There aren't too many films about bowling and even one that is, is about the lawn version not crown green. However, it is still worth recording here that this story could equally as well had been enacted out about our sport as easily as it did the straight lane version. Eating chips, smoking rollies and wearing the wrong socks - why a Torquay bowls player had one of sport's longest-ever bans and earned his place in the Hollywood hall of fame.
In the world of bowls it seems, it doesn't take a lot to earn one of the longest bans in the history of the sport. Turns out that all Torquay bad boy of bowls Griff Sanders had to do to win himself a place in the history books was eat chips, smoke rollies and wear the wrong socks. There may have been a bit of cussing too. It was that kind of behaviour which upset the staid Devon Bowls Association. And in 1998 the establishment reacted (many agreed that they over-reacted, outrageously) by banning the 25-year-old rising star from the sport he loved for 10 years. And his story inspired the 2003 film National Lampoon's Blackball - starring Vince Vaughan, Bernard Cribbens, Paul Kaye and Johnny Vegas. The film is still available on Amazon Prime. Griff had been making a meteoric rise to the top of his sport when he was ordered off the hallowed outdoor greens. Thankfully the ban was overturned on appeal a year later and he went on to make a comeback, winning national titles. But back in the late 1990s Griff was surrounded by the sort of "John McEnroe of bowls'' headlines that nobody thought a lawn bowler, especially in this part of the world, could ever inspire. It was one of these headlines that scriptwriter Tim Firth picked up when he was reading a newspaper on the toilet at home. Firth wrote Blackball and coined the phrase “sex, drugs, rock and bowls”. In the next couple of years, Firth wrote scripts for the British screen classics Calendar Girls and Kinky Boots.
The three stars of Blackball - Vince Vaughan, Kaye and Vegas - were joined by British acting greats Imelda Staunton, Bernard Cribbins and it was directed by comedy legend Mel Smith The arrival of the stars and a 60-strong film crew in Torquay caused a storm in October 2002. The shooting attracted large crowds of onlookers eager to catch a glimpse of the stars and the director. Thirty bowlers at Kings Bowling Club on Torquay seafront became extras. The film crew gave the clubhouse a makeover. A flashy red sports car with a BAD BOY (BAD 130Y) number plate roared around the seafront and Johnny Vegas made himself at home after filming in the former Bar Med (now The Green Ginger ).
In the film the part inspired by Griff is renamed Cliff Starkey. Actor Paul Kaye, who plays Cliff, is best known as shock interviewer Dennis Pennis on The Sunday Show and as Thoros of Myr in Game of Thrones. At the time Kaye said: “What worried me initially about the movie is that it’s a very slow game and I wondered how it would look on a movie screen.“All the members of the Torquay Bowls Club, where it was shot, were in the film because they looked the part. Either they loathed Starkey and saw him as the Antichrist, or they had a sense of humour and saw him as a character. I’m not sure how the film will go down within the bowls community.” In the movie the club was renamed The Royal Torquay Bowls Club and many locals of a certain age joined the production as extras. Mel Smith said after filming: “It was great filming in Torbay. I hope the fun we had on set comes across in the film and I hope it will change people’s attitude towards bowls. The clubhouse was transformed into a colonial-style pavilion with impressive veranda and a name board proclaiming the ‘Royal Torquay Bowling Club’. David Bateman, King's bowling club’s then secretary, said at the time that the bowlers who were extras loved it: “They’re getting a great buzz.“Big overhead lights on the green make it look like a summer’s day, even if it doesn’t feel like summer. “There’s a lot of waiting about for a small amount of action but most of our members are retired so it’s an interesting way for them to spend the day.“The food from the on-site caterers is good and they’re getting a bit of pocket money too.” The film had mixed reviews but the punters loved it. In the first week of showings around the UK it shot to number five in the Top 10 films. More than 600 people attended a glittering film premiere event.
As a hats-off to the hallowed bowling greens on which the film is based, film-goers sailed into the cinema on a green carpet as opposed to the customary red one.
Griff Sanders told reporters afterwards he found it “weird” seeing a part of his life being played out on film. “A few of the things upset me a bit – I didn’t realise how upsetting it was at the time when I got banned,” he said. He said he had spoken to the film writers about his life and love of the sport, but was amazed at how true to life the film actually was.
“It was cool because I had a chat with the writer and the film was pretty much spot-on,” he said. “It’s about time we saw a bit more passion involved – the sport needs to change. I think this might change the attitude towards bowls”.