Santa Claus and his merry band of elves lead the climb up the hill to the Alexandra Palace.
Super Mario, Batman and a few blokes impersonating Ketchup bottles follow closely behind.
For the next three weeks, this will be a familiar sight as thousands of pilgrims descend on the mecca of darts for the World Championships, with the simple aim of drinking the place dry.
A night out at Ally Pally has become synonymous with the festive period and is a Christmas ritual for many – whether or not you even like darts!
Thousands pack out the Alexandra Palace for booze-filled night at the World Championship
It attracts celebrities, sports fans, office workers and even royalty – Prince Harry has enjoyed an evening at the darts on more than one occasion. While former England cricket captain Sir Alastair Cook held his stag do here.
Each night 3,000 people, mostly decked in fancy dress, come here united by one goal: to have one hell of a party.
Over the course of the tournament, 750,000 pints will be guzzled and over 1,000 portions of fish and chips devoured.
‘It’s like a mini Glastonbury with the darts thrown in,’ says Dave Allen, who is head of media for the Professional Darts Corporation.
The PDC put the tickets for its annual tournament on sale back in July. Within days of their release, 90 per cent of them had been gobbled up.
No one knew back then who was playing when, or exactly what they were paying to watch. But that didn’t seem to deter anyone. After all, that is just a minor detail of the night.
Patrick Exner, founder of Dartn.de – the first ever German website dedicated solely to darts – says: ‘I seriously doubt they are coming here for the sport. People don’t care who they see. It is like Majorca 2.0 here.’
Four lads dressed up as traffic cones walk up the hill towards the Alexandra Palace
By half seven the drinks are flowing and the party is in full swing. The first players up are greeted by a sea of wagging foam fingers and a bouncing and boisterous crowd.
Most are already well on their way. Some look like they’ve peaked too soon. And once the game gets underway, the racket doesn’t stop. Not for a second.
‘Boring, boring tables,’ emanates from those sat in the seats. ‘Feed the stands, let them know it’s Christmas time,’ they chant back in retaliation. Then, in harmony, they belt out the Kolo/Yaya Toure song.
While all this is going on, there is still an awareness of what is happening up on stage with each 180 and checkout met by booming roars.
With the atmosphere in here, you wouldn’t think that it was the world No 37 vs the world No 125 up on the oche.
‘It really is something else isn’t it?’ says Sky Sports presenter Laura Woods, who has been covering the World Championships for nine years now. ‘I’ve been to so many sporting events before, football obviously with the big stadiums, it’s huge, but if you look at it now, the Ally Pally is big but it’s not huge, so you get this atmosphere that I haven’t experienced anywhere else and the fans are mad, they are absolute mad and they are so funny.
Over the course of the tournament, 750,000 pints are expected to be drunk by darts fans
‘The thing is, what other sport can the audience effect what happens so much? I don’t necessarily agree with it, but we have seen so many matches that have been effected because the crowd has either got behind somebody or got on somebody’s back and honestly, I find it so entertaining. I mean look at it, they make it such a show. I think once you come in here, it’s almost become part of the darts’ culture.’
The irony is that darts is a game of subtle skill, intricate precision and intense concentration. How the players find the focus to throw accurately in this mad house is staggering.
‘Some of them wear ear plugs but not all of them can. It is quite amazing,’ Woods adds. ‘The difference between the floor tournaments and the stage tournaments, it’s like a completely different sport and I don’t know how they do it but I think they are amazing for it.
‘That stage is also a very long walk. I’ve spoken to a lot of them, nobody who comes here says that this isn’t the biggest and the best one of the whole lot of them, so to have the added pressure of going up on stage in front of these crowds is incredible.’
Laura Woods has been presenting the darts for nine years and says atmosphere is like no other
It has only been 11 years since the tournament was moved to Ally Pally from the Circus Tavern in Essex, but PDC media chief Allen believes it has already become an ‘iconic event’.
‘We never envisioned it becoming what is has when we made the move a decade ago,’ he says. ‘The fans here are like nothing else. People are coming in many ways for the event because they know they are going to see some quality darts and have a cracking night out.
‘This dwarfs everything else that we do and is certainly the pinnacle of the sport. The £2.5million prize fund – half a million for the winner – for this as well reflects the size of the event, not only for the players but for the fans and everything else.’
Allen adds: ‘I think in many ways this is unique in any sport really because there is no tribalism here. People are not here to support a specific club, team or player. Whereas in football you generally go to support x or y, if you’re a Liverpool supporter you wouldn’t necessarily go and watch Manchester United vs Everton. In darts you come for the event and you know generally that you’re going to see four good matches and they know they are going to have a great atmosphere.’
That atmosphere sells well. Every year people journey over from Europe just for a night at the darts and this year 25 per cent of the tickets were sold to people from countries such as Holland and Germany.
Vincent Van Der Voort shows laser-like focus as he throws a dart during his first round match
Germany is the sport’s second largest market with 2 million people watching the World Championships last year. ‘It’s growing and growing back home,’ Dartn.de editor Exner explains.
‘Television coverage has changed everything. It’s the same in Germany as it is here now. It’s always a party and we have celebrities and football players who are always wanting to go to the darts.
‘I went to a restaurant where I come from in Monchengladbach about six or seven years ago, and I was talking to one of the chefs and he said: “Oh, you’re into the darts” and I said: “Yes” and he went: “Oh I would love to go” and he told me about Simon Whitlock and Phil Taylor being a 14-time world champion, so he really watched it and knew, he wasn’t just talking s***. So that’s when I think it became very big in Germany.’
There are now more tours across the globe than ever, such has been the prodigious growth of the sport over the last two decades. The PDC introduced the Asian tour last year and Exner believes the game has the potential to grow even further if it can crack the markets further east.
‘The Asian market is massive,’ he says. ‘I know that in Shanghai alone, there are 500,000 registered electronic darts players. It’s massive. They are mainly playing soft top but if they can move it on, then it will be massive. I’m still waiting for the first Asian player to really go big, that could be a game changer if that was to happen.’
A fans puts his foam finger in the air as he cheers and holds a pint of beer aloft
Over two hours into the session and everyone is looking a bit worse for wear.
The atmosphere is still electric, but words are now slurred, drinks being spilled and people are stumbling around.
‘Here’s where the real chaos begins,’ one steward mutters to another.
Away from the bright lights, tucked away behind curtains and in backstage production trucks, the show is being orchestrated for those watching back at home.
As well as in the UK, Sky’s coverage of the World Championships is being shown in 18 other countries on four different continents.
Each night, there are 80 members of staff working to ensure everything runs smoothly.
For such a fast-paced game like darts, covering it live is not without its pitfalls. Yet, for the most part, the production team seems relaxed.
‘The only worry we have is if the tech goes down,’ one production manager says. ‘If that happens, that can give you some grief, but there are so many precautionary procedures in place and cameras and generally the kit is pretty robust.’
The ‘spotter’ sits in a production truck like this and tells the cameras where to aim next
There are 25 cameras in operation to be exact, the majority of which are remotely controlled, including a spidercam.
Each throw is followed by the instruction of a ‘spotter’, who works out combinations and where the player is likely to throw next.
Former world champion Keith Deller is in the chair more often than not and watching him in action is fascinating. ‘Down, down, he’s going for 19s,’ he shouts down his microphone.
‘Treble 20, 20, then bull,’ he barks next. Seldom does he make slip-ups but later on in the night there is one, but only because the player miscounted. He puts his microphone down and shakes his head.
‘It is a hard job because if you think someone has 25, you think nine, double eight but you have to think what if he hits a 12 as well,’ Deller says. ‘It’s live TV so you are always under a lot of pressure. At the end of the day, the key is just not to panic. I know it sounds strange but that’s it.
‘John Part, a terrific player, but he tried this and he said: “I can’t do it. it’s too hard.” I’ve been doing this 27 years now. I used to play in the tournaments and then come in here afterwards and if I had lost, I could be a bit loud on the microphone. Only if I lost, though,’ he laughs.
Fans are pictured wearing costumes of Sesame Street characters at the World Championships
Given the role he is in now, and as a former darts player, you’d assume he is some kind of maths genius. ‘No, I’m not at all,’ he says. ‘Stephen Fry came in here years ago, and he’s watched all the darts from when I and Eric Bristow were playing and Phil Taylor hit a nine-darter that night when he was here and he goes “Keith, you must be so good at maths” and I said “No, I’m really not.” I know it sounds funny, but it’s true. I just know my combinations.’
In the other side of the production truck, there are five men working hard to ensure the colour of each shot remains the same when it cuts to another camera. In here there is equipment worth up to £36,000 and also the ‘brain’ of the whole operation.
Behind the actual wall of where the darts board is, there is a man controlling the zoom angle you see when a player is throwing for a double by using a touch screen of the board.
‘It’s as simple as that. I just tap what double they are throwing for and the camera zooms in,’ he says.
Back in the arena the action has just finished for another night and the army of bleary-eyed zombies are heading for the exit doors.
Santa Clause and his helpers are no where to be seen but Batman is outside swaying and struggling to remain vertical. He looks like he could barely walk in a straight line let alone go and fight crime.
‘Did you have a good night,’ someone asks him laughing. He gives a wry smile and a thumbs up. A sign of a very good night indeed.