Over this festive period, darts fans will be far from bereft of gripping darts drama on the oche. But alongside this, there is another superb darts-based offering from director Simon Sprackling and the team behind new film, Poison Arrows.
Starring British actor Geoff Bell in the lead role, it tells the story of Rocky Goldfingers (Bell), a darts player who exits prison after having served 15 years in jail for the murder of esteemed young prospect Perry ‘The Poison Arrow’ Peters (Ralf Little). It is a charge for which he proclaims all innocence, leading documentary maker Lewis Maitland (Ben Gardner Gray) and viewers going in search of the truth and the true story of what has happened.
It is a somewhat extraordinary story matched only in its in strangeness by the contexts of its production. The journey to making and releasing the film took over twenty years (in this case, literally longer than a jail sentence!), making this December’s release a special moment for cast and crew.
Simon first told me a little bit about his path into film-making and production. “My nephew calls me a ‘painter and director’ as when I am not making films I am usually painting somebody’s house or something like that. I started making films when I was about 22. I lived in Scotland for a while during the 1980s, working in a ‘no rules’ community centre ran by a guy called Jimmy Boyle, who produced a book called A Sense of Freedom. It was was made into a film, and from the profits of this he set up the centre. I ran their audio visual unit, and I ended up making a lot of documentaries on topics such as drug addiction and AIDS.”
“I then moved back down south. My friend was doing some work with the National Film and Television School as an outside producer so I went and did that for a bit. Around that time, I started directing myself. I made a film called Funny Man, a comedy horror film, which we managed to get Christopher Lee to be in. I wouldn’t call it a shambles but it was a bit of a laugh! After that, I started to try to work out how to become a professional in the business. I focused a lot on screenwriting, but got frustrated at how many projects seemed just about to go, but never ended up getting made. I realised then that I’d rather focus on writing lower budget films that I could at least make myself.”
It was out of this realisation that the inception of Poison Arrows emerged. A strange mixture of fortuitous meetings, circumstances and opportunities got things off the ground. “Back in the late 90s,” Simon explained, “I was making a lot of short films. At the time, the ‘split’ in darts and all the acrimony surrounding that was occurring, which I followed quite closely, and I was inspired by that to write a script about darts. I was interested by the change in the sport occurring at the time and the emergence of ‘new school’ darts to the detriment of ‘old school’ darts. At the same you could see that it was an emotionally charged battle that was about heart and soul as well as money and power. Because darts has that depth; it is a very earthy, rooted sport that belongs to a place.”
“I saw the basis for a good story about what would happen if the place the sport went to was a place no one wanted to go to, where it was more Vince McMahon and WWE than Barry Hearn. And so I considered what would it be like if it was an American or someone coming over and trying to make it totally different. I developed the character of this weird kid who throws darts in a ridiculous fashion because he is actually a knife thrower, and he adapts it into a superhero darts skill. And so that was the original basis.”
“Back then, I used to play in a football game in south London with a bunch of comedians and actors. I met Geoff through this, when he was working on the film Mike Bassett: England Manager with my brother [Rob], and we had a game of football at the old Wembley before they were about to demolish the stadium. He then joined our football setup, as did Ralf Little.”
“Alongside all of this, I was going to a lot of darts tournaments and I met both Barry Hearn and Olly Croft. Olly was quite happy to allow me to film at one of his events and so, in 2002, I filmed at the Lakeside. Originally, it was all about getting a feel for the place and how to film there. By the time the next year rolled around, I asked Olly if I could come with actors and shoot during the BDO World Championship in between games and he approved. So I asked Geoff and Ralf if they were keen, and they obliged.”
“I absolutely made the most of this opportunity as I thought it was likely to be my only chance. We were filming right in the middle of the tournament and the BBC were really helpful, keeping their cameras running for me to use as well. The crowd helped to give it that authentic atmosphere. I didn’t really know at that point how I was going to film the rest of the picture, but I just knew that I was never going to get footage like this again.”
Unfortunately for Simon and his team, 2003 was not to be the moment everything clicked together. Sprackling explained: “Around this time, a film called Blackball came out about lawn bowls, which had a much larger budget and more high profile cast, and it absolutely tanked! So this didn’t help in terms of pitching my film and getting it off the ground. Later, I bumped into a guy called Paul Knight, who suggested I do it as a TV series. But at this time Netflix was not around, so the idea you could make a show of 45 or 50 minutes just didn’t exist. In the end, I just ended up focusing and working on a number of other productions and put the idea on the back-burner.”
After over a decade in dusty reels, an encounter with the film’s star Geoff Bell would help spark a resumption in production, as Simon details. “In about 2017, I met up with Geoff and he asked for some of the footage of the film. I dug it out and edited it together for him, and it made me realise that we had done all the hard work on it already and should really complete the film. So that made us wonder how we could work with what we had. Ralf had gone off to do other things, so it was a question of reworking the story to fit both this and the time that had passed.”
“And so we came up with idea that Ralf’s character would have been murdered by Geoff’s, and the film became a ‘mockumentary’ looking back on what had happened and how Rocky Goldfingers tries to reintegrate himself back into the darts world. And this idea also made it manageable because it was only a small cast and crew. We filmed at weekends and whenever we were all free and through that process we slowly accumulated the rest of the film. And to top it all off in this period we faced two further massive disruptions – the Covid-19 pandemic and emergency liver surgery I had – which complicated things further.”
For Simon, however, there are no concerns about the negative effect that time passing may have on the reception of the film. He remains confident that his audience is largely unchanged. “I think the darts audience is similar to how it has always been, although they are a lot noisier now when players are throwing and it’s a lot more expensive. But at its heart its still the same: down to earth, with no airs and graces and plenty of beer. It does probably attract more weekenders and darts tourists these days but I think the crowd have always been ‘up for it’.”
And so after twenty years in the making, the film will premiere in Showcase Cinemas up and down the country next week, before a digital release on 2nd January. It’s a great time for a darts film to be out (“This time of year, every year, everyone remembers how much they like darts”, as Simon puts it) and it coincides nicely with the PDC World Championship. Those who go and see the picture in cinemas will also get an extended director’s cut.
With a great cast, intriguing story and some tremendous authentic Lakeside footage, it should prove to be excellent viewing.
The film’s trailer
For more information on showtimes, see here
My thanks to Simon Sprackling (all images courtesy of Simon)