Bingo is back – and even the hipsters have got their eyes down
Once bingo seemed to be in terminal decline, but the national pastime is holding its own against austerity, online gambling and the smoking ban. Theres even a new breed of youthful card-dabbers knocking back Jägerbombs as they play
Saturday night, Camden, north London, and a massive queue has formed outside an industrial-looking building down a side street. Fashionable young people in their 20s mostly, some in their 30s, dressed up for a night out, energised and excited. Two queues, in fact there is another smaller one heading the other way: for the guest list. A club? Too early, its only 7.30pm. Must be a gig then. Whos playing? Actually, everyone is. Playing bingo.
What! Well, its Rebel Bingo bingo reinvented for a new generation, for the 21st century, with bells and whistles, but still unmistakably, undeniably, bingo. There are cards and callers, numbers to be crossed off or dabbed, lines and full houses to be had, winners in waiting. Well come back to Camden and Rebel Bingo.
Traditional bingo has been hit hard in the past 20 years or so: by the national lottery; by scratch cards (basically, instant bingo); by the smoking ban (about 60% of bingo players smoked, and half of them stopped coming when the ban was introduced in 2007); by the internet and the rise of online bingo and other gambling; and by austerity.
Austerity was not good for bingo, says Miles Baron, chief executive of the Bingo Association. A lot of our customers are of a very vulnerable demographic 55 years old, women, working class, for want of a better word.
Twenty years ago, there were about 1,200 commercial bingo clubs in the country. Just before the smoking ban, there were about 600. Today, there are 351. We know there are about 850,000 visits a week, says Baron. So if you want to multiply, thats 44 million a year. It sounds a lot better when you say it like that.
In 2014, George Osborne halved the tax on bingo halls, from 20% to 10%, and the decline began to slow, almost but not quite to flat, so now its kind of level, maybe a whisper south of level, says Baron. So the rot has stopped, if thats the right word, but were not into growth just yet. What needs to come first is the investment. The first priority for a lot of operators when the 10% duty came was to to get up to standard, put that new roof on or refurbish those toilets, do the things theyd perhaps been a bit slow to do.
To the Greyhound retail park, 40 miles east of Camden in Southend-on-Sea, Essex. Mecca Bingo here has had recent cosmetic surgery, and seems to be doing OK. On a Thursday night there are about 400 people in the main lounge, a vast liver-coloured space, brightly lit and oddly hushed. The average age is about 55 (its considerably older during the afternoon session, manager Peter tells me). And women outnumber men by about four to one because, Baron says, its about family, mums tend to go with daughters, with extended family members. Secondly, I think women feel safe at bingo, its a female environment, membership only.
The caller Fran is calling. Four and seven, 47; two and four, 24; five and six, 56, on its own, number four There is something entrancing about listening to the numbers. No bingo lingo here fat ladies or little ducks to break the monotony.
Come on now, dont get entranced, concentrate. Frankly, Im struggling to keep up. Each card has six grids on it; by the time Ive found the number and dabbed it, Fran is calling the next one. Im playing catchup, and losing. Maybe I should have opted for an electronic terminal that fills in the numbers for me. But doesnt that take all the fun (?!) and the skill (?!) out of it? Focus now; that quick pint before the game is beginning to look and feel like a mistake. Most people are having soft drinks, or tea.
I dont have a wine in case I miss a number, Nicola tells me in the queue for the bar during the break. She is having one now though, because she just won £65 and is celebrating. Nicola, 44 (all the fours), is here with her mum Janet, 68. They usually come with Nicolas 24-year-old daughter Gemma, but shes looking after her baby. Its friendly, weve made a lot of friends here, says Janet.
You treat it as a night out, says Denise, 51, a new queue friend, who comes about once a month. A win is a bonus. She once won £1,000, but that was 15 years ago.
Back at my table, my neighbours, another daughter and mother Marie, 58, and Jean, 77 help me find the right cards. They explain the national game and the Cashline board, with the counters on the table that link up with other bingo halls around the country. They come once a week. I wouldnt come in the winter if it wasnt for Mum, says Marie. Shes hooked. If we didnt come, shed have the withdrawals.
Once the game restarts, its eyes down and the talking stops. Silence descends over the vast space, apart from Frans numerical monologue, a faint but rising buzz of expectation, a shout from someone and a groan of disappointment from everyone else, then its time to go again.
In some ways, I am enjoying my Southend bingo evening. I like meeting Nicola and Janet, Denise, Marie and Jean. They are all very friendly and welcoming, but everything keeps getting interrupted by this bloody bingo, which really is the most boring thing. Manager Peter tells me that bingo is one of the top activities for getting your heart rate going, the excitement when youre down to just one number left. But I never feel it (possibly because I never get anywhere near having just one number left). Couldnt we just find out who has winning cards at the beginning, then they can get the wines in?
The levelling out of what looked like the terminal decline of a national pastime is not just reflected by a healthy turnout in one Essex seaside town. In October, Caledonian Investments, the trust that manages the wealth of the Cayzer family, one of Britains richest, agreed a £241m deal to buy Gala Bingos 130 clubs (although not its online bingo business). Gala Coral, itself planning a merger with Ladbrokes, is the UKs biggest bingo operator, with 38% of the UK market, 4,000 employees, more than a million active members and 15 million visitors a year. Its pre-tax profit in the year to September last year was £33m. Oh, and they are even opening a brand-new £5m bingo club in Southampton this year.
To sum up bingos health, Id say reports of its death are greatly exaggerated, says Baron.
Back to Camden then, which looks more like the rebirth of bingo than its death. The building is actually Mecca Bingo, but it has been taken over with Meccas blessing, Im afraid, not by force for the night by Rebel Bingo.
Before the bingo the show, whatever it is, Ill soon find out begins, in a dressing room behind the scenes, a man in a white shirt, bowtie and underpants (Oh my God, did I not bring my trousers?) tells me the Rebel Bingo story. Hes Freddie Sorensen, 37, a TV producer by day, who along with his friend James Gordon, is responsible for Rebel Bingo. It started in a church hall in Farringdon, where they used to put on kind of like variety shows. One day, when they were tidying up, they found the church halls old bingo set, started messing around with it, wondering how they could incorporate it into their show. This is sort of the evolution of that night. We inadvertently started our own sort of bingo. The first night we put it on by itself, it sort of took on a life of its own.
News spread from their friends, via word of mouth and social media. Now they do a night every month or so in the capital, and the odd one further afield Strathclyde, New York, places like that. Tonight is a sellout, again.
Sorensen thinks bingo should be an exciting experience. Everyones involved, everyone in the room is in the show, its happening for you, everyone in the room reacts to every single number, so the show has a really engaging feel to it, he says. Bingo is an emotional experience, although in traditional bingo they seem to have done their best to take the emotion out of it. If you go to a bingo hall, its a serious place, its about winning money, everyones got to be quiet the whole time. We wanted it to be a social experience. Thinking of the liver-coloured, hushed tension in Southend-on-Sea, I can see what he means.
The reaction from the bingo establishment has been mixed. People started talking about us on bingo chatrooms, some people were interested and some people were like: This is ridiculous, we dont want this, its not what bingos about, says Sorensen. So we sort of ran with it and became the black sheep of the bingo family. Now the bingo family well, Mecca has opened its doors to the black sheep.
It is time to find out what Rebel Bingo is all about. The vast space is packed, every table taken, 700 people in all. Sorensens onstage now, trousers found and on, master of ceremonies and explainer of rules, which he does to the accompaniment of Eminem. Its like the fucking Super Bowl, he shouts. This is what dreams are made of!
Because tonight its at Mecca, which has a gambling licence, there will be cash prizes, but not big ones, and not yet. First up, there is a pair of high-fashion rollerskates to be won, then a massive mirror ball.
Two women dressed sparingly and sparklingly, like club dancers call the numbers, in Rebel Bingo lingo: Up the bum, no harm done, 31. Its a bit saucy. And loud. Music plays a big part, with a lot of 90s hip-hop and R&B. A lot of Jägerbombs go round. And its not just the bingo cards that get dabbed: faces, bodies go on, dab it!
The first time I went to bingo was on holiday, says Dawn, 27. It was nothing like this. This is much better, like a rave with bingo thrown in. I love it. Its exciting, fun, different. And the things they say when they call out the numbers, so funny!
When someone wins, it goes a bit wild and theres an explosion of tickertape, as if theyve won The X Factor. I love how rowdy it is, says Poppy, 32, who is here with 10 mates and has just won 100 bottles of Bulmers cider. I used to go and play traditional bingo in Catford. Weve ditched normal now, its all about this. Rebel Bingo is for life!
On to the cash prizes. They say money doesnt make you happy, says Sorensen. Tell that to P Fucking Diddy! It starts at a fiver, and just keeps on going up £10, £20, £50, £75 (Have you even heard of that amount of money?) Finally, 100 English pounds are won, by Chris, 33, from Tottenham. And it comes in a comedy-sized cheque, like Blankety Blank in the olden days. Take that down to Barclays and say: Cash that motherfucker, yells Sorensen.
Its hipster bingo, then. A bit ironic, a bit knowing, a bit annoying, definitely metropolitan, white. But it is also funny. And fun. Maybe Janet and Jean in Essex dont need all the mofo-ing and Jägerbombing. But then maybe bingo could also learn something from the rebels if it wants not just to stop the rot but to see full houses again that if youre competing with the internet, you have to make it different to the internet. More of an experience, more emotional, as Sorensen would say.
I havent quite got to emotional yet. A Jägerbomb might help. A win might help! I still havent won anything, but Im having a better time not winning.