January 2000

Easy come, easy go: Bingo!

Exeter, Devon January 28, 2000 On Thursday nights in the winter, the Sunset Cricket Club transforms into a disparate and sometimes desparate group that only half tongue-in-cheek calls itself ‘The Dangerous Sports Club’. Each week it is the turn of one of the members to devise a suitable activity, entertaining, enlightening, edifying, dangerous, or otherwise, which always ends, inevitably, in a pub. We have done judo (there was only one broken bone, an ankle if I recall correctly); taken on the inmates in an indoor sports session at Exeter Prison (one severe sprain, minor knocks and bruises); gone on night cycle rides through hazardous Devon lanes (one member lost though eventually found); scrambled down a muddy pothole near Ashburton; sampled kick boxing with youngsters from the Deaf School (what chance do you have against a 12 year old girl kicking shit out of you who can’t even hear your cries of genuine pain?); made utter fools of ourselves doing a step aerobics class; been humilated when we took on the Exeter University woman’s netball team; played with Meccano (very challenging); had an evening with Ian Herbert (totally inscrutable); made mince pies and a web site; played table tennis; done needlepoint and Indian cooking; and many other such challenging and sometimes highly dangerous but always exhilarating and intoxicating exercises.
‘Who dares wins’ might well have been a motto penned for us. Or perhaps ‘who drinks feels no pain’. But still, nothing could have prepared us for last night’s event, possibly the most dangerous and challenging ever devised, the brainchild of Steve Waters, the youngest and most daring member of our select band of batty brothers: Bingo!
None of us, it has to be said, had ever stepped foot inside the Exeter Mecca Bingo Hall, located in the former Gaumont cinema off North Street. Believe me, it is another world. After a pint or two of Dutch courage (aka Bass and I assure you we needed it) at the White Hart, about fifteen of us made our way there. Steve signed us all in (apparently you have to be a member to go to Bingo due to some arcane licensing laws relating to gambling, and so now Steve is a fully paid up -- well, actually there is no charge, they ought to pay you, in fact, to join -- life member of the Exeter Mecca Bingo Club, god help him).
So we steps up, pays our quid, and then are faced with the first of the evening’s difficult, dangerous and challenging choices: How many strips of tickets to buy? ‘One strip,’ explained the manager, a helpful chap, rather serious, been in Bingo all his working life, who was quite bemused by our utter lack of bingo nous, ‘one strip would be terribly boring.’ Six strips, on the other hand, he suggested, might present a challenge that would be too overwhelming for us bingo tyros, and clearly he did not want us to be put off by this first experience (‘regulars are our lifeblood’, one was almost certain, had been drummed into him if not tattooed on his backside in Bingo Management Training School). ‘Three strips,’ he advised, ‘three strips is probably about right for you lot.’ So three strips it was, ‘that will be £3.90, thank you very much’.
But it didn’t stop there: there was the 6-page Silver Book, the 4-page Gold Book, the 2-page Platinum, the Americano, the National, and finally, the Emerald Book: my god, how on earth would we ever figure it all out?
‘How much can you actually win on this?’ someone asked.
‘The National has a nightly prize of £100,000,’ said the manager.
‘A hundred grand?! You’re kidding.’ He went on to explain that this is done through a live link with all the Mecca bingo halls in the country, a mind-boggling 700 or so of them, with the game played simultaneously through the power and glory of electronic telecommunications. Truly awesome.
So, suitably armed with our tickets, introduced to Eric, the dinner jacketed caller/mc for the evening who, the manager assured, ‘would look after us’, we were ready to make our entrance into the Hall. An unbelievable scene awaited us: the vast hollow shell of the once-grand Gaumont, complete with stage, curtains, and an ornate plaster rose on the high vaulted ceiling, was filled with individual formica booths and little tables on every level, in every nook and cranny, and across the whole floor. The walls inside were painted bright pink and purple. At one end there was a small bar that was doing hardly any business, also a food bar, similarly unoccupied.
For there was no time to drink or eat. The people -- and they numbered in the hundreds, not simply blue rinse grannies, but middle aged men and women, young couples, groups out for an evening (like us, I suppose!) -- were there for the serious business not of having a good night out, a drink and a laugh, but of winning money. There were lines of fruit machines along the walls. And everywhere, on the tables, on countertops, flashing electric bingo cards to while away the minutes when the live game is not on. The system, for these variations of the one-arm bandit, is this: you put your pound into a slot and it activates the table. Meanwhile, before proceedings start and whenever there is a lull or a pause, a fellow stands in the middle of the room, chanting out numbers, not with the drama of Eric during the night’s big live events, but more mechanically so that the chance becomes simply a background noise that you soon get used to while, eyes down, the hardened bingo addicts shuffle chips over called numbers, trying to get a line, playing for a fiver, a tenner, nothing too big. When they get it, no calling out: just push the red button under the table and an assistant comes over to verify the win, paid out in coins so that you can immediately stick another quid in the table and start all over again.
You can imagine for us first-timers what a strange and unreal world this presented. A couple of babes in the level below us were eating from tupperware containers, pouring themselves coffee from a flask. They told us that they come every week, at least once, bring their own tea with them.
‘Ever won anything?’ we asked.
‘Oh yes, loads of times.’
‘Biggest win?’
‘Ninety quid,’ one of them said proudly.
‘Hmn, ninety pounds, not bad, that would do quite nicely, thank you very much,’ we all thought.
Then it was time to begin. Big Eric, standing on the stage behind a podium with a microphone in hand announced that the evening’s sets were about to start. First game, Americano. Well, none of us were doing that quite simply because we couldn’t understand what it was and the tickets were extra. Just as well, it gave us a little more time to acclimatise and to get a feel of how it is done.
‘Under the N number thirty,’ sang out Eric. ‘One and oh, under the I.’ We didn’t have a clue what was going on, but not to worry, we’d catch on eventually, we hoped.
Once this finished, the real business began. The evening started with the 6-page Silver Book. Each strip has three lines, and first you play for one line, then for two lines, and finally for the full house, each number on the whole strip called out.
‘On its own number three, number three,’ boomed Eric, rather musically and rhythmically, ‘all the fours, forty four...five and nine, fifty nine.’
But Eric’s mellifluous tones could not disguise the fact that it was trench warfare down where we were: not a word was spoken in that whole vast hall, as, eyes down, some four or five hundred lost souls listened intently, crossed off or didn’t cross off numbers, until finally someone stated, rarely shouted, no, never ‘bingo’, not even ‘house’, but simply, ‘yes’ or ‘got it’ or ‘here’. An assistant would then hustle over, check the card, read out some mysterous code, and, once verified, the game would then proceed to two lines, full house, or whatever.
It was truly amazing how quickly some people managed to get bingo, and indeed, in looking at one’s own numbers which seemed rarely to be called, one was immediately made aware of the sheer improbability of ever winning this, let alone the National Lottery.
‘Legs eleven, number eleven...all alone number one...one and eight number eighteen...seven and oh, blind seventy...’
Fast and furious aren’t the words for it: the pace was unrelenting. We went through the green sheet, the red sheet, the orange sheet, the blue sheet, the yellow sheet. Finally, though, it had to happen (well, there were fifteen of us each with three strips so we had to be in with a chance somewhere along the line), the moment we were all waiting for, the moment we were all, at the same time, secretly dreading. A cry went up, stopping Eric in mid-flow, drawing the attention of all five hundred in the room to our corner of the hall. Of course it was Bernie, the luckiest guy of us all, the captain of the cricket team, our spiritual leader, old Lucky Wilson, bound to be him, wasn’t it?
The attractive female assistant in uniform hustled her way over to us, mike in hand. Now hindsight is a beautiful thing, isn’t it; in retrospect I suppose you would have to say that the appeal had been neither full blooded nor full throated. More of a squeak than a shout, actually (afterwards Harris said that it was as if someone had grabbed old Bern by the balls and given just a little twist, nothing too hard, just enough to make him squeak). If this had been a cricket match, you might have called it a ‘strangled’ appeal and on the strength (or lack of it) alone, felt compelled to give the benefit of the doubt to the batsman. And so it proved to be in this case.
‘False card,’ the uniformed assistant announced through her microphone, to the palpable relief of the entire hall, and to the unspeakable and infinite mirth of us all.
For to us, this was the ultimate bingo faux pas, the single incident that each and every one of us feared we might do, instant public humiliation within that vast arena, and no where at all to hide.
No matter that Eric immediately started chanting out the numbers again, that in fact, no one cared in the least, but were intent merely to concentrate once more on their own coloured strips of numbers. To us, it was hilarious, all the more so because it was Wilson. Tears literally streamed down our faces and we were simply unable to carry on marking our own cards for quite awhile. Who knows, perhaps we would have won the jackpot otherwise?
And so the night went on: we got through the 6 page silver, the four page gold, the two page platinum. There was the National, linked to all the Mecca bingo houses in the land, with wins for folks in Dover, and Cardiff, and Strathclyde.
Some two hours had passed by, we’d hardly spoken a word, not even had time for a drink, in fact, realised that all this time we had been sitting on the edges of our seats tense and intent, inanely ticking off numbers, hoping in vain for a win. It was certainly an experience, but surely about time to get back to the pub...
One last game: the Emerald Card. Forty quid to the winner of the one-line, sixty to the little old chap below us who scooped the two-line. Not bad, not bad. Now it was only the full house left, and then we could leave.
Eric kept calling out the numbers: ‘all alone, number four’... ‘four and oh, blind forty’... ‘six and two, sixty two.’
Hey, wait a minute, I suddently realised that I only needed two more numbers to win this baby... ‘three and four, thirty four...’ my god, just seventeen left, c’mon Eric, ‘one and...five, fifteen...’ my god, that was close, the adrenalin is pumping through me, I can see the veins on my arms popping, feel it’s going to happen, can really feel it. Then: ‘one and seven...’
“YES!’ I shout, standing up. Dead silence, this is the biggest house pot, after all, and my mates are totally embarrassed, thinking that I’ve probably screwed it up again, like poor old Bern. It seems to take ages for the assistant to come over, mike in hand. She checks the strip. Andy has started laughing again. John looks interested (after all, we’d agreed on our table to split the proceeds of any wins). Finally, she says, ‘This looks alright to me. Have you got your membership card or guest ticket?’
‘My what?’ I start scrabbling through my pockets like a madman, producing a post office receipt, a shopping list (eggs, semi-skimmed milk, yoghurt, and bok choi), a bit of kleenex (used), a calling card or two, lots of bits of paper. But no receipt. Robin tries to pass me his, but the assistant quickly puts an end to that scam, stating that this is entirely unacceptable, it must be my guest ticket and mine alone. The seconds are ticking away, I can sense Eric anxious to start up his chant again, everyone else willing me to fail so that they can be in with a chance, all eyes in the hall -- hundreds and hundreds, I tell you -- on me.
Finally I pull out the last bit of scruffy paper from my coat pocket: it’s the ticket! The win is verified, to the palpable disgust of the bingo regulars, and a thick envelope containing £209.78 in cash is handed over to me.
The evening in the Bingo Hall is over, that was the last card, but no one is getting up except for our lot. It seems that the rest are all staying for the next Late Session, during which, we can only guess, the same thing happens all over again. We exit with a communal swagger and a wave to Eric, the lads virtually carrying me out, and so we make our way down South Street back to the White Hart.
Drinks on me, of course: “Ten pints of bass, five of Old Wallop, please, care for one yourself? How about you, no problem, it’s on the bingo. Same again? Same again. Cheers. To your very good health. All the very best. Same again? Cheers, same again...”
I don’t play the Lottery, which is probably just as well, but I am immediately aware that should I ever be in the fortunate (or perhaps unfortunate) position of winning it, I would certainly not be one of those who would say, “won’t change me a bit, uh uh, not me, not giving up the day job.” Heck, I’d blow the lot, it’d all be gone in days or weeks or months, I’m sure. The exhilaration of giving away money that doesn’t actually feel as if it belongs to you is too heady and intoxicating. And who can resist that?
We blow a good half the wad at the pub quite easily, probably would have blown it all if they hadn’t called drinking time on us. It’s time to divvy up. John’s already left. Rob says, “put mine in your Ride for Life cancer charity pot.” Andy’s happy with this too. So am I, a tenner for the kids, the rest in the pot.
What the hell. Easy come, easy go.
Bingo. It’s entirely unreal.

Copyright © Marc Millon 2000



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Copyright © Marc and Kim Millon 2000