'As a champ who gets to commentate on the game I love, and do Strictly... I've not done too badly for a wee Coalisland lad'
Last night Dennis Taylor was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Belfast Telegraph's Sports Awards. The former snooker World Champion talks about how the sudden death of his mum inspired him to victory, why he still misses Alex Higgins... and the story behind those glasses
Dennis Taylor is rarely without a smile. He is happy and fulfilled with his life whether he is spending time with his five grandchildren, commentating on snooker or simply making people laugh.
Along with that sense of fun and contentment, there was a great surge of pride last night for the 68-year-old from Coalisland at the annual Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, joining an illustrious group of Northern Ireland sporting icons including the late George Best, Willie John McBride, Dame Mary Peters and Pat Jennings.
Taylor was touched by the reception he received from those in attendance at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast as he received his award.
True to form, the Tyrone native had the audience chuckling as he recounted that epic occasion in 1985 when he defeated Steve Davis in the final frame, on the final black, to become World Champion. A record TV audience of 18.5 million viewers sat up beyond midnight to watch Dennis lift the trophy at the Crucible, Sheffield becoming one of the UK's most popular sporting figures in the process.
Several months before, Taylor's life - and his attitude to it - had changed forever when he was told that his dear mother, Annie, had passed away suddenly from a massive heart attack.
"I was doing well in a tournament in Newcastle, playing some of the best snooker of my career, and that's when I got the devastating news about my mum who was only 62," recalls Taylor.
"Everything stopped then and I didn't want to pick up a cue after that. It was the most horrible time of my life."
Having withdrawn at the quarter-final stage of the Jameson International event, the Northern Ireland man had no interest in returning to snooker as he continued to mourn his mother's loss, but after the family persuaded him to play in the Grand Prix in Reading, inspired by the memory of Annie, Dennis performed superbly to reach the final and defeat Canadian Cliff Thorburn, 10-2. It was his first major title.
"I wasn't even going to play in that tournament. It was my family who persuaded me to do it for my mum. That's exactly what I did," he says. "It was a very, very emotional time but at least I won it for my mum."
That victory gave Dennis the confidence to shine at the Crucible. Six years on, after losing his first World Championship decider to Terry Griffiths, he made the final against the legendary Steve Davis. The Londoner led 8-0 but, once again, Taylor's mum proved to be an inspiring force as he produced a staggering comeback to triumph 18-17 on the final black.
"At the Crucible I was chatting away to my mum in my head so that kept me in a good frame of mind. Even when I was way behind I never gave up," he says.
As we talk about that amazing black ball finish, Dennis adds poignantly: "My mum was a very special lady. Since the day I got the news about my mum back in 1984, I have never worried about a single thing because when you lose someone like that you don't tend to worry so much. You just enjoy every day as it comes along."
Taylor's face lights up as he chats about his five children, five grandchildren, his sisters and brothers dotted around Northern Ireland, the Republic, England and Australia, as well as his wife, Louise, who accompanied him to the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards.
They live together in Wales, along with Louise's parents.
Dennis says a trip to India last year for the new series of BBC show, The Real Marigold Hotel, cemented his belief that family means everything.
"Going to India brought that home. I was always family orientated but going out there and seeing how life is all about the family was great. You mustn't forget the family," states the engaging Ulsterman, who stars in the programme alongside other 'celebrity pensioners' Lionel Blair, Bill Oddie, Paul Nicholas, Sheila Ferguson, Dr Miriam Stoppard, Rusty Lee and Amanda Barrie. The show will be broadcast shortly on BBC1.
Making the series proved to be an emotional journey for Taylor, who felt privileged to be given the opportunity to play on the world's first snooker table.
"I knew snooker had originated in India and the programme makers arranged something incredible for me," reveals Dennis.
"They took me to the Ooty Club, which is an exclusive club, and I played on the table where the first game of snooker was played and invented, and rules were written for it in 1875. Doing that was quite emotional. It took me back to when I was a young boy starting to play snooker in Coalisland. Little did I think then that I would one day play on the table where the game was invented.
"I discovered over there that Neville Chamberlain, the man who wrote the rules and invented the game, was high up in the British Army and was Irish. So, it was an Irishman that invented snooker!"
Taylor's personality also saw him invited to appear on Strictly Come Dancing a few years ago - an experience he enjoyed - and he is now considered the BBC's top snooker commentator.
He's had some fun times analysing the game he loves - and one extremely painful moment at last year's World Championships which ended up with emergency surgery to remove his appendix.
"I was in the commentary box with Stephen Hendry and was in pain and thought I had food poisoning," he says.
"In the early hours of the morning I knew it wasn't food poisoning. If I had been at home I wouldn't have gone to hospital, but because I was in Sheffield I got a taxi from the hotel and fortunately it wasn't very busy in the Accident and Emergency department and they diagnosed me very quickly.
"I had the appendix out by lunchtime, which was badly gangrenous. The specialist told me I was lucky that I had got the taxi up to the hospital. He did such a great job I was back in the commentary box a few days later."
Looking back on this aspect of his career, Dennis recalls: "I first commentated over 30 years ago. I was thrown in at the deep end. Someone had taken ill at the Guild Hall in Preston at the UK Championships and I was asked to go in and do a bit, and I was sitting next to Ted Lowe. It doesn't get any better than sitting next to the voice of snooker.
"I've always gone into the commentary box as if I was sitting in somebody's lounge with them and telling them about what was happening, trying to make it interesting. I love it, you are still involved in the game and you are seeing the new players come through."
Even today, 32 years on from his world title victory, Dennis is a more recognisable face than most of the modern day players. His renowned 'upside down' glasses to help his vision at the table play a part in that. "I remember a specialist saying to me he didn't know how I played snooker with my eyesight. I won the Irish title quite a few times and when I first won it I did so without any aid whatsoever.
"Then when I got contact lenses I could see the difference it made to my game, and then getting the glasses took it a stage further.
"After wearing the old upside down glasses for about 18 months, I started winning and did really well with them.
"It was the idea of Jack Karnehm, a great commentator and a professional billiards and snooker player. His family business when he was a youngster was making spectacle frames. He got all his little tools and files out and I stayed with him for two days, and the pair that I won the World Championships with had been made by him by hand. They were designed perfectly for me."
As a player, Taylor had the funny glasses, the most famous frame in history and a reputation for being a genial Irishman. Compatriot Alex Higgins was the explosive 'Hurricane' with all the shots, living life in the fast lane and bringing controversy with him along for the ride. Two-time World Champion Higgins, who in 2010 died aged 61 after a long battle with throat cancer, once threatened to have Taylor shot. Talking about his old rival now, who he first played when they were teenagers, Dennis says he feels sad Alex is no longer around.
"It was very sad what happened in the end to Alex. It's a shame he still isn't around because he could have been doing exhibitions for as long as he wanted. He was only three months younger than me.
"He played on the Legends tour. With hindsight I'm not sure they should have let Alex play in that really. You like to remember icons as they were and a lot of people were very shocked to see Alex looking so poorly. It's such a shame. Alex did so much for snooker."
Taylor played his part too, not least when bringing players to Northern Ireland in the 70s and 80s when other sporting teams and individuals refused to come here due to the Troubles.
"I used to bring players like Steve Davis, Terry Griffiths, Doug Mountjoy and Cliff Thorburn over when the Troubles were really bad, and took them to every section of the community all over the country. We always got a fantastic reception. That's something I'm really proud of.
"I remember we were doing a show at one particular club and we opened the door and there were about 15 soldiers with guns coming down the stairs and Cliff held the door open for them to get out, and he said 'what have you brought me to here?'"
Snooker hero, iconic sporting figure and wonderful ambassador for Northern Ireland, Dennis Taylor is a worthy inductee into the Hall of Fame.
"I'm enjoying life, have a great family, am still working and love making people laugh.
"I suppose I haven't done too badly for a wee lad from Coalisland," he says.
Not too bad at all, Dennis.