The York Barbican has been transformed into a temple to snooker over the last couple of weeks. STEPHEN LEWIS reports

THE Barbican gets some big showbiz names these days.

In the last few months alone, everyone from Joanna Lumley and Jasper Carrot to Rick Wakeman, Jools Holland and The Proclaimers have performed there. The Russian State Opera appeared, with a production of Madama Butterfly; Echo and the Bunnymen (remember them) passed through; and we've even had Bradley Wiggins being quizzed on stage about his life and career.

The beginning of December is always a special time in the Barbican's year, however. For two weeks at the beginning of the month the venue turns itself into a temple to snooker.

Gone are the bright lights and the booming sound systems of the big musical acts. Instead, the auditorium becomes a hushed arena where gladiators of the green baize battle it out for supremacy, and the chance to be crowned Betway UK Snooker Champion.

Wednesday was a pretty miserable day in York: relentless drizzle falling out of a dank, chilly sky.

But in the Barbican, the atmosphere was electric. Every seat in the steeply banked auditorium was taken, every eye focused on the two small green tables lit by bright lights that held centre stage below.

At one of those tables, 'Rocket' Ronnie O'Sullivan was in the process of demolishing Jack Lisowski in a match that would take him through to the quarter finals.

Already 4-1 up, the Rocket - potting quickly, nervelessly and efficiently - rattled in a 112 break to extend his lead to 5-1. There was applause as he slotted in a pink to take his score past 100; and applause again as he knocked in the black for a 112 clearance.

For once, however, the Rocket - the undoubted star of the modern game - was being upstaged. On the second table, separated from O'Sullivan's by just the flimsiest of sound screens, world number 15 Stephen Maguire was beginning a sensational comeback against world champion Mark Williams.

York Press:

Stephen Maguire in action against Mark Williams

He knocked in a century break to take the score to 122 - earning a round of applause despite missing the final black. Then he knocked in another century. With his break already at 109 he tried an audacious double on the final black. He missed, but it didn't matter. Two centuries on the trot, and the score now 4-2.

Then he did it again, rattling in a third successive century as Williams could only look on, forlorn.

The atmosphere in the auditorium was extraordinary - silence so thick you could have cut it with a knife, punctuated only by the click and thud of balls and the odd gasp or ripple of applause. 'He's on fire!" someone whispered reverently.

The Rocket quickly wrapped up his match, and Maguire and Williams took a break with their match poised at 4-3. There was a buzz of released tension as the audience rose from their seats and headed out into the foyer for a drink and a chance to stretch legs.

There was no escaping green baize tables, however. One was placed prominently in the foyer: and it was in full use. Professional snooker coach Sefton Payne was offering tips to all comers - and also refereeing 'speed games' in which opponents competed to see who could pot the most balls in 60 seconds.

The foyer was buzzing. "It's a fabulous atmosphere!" admitted Sefton, whose claim to fame is that he once made back-to-back 147s.

York Press:

Steve Paxton pots a few balls in the Barbican foyer, under the watchful eye of Sefton Payne

York snooker fan Steve Paxton, who was potting a few balls under Sefton's expert eye, agreed. Steve, who plays at The Castle club in Tower Street (top score ever 109, but 'a long time ago', he said) had just come out from watching the Maguire match.

"He's just scored three centuries," he said. "He was 4-0 down, and now he could win it." That's snooker for you.

Snooker is famously telegenic: the table just seems to fit the screen beautifully, and the sense of theatre is extraordinary.

But there's nothing like watching it live, Steve said. "There's a real atmosphere."

One group seemingly not much interested in the atmosphere is the journalists. There they all were, tucked away in the media room in the bowels of the Barbican, far from the auditorium. Heads were bent over screens, studying the results that had scrolled in. After all, why watch the action live when you can follow it on a screen?

Then the Rocket popped in for his post-match interview, and every head snapped up. He was intense, and fidgety, radiating energy and charisma. How did he feel he was playing?, someone asked. "It hasn't been great so far," he said - before launching into one of those high-energy monologues he's known for. He's famously cut back on the number of tournaments he plays. "But if I play 10/12 tournaments, if I can compete in three or four of them, I'm over the moon."

York Press:

The Rocket in his post-match interview at the Barbican

Then came a true Ronnieism. His ambition, said possibly the best player ever, was to stay in the world's top 64...

The Rocket disappeared, and in walked a giant from a gentler era of the game - Welshman Terry Griffiths. These days he's a top coach, his professional playing days long behind him. But he was happy to chat.

A former miner, bus conductor, postman and insurance salesman, he likes to joke that it 'took me 18 years to become an overnight sensation'.

His breakthrough came at the World Championships in 1979. Until not long before, he'd been earning £60 a week with Pearl Insurance - which was good, he says, because he only had to work three and a half days a week, and he could practice the rest of the time.

It was his first world championship, and he drew Perrie Mans, a finalist the previous year, in the first round. He was looking forward to the match being covered on television, so he could show the world what he could do. But a public sector strike put paid to that.

York Press:

Welsh legend Terry Griffiths in the meda room at the Barbican

In a way, it was a good thing, he admits. It took some of the pressure off. He beat Mans - then beat Alex Higgins, Eddie Charlton and Dennis Taylor, too, to lift the title at his first attempt. "I was made for life," he said. But it could easily have been different. If he's lost to Mans in the first round, he said, 'I would have given it up'.

He's been to countless world and UK championships since, first as a player, then pundit, now coach.

So what does he think of York as a venue?

The Barbican's a bit crowded now there are 128 players in the first round, he says. "But York is a very pretty city. I look forward to York every year. I come into the railway station, and even the station is very nice. You don't see that often."

See the snooker

There have been record ticket sales for this year's Betway UK Snooker Championship at The Barbican. There are a few left for today, but tickets are sold out for the semi-finals and final over the weekend.

Tickets have, however, already gone on sale for next year's event at

For the latest results from the Barbican, meanwhile, visit