoraks were made of nylon and the players had to wear coloured peak caps. Of course, the anoraks brought on perspiration, and the peak caps obstructed the players’ view when they bent down to bowl, all preventing them from playing their best!
The favourite, Brian Duncan, retained his title, defeating the colourful Freddie Hulme from Stockport 21-15 and once more reaffirming his number one position.
Being a totally BBC-sponsored event, Top Crown was used as a guinea pig for televised bowling; constantly trying out new ideas to enhance the presentation. In 1975, another innovation joined the coloured bowls and clothing: the white jack. This was because there was still a large number of black and white television sets at that time and viewers had complained that they couldn’t easily differentiate between the bowls and the jack. The format was still the same – 16 invited players, including the previous year’s winner and eight county representatives.
The first prize had increased to £500, with a total prize money of £1150 – one of the biggest in the game. Stuart Hall left the programme and Manchester-born Tony Gubba teamed up with Harry Rigby to fill the gap in the commentary team.
At this time there were some die-hards of the amateur game who were unhappy because there were still two sets of rules, one set for the Panel at the Waterloo and another for the British Crown Green Association. The referees had a difficult time because the Waterloo rules allowed ‘stamping’ close to the bowl and running alongside. The British Crown Green rules didn’t allow ‘stamping’ and, in fact, players were not allowed within three metres of the running bowl. These people complained about the likes of Brian Duncan running and stamping and the fact that they thought the British Crown Green were prostituting the sport for the sake of television with the use of coloured bowls and clothing.
However, the association decided that television was the most important vehicle to get the sport across to the country and so they worked alongside the television requirements despite the protests.
It was in 1975 that Brian Duncan was on for a ‘three in a row’ and once again made it to the final. His opponent was the second favourite, Dennis Mercer, who, after his defeat by Duncan in 1973, predicted he would win Top Crown and beat him in the process. During the final, Dennis was constantly topping up his favourite pipe – getting it to blow out victory signals as he stormed home to a 21-16 victory to deny Duncan a fabulous hat-trick and also enhance his reputation as a fortune-teller.
Brian Duncan and Dennis Mercer dominated the Top Crown competition between 1972 and 1979 – Duncan winning the title three times and losing the final once and Mercer with two titles and two runner-up prizes. The two barren years for them were 1976 and 1978, when Tony Poole from the Midlands made his impact on the crown green scene in the north and won the title in 1976. It was this year that actor and writer Colin Welland came on the scene as co-commentator with Harry Rigby. Born in the Wigan area he had been brought up on crown green bowling and therefore settled in to the job extremely well. He was well-liked by the viewers and public, working alongside Harry in both Top Crown and the Waterloo until 1979, when his writing really took off and his spare time was severely limited.
In 1977 another Midlands bowler, Roy Price, created a sensation when he defeated Brian Duncan in the semi-final and then ‘dumped’ Dennis Mercer 21-16 in the final. Gene Bardon and Roy Nicholson – both Yorkshire men – battled out the 1978 final, Bardon winning an extremely close match 21-19.
The 1979 Top Crown tournament was to be the last singles competition, as it was felt it wasn’t getting the public or viewer support it deserved, and 1980 saw the first BBC TV Top Crown Pairs Invitation Tournament. It was a two-bowl player competition, and, with the extra four bowls, it was hoped there would be more green drama. In the first pairs competition it was also decided not to use the coloured bowls any more, which pleased most of the bowlers. This was primarily because there were 40 bowlers taking part – 16 invited pairs from the counties and four pairs (including the holders) invited by the BBC – the champions being seeded through to the quarter-finals. The contestants were kitted out in coloured sweaters and the same coloured stickers were put on to the bowls for easier identification by the viewing public.
Richard Duckenfield, himself a member of the St Helens Bowling Club, now joined Harry Rigby in the commentary box and the first pairs competition in any form of bowling on television was born.
The 1980 series was eventually won by Noel Burrows, partnered by Mike Leach from Blackpool. They beat Terry Turner and Keith Widdowson in the final 21-16. Mike Leach was potentially an exciting player for television because of his unusually jerky delivery, and in fact he won the British Crown Green title in 1984. Unfortunately his delivery began to cause problems and he has played little competitive bowls since 1985.
1981 and 1982 were both ‘Wars of the Roses’, with Duncan and his regular pairs partner Norman Fletcher being firm favourites both years. Gene Bardon and Roy Nicholson, however, ignored the reputation of the Lancashire pair and hammered them 21-13 in the 1981 final. At this time, the BBC were still having trouble with long matches, so in 1982 yet again they experimented with playing 15 up. Duncan and Fletcher duly reached the final and another Yorkshire pair, Allan Thompson and Robert Hitchen, had the task of stopping them.
This match will go into the history books as one of the most controversial finals in televised crown green. The score was 14-13 to the Yorkshire men at the beginning of the penultimate end, but Duncan and Fletcher had already put one closest and Norman Fletcher bowled for the title. It was a winner all the way, but referee Barry Cotterill stunned the Waterloo crowd into silence by removing Fletcher’s bowl – having ruled that he got too close to the bowl and therefore ‘stamped’ it in.
Top Crown was played to BCGBA rules and it wasn’t until after Jack Leigh took over the Waterloo in 1982 that a standard set of rules was negotiated for the Waterloo as well as other events organised by the British Crown.
The ensuing pandemonium saw Duncan and Fletcher almost on the point of leaving the green, but they carried on to lose 15-14 and the inscrutable Thompson and Hitchens were Top Crown champions 1982. It’s a story that has been told by people with slightly different points of view. British Secretary Eddie Elson went on television and defended Barry Cotterill’s action – it was a brave decision and one that perhaps not every referee would have been prepared to take.
BCGBA Rule 22 stated a player must not approach nearer than 1 metre to a running bowl, nor follow it up in such a manner as to obstruct the view of his opponent. He must not endeavour to accelerate or impede its progress. If he offends, the bowl shall be taken out or play and in case of further infringement, his bowl shall be taken off the green and the game shall be awarded to his opponent and the defaulter’s score at that point to count!
Obviously referee Cotterill had deemed Fletcher guilty of breaking the law and applied Rule 22, and the controversial final was dubbed as the most expensive stamp since the ‘Penny Black’!
In 1984, for the first time, Top Crown wasn’t played at the Waterloo Hotel. This decision was made for two reasons. There has been constant lobbying over the past few years from other bowling clubs to stage this prestigious event, and also the public attending the event looked lost in such a vast stadium. It was therefore played at the Mitchell and Butlers Sports CLub in Birmingham – a beautiful setting for the star Manchester pair of Eddie Hulbert and Tommy Johnstone to beat the 1983 champions, Ken Strutt and Dave Blackburn, 21-15 in the final.
In 1985 the event had become so popular with the bowlers, not least for the £2000 first prize, that they all wanted to take part: 64 starters were entered – 16 pairs from the counties and 16 pairs invited by the BBC, with no seeds.
Top Crown had always been the ‘guinea pig’ competition for crown green bowling, and 1986 saw another innovation. This was to be a major leap forward in the history of the game as four ladies’ pairs were invited to compete on equal terms with the men. The tournament was played at the Pilkington Sports Club in St Helens and, on a large, fast green, the ladies had their work cut out. However two ladies’ pairs reached the quarter-finals, and in the semi-finals the last pair, Karen Galvin and Mary Farmer, fell to the favourites Brian Duncan and Norman Fletcher, who eventually went on to win the title in a tight, hard game 21-19 against the 1984 winners Eddie Hulbert and Tommy Johnstone.