Not Just Two Fat Ladies
At the Mecca Bingo hall in Beeston, Nottingham, business is booming. Early evening on a Wednesday the place is heaving with customers waiting for the 7pm session to begin. And yet within the past decade the bingo industry was declared terminally ill and given little time to survive. With the introduction of the smoking ban in the UK came closures of bingo halls, mainly in rural areas and small towns. It is no wonder – it was estimated that almost half of all Mecca bingo customers were smokers.
With unemployment rising and less disposable income around – especially for women – the idea of a big win is a tantalising possibility.
Much as bingo is an oft-derided activity with an old-fashioned image and an apparent refusal to move with the times, its millions of devotees wept onto their marker pens at the thought of losing their favorite pastime. But bingo is enjoying a revival, blowing the dusty old cobwebs off its former reputation and attracting a new hip crowd. Bingo was previously marketed to women as a soft form of gambling and a harmless hobby that did not require them to enter the masculine world of the working men’s club. The average profile of the bingo player is female and between 45 and 70. Many widows are drawn to the game. In Beeston the average age is beginning to drop as more and more young women pick up their marker pens.
The fact that Weight Watchers in run in conjunction with this particular club also helps pull in new customers. Bingo is coming back. This summer Mecca Bingo owner Rank which owns over 100 clubs throughout Britain reported a 40 per cent increase in half-year profits. The recession may well be doing bingo a favour. With unemployment rising and less disposable income around – especially for women – the idea of a big win is a tantalising possibility.
Carolyn Downs is the UK’s only academic expert on the game and has a PhD in the sociology and history of gambling. She believes that bingo is less about forming friendship and more about winning. “ Although the socialising aspects of bingo are important, those women are gambling. The cash prize, even if it’s just a tenner, matters to those who haven’t got much.” What is the secret of this club’s success? “You can have a brilliant girls’ night out at bingo,” says the club manager, “but closing up at 9.30pm wasn’t really doing it for the birthday crowd or Hen party, so we put on After Dark Binglo (where bingo is played in the dark with the participants wearing Day-Glo outfits). The traditional customer loves the new concept, but what we would do at our peril is mess around with the game of bingo.” The bingo industry has remained pretty much the same since the 1960s. The Beeston pilot aims to bring bingo into the 21st century and shake off its tired old image whilst not alienating the hard-core membership. Others have had the same idea. Midnight Underground Rebel Bingo, a hardcore bingo night based in north London attracts a younger crowd of mainly women. The music – which blasts until 3am – includes electro, rock and hardcore. The caller is accompanied by gyrating burlesque dancers and the players graffiti each other with bingo marker pens.
“I thought it would be full of old people,” says Kirsty Spray, a trainee beautician, “but it’s a great atmosphere. My friend wins something every week, but I never do. Still, it’s the laugh I come for.”
However popular ‘hardcore’ bingo is becoming, it is the traditional female-dominated version that is enjoying its second wind.“ Women will always find ways to get together whatever the obstacles,” says Joan Landsman, who has just picked up her £20 winnings: “The main reason for coming is to get away from the pressures of life, but I do like a little flutter, I won’t lie to you.” A group of seven young women dressed up to the nines are scoffing curry in front of their electronic terminals – hand-held machines which allow the player to merely tap on the screen and allow the computer to find the numbers called. “I thought it would be full of old people,” says Kirsty Spray, a trainee beautician, “but it’s a great atmosphere. My friend wins something every week, but I never do. Still, it’s the laugh I come for.” Do they always come in a crowd? “Girly nights are great but we bring our boyfriends on Saturdays,” says Trisha Jones, a student at the nearby University, “but they go on the fruit machines while we play bingo. They say it’s not a man’s game.” “Bingo is the new craze,” declares Ali.
The lounge is ‘Shush-free bingo’. Players can use their mobile phones, listen to music and talk to each other during the games without fear of being told off by the hardcore gamblers. Next door, in the main auditorium you can hear a pin drop as the players bend over their terminals or books hoping to be the next one to win. Winning isn’t always the main attraction. Brenda Collinson comes to bingo “to get out of the house. It’s like a bloody morgue since my husband died last year.” Since coming to the Beeston site she has made new few friends and, she tells me, has got “really good” at the game. “I have won something nearly every time I’ve played. But I can’t stand people looking over my shoulder when I’m playing. It makes me superstitious.” Liz Jackson, a senior health professional, is sitting in the Shush Free lounge waiting for a couple of female colleagues to join her. What attracts her to bingo? “It is a way of having a night out with the girls without having to go to the pub,” says Jackson. At 64 years old, she tells me that going to a pub alone is “not the done thing” for women of her generation and that going to bingo is seen as much more acceptable. “Winning is a bonus. The point is that here we can have a drink, a bit to eat, and not get hassled by men.” A report commissioned by the Bingo Association in 2007 on the social impact of bingo club closures found that the club closures can have a detrimental effect on both physical and mental health, and can even be a catalyst for a wider breakdown of local communities. A young girl can have as much fun at bingo as a grandmother.
During After Dark Binglo things get a little saucier such as, “I swing like a door, 44” and “I slept with your dad in Devon, 77”.
Amy Richardson is the matriarch of a three-generation bingo family and has been playing for over 50 years. She is out tonight with her daughter and granddaughter, and is managing to mark six books at a time whilst talking. “I started coming with my mum when I was 17,” says Karen, Amy’s daughter. “Bingo is not an old woman’s game, it’s for everyone, but I think there’s a lot of prejudice about it from snobs.” In the main auditorium the caller is pacing the isles reading the numbers without pun. “All the twos, 22, four and eight, 48,” miles away from the camp middle aged man with his two fat ladies and clickety click. During After Dark Binglo things get a little saucier such as, “I swing like a door, 44” and “I slept with your dad in Devon, 77”.
Audrey Collins, a seasoned bingo player who has been marking cards for 40 of her 60 years admits bingo can be an addiction, “but a harmless one. If you think of the way men gamble, on the horses and what have you, this is small fry.” Playwright Neill Bartlett understands the allure of bingo. He spent time in Salford Mecca when researching his play about bingo during which the audience were given a game and the chance to win £200, “Everyone Loves a Winner”. Why does he think bingo is so popular with women? “Bingo is one of the very few activities where everyone is together and doing exactly the same thing but is none-competitive,” says Bartlett. “It provides a community for the women. You are much more likely to strike up a conversation with someone at bingo than in a pub, and it is relatively cheap, safe and harmless.
Linda Galvin, a 40-year-old carpet fitter, is on a night out with her partner Sheila. “We often get stared at in pubs and restaurants because it is obvious we are gay,” says Galvin, “but at bingo we seem to blend in and are just left to get on with it.” The atmosphere is building as the game with the top prize of the night, previously as high as £4,000, is announced. Janet Green bows out, having used up her budget of £5 for the night. She is recently widowed, and has met a number of women in her situation at bingo.“ I honestly don’t think I could have carried on without knowing I had something to do everyday, and people I could say hello to. It’s been a life-saver.” Does she ever meet up with her bingo friends on the outside? “No. We wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves. Anyway, where would we go? We know what’s what and who’s who here, and if the talk dries up, it’s no bother.” For Bartlett, the stigma around bingo is due to the fact that the majority of players are older, working class women. “The middle classes can get very nasty about bingo, such as asking why on earth anyone would like it. But its attraction is no mystery to me. These women love it. It is comfort and excitement all wrapped into one.”
Main image copyright: sjsharktank