November 27 2010
The crowning glory of Stead Manor was, as far as Frank Thompson was concerned, the snooker room. It should, of course, have been called the “billiard room”, but Frank had not been born with a silver cue in his hand.
Frank’s wife, Yvette, had chosen and completely redecorated the six-bedroom, faux-Georgian, red-brick house, and the snooker room was the only room in which Frank had had any say. He had chosen the colours of the walls (a safe beige), the pictures (black-and-white photographs of 1950s pin-ups), the sofas, bar, jukebox and 58in plasma television screen. It was a den whose pleasures made life’s troubles seem easier.
And at its centre was a full-size red baize slate snooker table with turned mahogany legs, brass pocket plates and Tiffany-style overhead lights modelled on those that hung above Elvis Presley’s snooker table at Graceland.
It was in this den that Frank would spend an hour or two potting balls while Yvette watched the soaps. It was here he wielded a cue when his City trading friends came round to watch the football on Sunday afternoons and where he occasionally attempted to bond with his teenage son Damien.
It was, in fact, a modern version of a Victorian billiard room that had become fashionable among rich men in the middle of the 19th century. The sudden emergence of these rooms was due mostly to new developments such as slate table beds and rubber cushions. By 1845, Windsor Castle boasted one of the earliest modern tables, and the wealthy followed suit. Snooker, on the other hand, was developed by British Army officers stationed in India in the 1870s and named after “snookers”, the slang term for first-year cadets. It was always considered an inferior game to its three-ball patriarch, until the television show Pot Black, intended to demonstrate the brilliance of colour television, made it a mass-market sport.
As snooker climbed the social ladder, so rooms in new luxury houses were made to accommodate it – and Frank’s was an immaculate example: a space he kept so pristine that he could fairly be described as both obsessive and compulsive. Whenever he finished playing, every chalk mark was carefully brushed off the baize and the table covered with a white cloth. The cues were racked according to size, the balls colour-coded and the brass indicators on the scoreboard returned to zero.
It was for this reason that the room was not part of Frank’s 50th-birthday celebrations, which were held in a large marquee in the back garden. On the other hand, he did not mind a young lady from a titled family – a friend of his privately educated 15-year-old daughter Charlotte – asking him whether a few of them could enjoy some “Freda” in the snooker room. As Frank had never heard of Freda and the girl assured him they wouldn’t touch the snooker cues, he said yes… Which was a mistake.
Freda is a riotous after-dinner game rumoured to be named after one of Edward VIII’s lady friends, Mrs Freda Dudley Ward. It requires a large room with a billiards table, a sense of daring and the intake of copious quantities of alcohol. The aim of the game is to run around the table taking it in turns to keep the red ball constantly moving by striking it with the white ball (cues are not used). If a player allows the red ball to stop, he or she is out and must pay a penalty.
Charlotte and her friends, after secretly downing a large collection of drinks, were playing a version of it with gusto. So much so that the sound of broken glass and the animal whoops and cries that were emanating from the den brought Frank hurrying to his shangri-la. And when he flung open the door he was, to his horror, confronted by his half-naked daughter, a completely starkers young aristo and their semi-clad friends running around his snooker table playing what he later learnt was a variation on the baronial game: “Strip Freda”.