I only wanted one! It’s the bingo-goers mantra. “I only wanted one for £400.” It’s the missus, she’s just come in from the bingo. The times she has crashed through the door shouting that, breaking my concentration of Inspector Morse (OK, Men & Motors but she need not know)... well, too many. Any bingo “widower” will know exactly how it feels. “I did! I only wanted number 26.” My thinking is if you only wanted one for either £400 or £4m, if you didn’t get that “one”, it’s not worth mentioning. I say nothing because one day she may well get the “one” and I’d hope to be in the frame for shares of that windfall. “Yes dear,” I reply. “Cup of tea?” This ritual has been going on for months. Oh, she’s won a few times, the odd £20 here and there, but it was the £200 she walked in with the other week that did it. It costs about £20 for a night out and you could come home with £200. Not bad. Better than coming home with empty pockets, kebab down your designer shirt and a hangover to look forward to.
“What’s the most you can win?” “£100,000 in the National Game.” That’s life changing stuff. Putting the credibility concerns aside for a moment, I decide I’m going to get me a piece of this pie. Leaving Corrie behind, she takes me to Gala Bingo in St Ann’s, once a giant former Palais-style dance hall called The Empress, that seats 1,100. It"’s a stone’s throw from the Victoria Centre in an area known as Holy Corner because of the close proximity of two churches, a Mosque and a Salvation Army Citadel. The prayers said at the bingo are quite different — though “God” and “Jesus Christ” still get a mention on occasion. It is not what I imagined: two fat ladies, legs eleven, blue rinses... There are two fat ladies. There are two thin ladies. There are all manner of shapes and sizes, ages and hair colour. I recognise a woman from work. Another from the cob shop down the road. There are even a few blokes. But you won’t get the “two fat ladies, 88” or even a “legs 11”. That went out years ago. It was phased out with the Gaming Act of 1968. Since then, the numbers are read out simply as “two and eight, 28”. It is just one of the changes at this new look, big business 21st-century bingo.
“Bingo is no longer about old women with stockings hanging round their ankles,” says Richard Sowerby, sales and marketing director for Gala Bingo. Statistics tells us that the average bingo player is actually in his or her forties. The reality tonight is that 90% are women. But there’s not a blue rinse in sight. Although I spotted a Jaguar in the car park, the game is still very much a working class pursuit. Gala, a Nottingham-based company, has three clubs in the city — St Ann’s, Radford and Top Valley. You don’t get bingo halls in West Bridgford. And everyone’s got a fag on. The non-smoking section in this giant hall is tiny. So even if you don’t go home with a wedge of winnings you’ll reek of smoke. That’s the downside. The upside, apart from winning, is that it’s really quite a laugh. “It is an incredibly fun evening. For £15 you can have three hours of enjoyment,” says Sowerby.
It’s not all about winning, research tells us. It is for me; £100,000 is up for grabs every night except Sunday — when it’s £200,000. Tonight is especially busy because, a veteran bingo-er informs me, it’s a special ticket night where winnings are doubled. But how? I soon realise I haven’t a clue what is going on, or how to join in.
First of all, you have to get in. You have to be a member — it’s the law of the gaming licence— although membership is free. Once you push your card into a machine to register that you are here you are in a queue buying books. Then there are Earlys, the Main Session and Lates. The Earlys are simply for those who want to play a few games as a starter. They kick off at 6.15pm. The Main Session includes around 20-odd games for around £15 and lasts from 6.50- 9pm. The Lates are your afters (or dessert, if you’re posh). The games are virtually the same, consisting of a page of numbers to tick off — or dob — but there are different book names: Americano, Superbook, Main Programme, Holiday Flyer, The Ultimate, Spotlight, Dream Ticket, National, Parti Extra...
Why isn’t there just one book with pages of tickets? “It would be lovely from our point of view,” says general manager David Monahan, who has worked in Nottingham bingo halls for a quarter of a century. “The best way of describing it is that it’s like going to watch a film. You have the feature film but an interval before and after. We do the same thing. All the games at bingo are punctuated by time windows where we play other types of games. “ People can get a drink or some food, others play on the fruit machines or the table top games. “All these different games have evolved over the years to fill these time windows.”
Settled in to the seat I get my dobber out. The professionals don’t use pens but special fat white plastic bingo ‘dobbers’ for quicker marking. They come in blue, red, green and purple. One dob from the inked sponge does the job to mark your numbers off. Tonight every table is taken. There must be 600 people at least. It is unusual to see more than two to a table because, although they seat four, they are not what you’d call roomy. Off-white formica tables with four fixed blue or beige cushioned bench seats run regimentally down this blue carpeted hall. Another hundred or so folk are seated 360 degrees around the balcony. There is a real mix of ages. A group of girls in their late teens giggle in anticipation. Next to them a permed sixtysomething sits alone, casually puffing on a cigarette while reading The Sun. Lots of women take up a tables by themselves. Handbags and overcoats occupy other seats. The tables are littered with ashtrays, dobbers, newspapers, discarded bingo books, loose change and the odd unfinished dinner plate, gravy hardening over leftover pie crusts. Under clinically bright lighting, a constant mist of smoke drifts upwards towards the recently painted ceiling, a rainbow of blues and purples. Gala Bingo, St Ann’s, is open seven days a week, three sessions a day. Mentioning no names (the mother-in-law), I know of one who went three times in the space of 24 hours. And she’s not alone.
“We come about three times a week,” says Mary from Bilborough, a bingo veteran of 40-odd years. “I like the company and it’s somewhere to have a meal with friends.” Mary, 83, was one of the club’s first members though in 40 years she has never had a big win. “I win enough to keep coming back.” Joan is another of the “Golden Girls” gang of regulars who always sit in the same seats. “We love it. It’s a social occasion, we know everyone here. And it’s a place you can come and have a meal and a drink without being... molested,” she adds, before bursting into a throaty cackle. Her husband never escorted her to bingo, she says, “but he didn’t mind. He’d say ‘go on girl, you get off to bingo’”. She adds: “Back then it was just the ladies who would come to bingo, now there are all sorts. The men come now, there are young women, office girls, students...” We know the game is about to commence as Shalamar’s 1982 hit A Night To Remember kicks in: “Get ready, tonight, we’re going to make this a night to remember...” A handsome young man in a suit called Paul, the assistant manager (though he could be a bank clerk), gets on the microphone and ensures we have our books in order. That done he hands over to a cheery, round-faced young woman called Tracey, tonight’s caller. All eyes drop and a silence quickly descends as the game begins. It’s simple enough. You play a book. Six tickets in each though you can play less if you’re a big girl’s blouse. The hardened professionals can play two full books at a time. That’s 12 tickets —180 numbers to keep an eye on. And they can smoke a fag and read a paper at the same time. The number is called out, you dob it on your ticket, the first to get a line shouts out and you win a tenner (usually). Two lines will get you around £25. A full house, all numbers marked off, and you win £50 and upwards. “Two and eight, 28... six and four, 64... four and one, 41...” There’s a woman looking at me. “On its own number two...” She’s doing it again. Aren’t I a handsome boy... oh no, she’s looking at the numbers as they flash up on a TV screen behind my head.
It’s more difficult than I thought. Trying to concentrate on dobbing the numbers and seeing whether you have filled a line or two lines isn’t easy. And if you don’t call out in time — not “house” but a very Nottingham “’ere yar” then you don’t get the money. And so it goes on. An hour passes and I still haven’t won anything. Blue envelopes containing anything from a few pounds to a few hundred are being handed out to winners at their tables. At the first interval, I nip off to sample a pint of cheap bitter. The hot food (usually fish, chips and pasties) is also cheap. I notice a bottle of Blossom Hill wine is only £2.50 but you have to drink it on the premises. Need to keep my concentration. While I’m deliberating the room has burst into life. Other players are using their break to play on the noisy slot machines situated at both ends of the room. The majority stay seated and play the table top game — or “clicky bingo” as the missus calls it. As numbers are called out they flick plastic windows shut on a board. When they win, a button is pressed. It’s too fast for me. More envelopes are handed out. Back into the dobbing and the prize value is rising. Hundreds of pounds are being won — but not by me and hopes of a windfall are subsiding. Tracey, the caller, is having trouble with the technology and the game grinds to a halt. The regulars become impatient. Grumbles of “Come on!” are peppered with tutting. At times likes these bingo becomes comedy. It’s the crowd that make the laughs. “Call the police, we’ve been robbed!” shouts a chap from the balcony when the winnings are less than expected. He scowls but his eyes betray the playful sense of mischief behind his heckle. “Give ’er the bleddy money you b*****!” one woman shouts from the depths hall when a winning shout wasn’t heard by the caller. John Monahan admits they can be a tough lot. “Because they have been playing bingo so long they know the game inside out. We can’t profess to know how the game operates better than them. As a result they are a kind of barometer of how fair the game is. “They are very forgiving with genuine mistakes. And very unforgiving with foolish ones.” Tension can spill over, although it’s not always to do with the bingo...“There was a fight between two women,” says one regular, “over a wig. Half-way through a game these two women started screaming abuse at each other. The caller asked them to be quiet and they just swore at him.”
The highlight is the National Game, when up to 550 clubs around the UK — Gala, Mecca and the few independents that are left — link up to play one full house game. £100,000 is up for grabs every night of the week. On Sunday it’s £200,000. We don’t win it tonight. “Across the UK the lines are electric...” comes a recorded voice announcing the arrival of another link-up game, the Dreamticket. Tonight one line earns you £5,000. Two lines is £22,000. Nope. It isn’t until one of the last games of the evening when I get that adrenalin rush the wife talks about. I look like I’m getting close to filling two lines. I need number 78. Now I start to panic a bit. Is that right? How stupid would I look if I shout and I’m wrong. In front of all these people. The regulars might lynch me. Now because I’m thinking about that I’m losing concentration on marking the numbers off. I’m getting behind. 78. It’s all I need...
“Seven and eight, 78.” That’s it, I’ve got to shout. I daren’t. Now I’ve actually won, the whole reason I’m here, I daren’t shout. As soon as they start on the next number that’s it, it’s too late. I’ve got to shout. “Go on...” says the missus. “’Ere!” I yawp, panicked into action. No-one groans. No-one hurls chips or ashtrays. I’m OK. A runner checks my numbers... “It’s a good claim.” All right — how much have I won? I look up to the massive score-board to check. “£15.” It must have cost me more than £20 tonight with buying ticket books and beer. But the game’s not over. There’s still the full house to go on this ticket. “Three and six, 36... four and nine, 49... on its own number four....” Blimey I could win again. I only need a 62. “six and three...” “’Ere yar!” someone shouts. Oh bugger. It was for £200. And I only wanted one.