The History of Bowling 4

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In 1973 the Top Crown programme was introduced by the BBC 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.


FOOTNOTE from Bob Haigh

Reading your history of bowls articles got the old brain cells working and after searching through a lot of old photos I found this taken during a visit to Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield a few years ago. It was among a collection of Delft Pottery Tiles from around mid 1600's if my memory serves me correctly

I am not sure of his grip though.



TOMORROW: Part 5 - Huddersfield's Gene Bardon on TV, stamping and ladies enter the men's competitions

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