When historians chronicle the origins of billiards, they frequently cite Mary, Queen of Scots, as one of the sport’s earliest and most famous enthusiasts.
Mary ruled over Scotland for almost 25 years in the mid-16th century. When she claimed she was the legitimate heir to the throne of England, the current queen, Elizabeth I, had her confined to various castles. One of the last prisons for Mary was Tutbury Castle, where she was moved to in 1585. Under the guardianship of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, she was treated kindly and was granted her request to have a billiards table on the premises.
However, her time at Tutbury was short-lived. She was subsequently moved to Fotheringay Castle, without her billiards table. There, she was found guilty of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth and was beheaded in 1587. According to reports from her lady-in-waiting, her headless body was wrapped in the cloth from the billiards table.
Now, fast-forward about 400 years. Charlie Gimbert, a sleazy antiques dealer, has inherited the management of fallen snooker champion Murray McNally, who insists his game depends on the procurement of Mary, Queen of Scots’ billiards table. To find the table, Gimbert contracts Lovejoy, a rougish dealer, and sics him on the impossible fool’s errand with a promise of a big payoff if he successfully secures the trophy.
Well, that’s at least the premise of “The Colour of Mary” episode of the British comedy-drama series Lovejoy. First aired in 1986, Lovejoy follows the antique-hunting adventures of the eponymous Lovejoy (Ian McShane). The series had a five-year gap between its first and second seasons, which is why this particular episode aired in January, 1993, during the fourth season.
“The Colour of Mary,” with an obvious cultural nod to The Color of Money, begins with Lovejoy’s well-intended pursuit of the mythical table. Unfortunately, after connecting with antique historians and visiting the famed Fotheringay Castle, it becomes clear to Lovejoy that the table no longer exists, most likely incinerated hundreds of years ago along with all of Mary’s possessions.
Expecting that neither Gimbert (Malcom Tierney) nor McNally (Alex Norton) know the table’s true history, Lovejoy proceeds to create a forgery, using some early baize and nailing it to an Elizabethan table. The table is put up for auction by an estate, and Gimbert buys it for £15,000 with the intent of showing it to McNally. But, surprise, surprise, McNally was acting in his own ruse, and upon seeing the table, proceeds to demolish it, citing his militant preference for snooker over billiards.
This curious coda seems intent on fanning the flames of a ‘snooker versus billiards’ rivalry, but I strongly question whether such a dogfight exists. More to the point, any player that would take an axe to an antique billiards table is truly not deserving of his cue stick.
“The Colour of Mary” also include an exhibition snooker match with real world snooker champion Dennis Taylor, but his presence does little to save this rather uneven episode.
The full episode is available for purchase on YouTube.