As for Hankey, he now rises from the bar and dons a black cape. Upon hearing his name introduced outside, he bursts through the doors of the bar and strides toward the stage. His fanfare is chilling vampire-movie music. Several women in the audience have battery-operated bats on their hats that flap their wings.
Fordham, whose face is three quarters covered by beard—which explains his nickname, the Viking—enters the arena to I'm Too Sexy, by Right Said Fred. Alas, to the disappointment of the hundreds who have come wearing plastic Viking helmets, Fordham doesn't have it tonight. Hankey's darts are tungsten-tipped missiles, guided by laser. Fordham needs a mere 33 on his final three darts to keep the match alive, but he can manage only a 5, a bounce-out and a 1, for 6. Hankey then checks out from 134 for a spot in the final. Even so, the crowd sings (to the tune of Guantanamera), "One Andy Fordham! There's only one Andy Fordham! One Andy Forrrrr-dham! There's only one Andy Forrrrr-dham!"
"Ladies and gentlemen," announces Fitzmaurice, eager to clear the club after five minutes of this ovation, "Andy Fordham has left the building!"
If Fordham is the most popular player in world darts, it's because he is—as anyone will tell you at the pub he manages, the Queen's Arms in Woolwich—"a lovely bloke." Pulling a perfect pint of Guinness there one night, Fordham says, "I'm just a normal laid-back geezer." Within minutes he is pulling out photographs of himself as a rail-thin 21-year-old aspiring soccer player. "Lookit," he says, an eternity of longing in his voice. "Lookit what 18 years'll do to you." He takes comfort in a giant novelty birthday card on the wall behind him, hanging above the cash register, IT'S NOT A BEER BELLY, reads the card, IT'S A FUEL TANK FOR A SEX MACHINE.
Three years ago his wife, Jenny, contracted a cancer she seems to have thrashed. She shows me an old photograph of herself, bald from chemotherapy but smiling broadly. She keeps another photo, of Andy, in her locket, for the arrowman travels often. The next day he is off to the Netherlands, where darts is second in popularity only to soccer among televised sports, and where Fordham—a fixture in the English press only during Embassy week—is like a rock star. "In 'olland," says Fordham, trying to phrase this diplomatically in front of his wife, "the birds get their tits out for you to sign." Jenny rolls her eyes, but he goes on. "I signed a bird's bum once. She pulled up 'er dress, and she 'ad a G-string on underneath. She bent over, and I went like that with a marker." He makes a Zorro slash. "You couldn't read it," he says, taking a pull of his pilsner, "but she couldn't see it anyway."
In England darts reached a peak of popularity in the 1980s. " Holland is now where England was then," says Gregory, speaking only of the public's appetite for the game. "They took over darts. That's the way it goes here: football, cricket—we used to be on top in them, too."
Holland's top two arrowmen are both at the Embassy. Ray Barneveld is a two-time winner of the tournament. (He's a former postman turned darts millionaire.) Co Stompe is an Amsterdam tram driver, matchstick-thin, who speaks impeccable English in a Cockney accent. ("Because we spend so much time 'ere," says Stompe, whom I later overhear saying, "F——n' 'ell.") The Embassy is televised live on the Dutch network SBS6. "There are seven million people in Holland," says English pro Kevin Painter, "and five million of 'em are watching us on TV." (In fact there are about 16 million people in Holland, 3.5 million of whom watched Barneveld win the highest rated final.) In the United Kingdom, the Embassy has been exiled to a nightly tape delay on BBC2, though it is rerun endlessly throughout the next afternoon.
In the '80s, eight tournaments were televised annually in England (now only two are), and there was a popular darts game show (called Bullseye). Thus arrowmen like Jocky Wilson were famous beyond all reason. Wilson was a toothless Scotsman. Gabby Nolan's children bought him a set of false teeth, but they weren't made to measure, so he wore them on a chain around his neck. It didn't hurt that oche rhymes with Jocky and that Wilson always entered to an emcee calling, "Jocky to the oche," a phrase that still resonates in England. His appeal transcended darts. When Dexy's Midnight Runners appeared on Top of the Pops in 1982 to perform their hit Jackie Wilson Said—a cover of the Van Morrison classic—an engineer at the BBC keyed in, as a backdrop, footage not of Jackie Wilson (soul man) but of Jocky Wilson (arrowman), naturally assuming the song was about him.
When I ask Tony Green—the eminent darts play-by-play man for the BBC and a witness to all 24 Embassy tournaments—why darts declined in popularity in England, he pauses for a very long time and says, "I'm going to be perfectly honest with you. I think it was the introduction of the Breathalyzer. Pub leagues dwindled, and the game dried up a bit at the grassroots level. But you'll never take darts out of the pub. You wouldn't want to."
"A lot of youngsters go to university now and make money and don't have time to go to pubs," says Gabby Nolan, "but you'll still find good publicans who put their hearts into darts." So Nolan's pub has two boards and six league nights a week, and 13 thriving teams whose kindly (if profane) members contributed �1,300 to charity last year. "All from one swear box," says Mary Nolan. "And we only enforce the swear box on Saturday nights. Even then, only during the karaoke."