mon 22/12/2014

Timeshift: Eyes Down! The Story of Bingo, BBC Four | TV reviews, news & interviews

Timeshift: Eyes Down! The Story of Bingo, BBC Four

Nostalgia and a divided nation in an examination of our favourite leisure activity

Today, more Brits play bingo than attend football matches and church

In the Sixties, self-appointed guardians of the nation’s morals were pretty steamed up about bingo. More so even than about Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Fyfe Robertson, the BBC’s bewhiskered roaming chronicler, said the game was “the most mindless ritual achieved in half a million years of evolution.” His own brainlessness mattered not a jot.

The winner of £47,000 – and two shillings – declared: “I’m so excited I could do with a drink of whisky.” She wasn’t going to be swayed by finger-wagging and noses being looked down. This enthralling canter through the history, sociology and quirks of the numbers game revealed snobbery, sharp practices and more facts and figures than you could shake a stick at.

Bingo halls were more attractive to women than pubs

Today, more Brits play bingo than attend football matches and church. Almost a quarter of the population played bingo in 1966. In 2006, bingo halls attracted 78 million people through their doors. Naturally, the amount of cash swimming around has meant bingo attracts shady practices, including money laundering. 

It wasn’t always thus. Bingo – variously known as housey-housey, tombola and lotto – first gripped Brits (men that is) during the two world wars, when it was the only gambling game permitted in the armed forces. On civvy street, the demobbed tommys and jack tars kept their taste for marking off numbers on a grid as they were called out. Various permutations of lines were prize-winners (Empire Bingo Club, Blackpool pictured below).

The game hit the streets big time in the wake of the 1960 Betting and Gaming Act. It was soon so popular that aficionados could go to the seaside to play, getting there and back on special bingo trains where the game went on unabated. As cinema attendance declined, bingo moved into the vacated venues. The draw for women and its relative abandonment by men was addressed. Beyond the lack of men attracted to the game, it was suggested that bingo halls were more attractive to women than pubs. Eyes Down! though was more than a list. A light blend of modern history and nostalgia, it brought home the rigid hold bingo has on the nation. A trio of excited young women captured outside a bingo hall put their fingers on one of its key attractions – “no men want to come, so it’s really good.”

Much of the suggesting was done by three university academics, one of whom was a real-life professor. After the initial surprise that so much studying of bingo has been undertaken wore off, the programme began to look unbalanced. There was only one contribution from the business side of bingo. Mecca's Eric Morley was briefly mentioned and seen in an archive clip, but the powers behind bingo kept to themselves. It was left to the septuagenarian “gaming impresario” Jimmy Thomas to represent the controlling hands running one of our national obsessions. Also left out of the equation was any probing into how gaming companies compete with each other (eyes down for the punters, pictured below).

Competition away from the game itself was gleefully depicted, with the early-Eighties national newspaper adoption of bingo as a circulation booster. The Sun’s then-new editor Kelvin Mackenzie declared that it was “a battle to the death” between newspapers, and “I hope it means some of our rivals are put out of business.” Lovely. Even The Times got in on the game. It was a far cry from the Sixties, when its headlines declared bingo “this cretinous pastime.”

Like much of British culture – popular and otherwise – attitudes towards bingo were and are defined by class. The game could be played from dawn to dusk at holiday camps, places it’s unlikely that editors, broadcasters and politicians frequented. Despite sidestepping some of the questions it could have asked, Eyes Down! portrayed Britain as a divided nation. Which is something this week’s announcement by the government of another utterly pointless high-speed rail link is hardly going to remedy.

Visit Kieron Tyler’s blog

A trio of young women put their fingers on one of bingo's attractions – 'no men want to come, so it’s really good'

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