If you thought bingo went out with permed hair and Babycham then we’ve quite a surprise in store for you.
According to official Gambling Commission figures there are around 45 million visits a year to 650 venues across the UK. Admittedly, this figure represents a 1.1% decrease since March 2018, but with only 7 halls shutting their doors over the year this is far fewer than the 130 betting shops that closed down over the same period.
But then isn’t bingo as British as fish and chips, getting horribly sunburnt on the first day of a holiday and always talking about the weather? So it’s hardly surprising that its popularity lives on.
Even so, you might imagine in a city as exciting and cosmopolitan as London, somewhere you can do anything from cooking your own cocktails to taking a submarine tour of the Thames, bingo might be just a little bit old-fashioned?
So let’s take a look at why even the capital still has a weakness for an activity that, at its peak in the 1960s and 70s saw not hundreds, but thousands of clubs up and down the country.
The old-school variety
A number of these clubs still survive, of course. And these aim to appeal to the same clientele that have always been bingo devotees. The majority of them are women, usually with families and for whom a night at the bingo has been a chance to meet up with friends, have a few drinks and, hopefully, win a little cash too.
It must be said, however, that of the seven clubs that have closed over the last year, the chances are that most, if not all, of them were probably this kind of place. The reason? Falling attendances thanks to the many other entertainments that are widely available these days, from streaming movies to enjoying far more exotic nights out.
But while many of the big, traditional bingo companies may have been feeling the pinch the more forward looking of them have realised that the fundamental appeal of bingo has remained the same but players are looking for more exciting and engaging ways of playing it.
The fact that there is a ready audience out there is obvious from the plethora of online bingo sites that have emerged in the last few years. So many, in fact, that there are a huge number of so-called affiliates sites such as Bingoport that exist to help players find and choose the best discounts and deals from the online operators.
The techno solution
These bingo fans are also used to the latest technological innovations in the online game so now you’ll find that many of the traditional bingo halls have now replaced paper game sheets with touch screens and the traditional callers with National Lottery-style electronic number selectors.
This is all very well for the more standard bingo halls but there has also been something much more exciting going on that has tapped into the 21st century love for ironic entertainment, whether it’s going along to a Mamma Mia singalong or enjoying a night at a slightly seedy greyhound track. But irony is only part of the picture, as some of these examples will show.
The new bingo
A number of entrepreneurial types with a track record in the entertainment business have recently realised that by providing bingo as just part of a night out and having a number of other hooks to lure the punters in it can be a virtual licence to print money. Not surprisingly, much of the activity to date has been centred round the hipster-ish districts of Shoreditch and Camden – but they’re likely to start spreading pretty soon.
In some cases they are held as special nights in clubs and can have a particular theme, whether it’s disco bingo, combined with a drag cabaret or simply an element of a foam party. The prizes are also likely to be equally idiosyncratic – examples we’ve heard about have included inflatable unicorns and boxes of obscure breakfast cereals – another natural for the irony-loving hipster generation as widely publicised a while ago.
Some bingo nights even include live performances from bands or superstar DJs and all have one thing in common – a high energy vibe that makes everyone feel welcome from mums on a night out to groups of friends who fancy a change from a night at the pub.
Because they want to make it a total entertainment experience, many of these bingo pop-ups also have a focus on offering the sort of street food that’s become so popular in the recent past. So where there once used to be chicken and chips in a basket, now you’re more likely to find vegan feasts and edamame bean nibbles.
Today’s bingo halls
On a more permanent basis, a whole new generation of dedicated bingo halls have also started to spring up in London – although calling them bingo halls is a little of a misnomer. Many have found premises thanks to the depressed nature of the retail sector. Where there were once empty high streets, these businesses have started to move in.
Typically, they will aim their games at different audiences at different times of the week. So a frenetic Saturday night might well be followed by a more family-friendly Sunday game. Or a Wednesday afternoon might see a mums and toddlers event with the bingo very much as an afterthought.
Their very flexibility means that these kinds of places can shift with the market, something the older style of bingo halls have always struggled to achieve.
Again, food and drink is also very much part of this new generation of club so instead of fizzy lager you’re likely to find the bar stocked with craft ales and the only prawn cocktail on the menu will be on one of their “vintage nights” when they even bring an old-style bingo caller out of retirement for the occasion.
So check out your local listings to see if there’s one of the new generation of bingo clubs nearby. And, if there is, it’s going to be eyes down for what should be an amazing experience.