Bingo has long been considered one of the most popular pastimes in the UK and it has a number of draws for many players. Despite having Italian roots, the game arguably rose to popularity in the UK due to its appeal to a great many fed up working-class people who struggled to find any kind of entertainment.
It wasn’t until after the second world war when bingo really started to take off in the UK; ironically it was soldiers who had become accustomed to the game, learning it from their American allies who had been experiencing the game since the early 1930s.
At the time, it was a company called Mecca who had really begun to capitalise on the potential of the game and saw a great opportunity to popularise across the country.
While Mecca now is arguably one of the household names as far as traditional bingo is concerned (even with a substantial online presence), like any business, this wasn’t always the case and it came from humble beginnings.
The name Eric Morley is synonymous in the traditional bingo world. Having been born in Holborn, central London, he soon developed a taste for the entertainment industry, joining the Mecca organisation in 1946 as publicity manager, with the company typically known as a dance corporation which put events on in their dance halls.
Taking inspiration from a visit to America in 1950 where the game of bingo was starting to become particularly popular, Morley identified a way to make use of under-utilised dance halls around the UK, turning them into venues for bingo.
This, it turned out, was a masterstroke. Previously known as hospitality and wider entertainment company, Mecca forged itself a reputation in the world of bingo, establishing itself as the leader. Morley had awoken what had become a sleeping giant and turned into something that only dreams are made of.
Up and down the UK, what were previously near-abandoned dance halls from the 1920s quickly filled out with eager bingo goers in no time at all, with Mecca combining their catering business, offering customers refreshments as well as the promise of a considerable return on investment for a small handful of lucky people.
More than anything, it was something for people to look forward to on a weekly basis. Typically popular among the working class, the game went from strength to strength and before long the phrase “going down the bingo” became almost a British institution.
Providing jobs to hundreds of people around the country; Mecca became a major employer. In particular, demand was the need for bingo callers, especially those with a talent for being able to keep the attention of the customers. Particularly in seaside towns and resorts, bingo really began to flourish.
Of considerable success was the National Game (also known as the Link Game), whereby customers who frequented bingo halls all around the UK had the chance to play for a big jackpot, often in the six figures and the way this worked was almost like a network. Essentially, the winners of the weekly each weekly game in the individual bingo halls would have their winning tickets sent off to the national board who would analyse each ticket and the one which achieved ‘bingo’ with the least amount of numbers was the overall winner of the grand prize.
This helped the game to become even more increasingly popular as bingo halls filled to capacity with Mecca buying up more buildings just to cope with the demand. These were typically pre-war victorian, almost palatial buildings brimming with character and which also helped to add to the overall appeal of the game. Indeed, even today a handful of those that still exist, retain their original features.
As the UK started to become more popular with overseas tourists, they were introduced to a game of bingo like they had never seen before. While America had popularised the game at carnivals, the UK created a unique selling point, hosting it in these impressive buildings which became part of the overall experience and which drew many tourists, purely for the British architecture itself. The UK had Mecca to thank.
Having noticed the huge success of Mecca and the brand that it had become, other companies began to cast envious glances in their direction. Namely Coral Social Clubs, which had seen an opportunity to diversify from their core gambling business to chase a slice of the pie. Acquired by Star Group in 1970, before selling to Bass Leisure in 1981, this highlighted the quick success and also the pulling power of the Coral brand.
Merging with media company Granada in 1991 who subsequently took control of their bingo halls, these became Gala in 1991 and throughout the nineties, expansion continued. Gala appeared to build its business model based more on swankier venues in a bid to attract a more salubrious class of clientele and as a result, bought 17 Ritz clubs, 10 Jargen clubs and 27 Riva clubs throughout that decade.
It was fair to say that the bingo hall was just as popular, if not more than it had ever been previously. Also, with more disposable income, newer players were attracted which created even more demand and the number of bingo clubs with the Gala name that were starting to sprout up around the country made it a serious rival for Mecca.
During the mid-nineties, bingo clubs began to move to more ‘out of town’ premises, with leases in city centres considered too expensive and brownfield land on the outskirts cheaper. These were typically more modern looking buildings, though with increased bus routes and car ownership the effect was not too noticeable. Bingo venues which were out of the city were also bigger which meant that they could fit more customers and also had the requisite parking space while the importance of disabled access became even more crucial.
Throughout the mid-2000s, the bingo hall as many had known it began to disappear at what was to some an alarming rate. All of a sudden those who had been going to their favourite venue for decades found that they could no longer do so as this gave way to the popularity of online bingo.
Although Gala bought Mecca in 2000, they also moved fast to build an online presence, however by the late 2000s a new breed of bingo enterprise had entered the fray. More innovative bingo brands with websites which took the game further by offering different types of games (90 ball, 80 ball and 75 ball), meant that they had an edge over bingo halls.
However, the fact remained that there were customers who still enjoyed the traditional game of bingo and while many inner-city traditional bingo halls have disappeared, bought up by developers and turned into luxury accommodation, there are still a substantial amount of modern bingo venues.
The fact is that now, traditional bingo goers enjoy this as an alternative social occasion; a chance to have a drink, see friends and even maybe get lucky if their numbers come in.
While there is still a demand for bingo in the traditional sense of the game, the fact quite simply is that online bingo has overtaken it. It means that the likes of Gala could see more value in selling off venues where they do not get as many customers from a commercial perspective, though it is unlikely that it will disappear entirely.
In major cities (or at least on the outskirts) bingo is likely to still exist, though towns which have become less frequented over the last couple of decades and seen the ‘traditional high street’ struggle may struggle to attract customers, such as the old mining towns; an industry which typically propped up many traditional bingo halls for a number of decades.
As a way to try and differentiate their offering, some bingo venues now offer alternative entertainment to customers, such as live music during intervals; this almost coming full circle with the original Mecca venues initially used as dance halls. It has meant though that this differentiation has helped to attract more customers and other initiatives like this may continue, however it might well be short-lived.
Bingo at seaside resorts, however, is still something which is likely to continue, due to the typical demographic of visitors; long term holidaymakers who have been playing the game for decades and still enjoy it as a way to have fun and socialise. Though bingo (and traditional bingo halls) as many know it are on the decline, with demand at an all-time low and a significant generation gap who prefer to play the game online via their smartphones from the convenience of their own surroundings.