Beginners’ Bingo

My sister and I decided to go to Gala Bingo in Tooting on a recent Saturday night to celebrate the tax on bingo being cut to 10 per cent, thanks to Robert Halfon MP and the “Boost Bingo” campaign, backed by 330,000 people who signed a petition supporting the game. We had no idea what to expect and almost no idea how to play.

The received idea is that bingo players are elderly and female, as in Peter Brookes’s recent Times cartoon which depicted a naked Silvio Berlusconi, ordered to do community service by the Italian courts, inviting a wheelchair-bound pensioner to take part in a “bingo-bingo” party. Recent advertising has tried to substitute a different stereotype: fun-loving young women going for a night out with the girls.

In Tooting most of the players were middle-aged. There were more women than men — and plenty of older women on their own — but there were also women with their husbands, groups of friends (both men and women), and one or two family groups. A small contingent of twenty-something hipsters stuck out, dressed up as for a night out, drinking a lot, continually Instagramming the Gothic interior (by Theodore Komisarjevsky and Grade I listed, so worth a photograph or two), and not paying much attention to the game, which I thought was revealing: the prospect of winning £20 (the prize at that point) wasn’t of much concern to them.

Most people were very serious. There is no chatting during bingo. There is a solid half-hour of intense focus and simmering frustration, with a brief furious hubbub erupting whenever anyone calls “house”. In order not to look a fool I concentrated on the game. My sister was quickly hooked and tweeted enthusiastically — #budget2014 #getpaper #thanksosborne #trynamakeps #biguptootinggala — but became increasingly frustrated about not winning. (The expectation that it must happen arose impressively quickly.)

The Bingo Association is keen to emphasise the socially responsible elements of bingo. It is, in theory, sociable — the popularity of online bingo is partly due to chatrooms which enable socialising during games, not just before or after. Every card costs the same and has the same chance as any other — you can’t be a high-roller with bingo. The staff know the regulars by name, and the regulars seem very happy to be there. My sister and I enjoyed ourselves. The room was warm, the bar was cheap, and the game was efficient. My main disappointment was that the traditional bingo calls (“Clickety-click, sixty-six”, etc) were not used.

But it was striking how little enthusiasm there was about winning, and how quick people were to leave when it was over. The happiest person I saw was a proud woman whose son had won £200. He didn’t really seem to care.

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