There once was a time when London had a bingo hall, or even two, on virtually every high street and where every week hundreds of thousands of women would enjoy a night out away from husbands and partners, not to mention domestic duties.
But for quite some time now, the concept of a night at the traditional bingo hall seems just as outdated as these social attitudes. After all, today couples socialise together and, in most households, domestic chores are shared on a more equal footing.
So, it’s hardly surprising that the old-style bingo hall is something of a forgotten institution and in 2020 South West London boasts only one permanent venue which is in Tooting. But bingo is far from finished. In fact, it’s enjoying something of a renaissance but in a far different spirit than the days of old, as we shall see.
A little history lesson
To go back to the very beginning, bingo first originated in Italy in the 16th century where it was called Lo Giuoco del Lotto D’Italia and was a game introduced by the government to raise much needed funds in a way that would be far less unpopular than taxation. The game then spread across Europe, eventually reaching America several centuries later.
The version of the game we know today was the brainchild of a travelling salesman in the States in the 1930s called Edwin S. Lowe. Visiting a state fair, he saw a game called “Beano” being played, so called because the idea was to place a dried bean on each of the numbers called out. Lowe saw the huge potential of the game but thought it needed a better name. Inspiration came one day when he heard one of his friends shout out “bingo” by mistake so that’s the name under which he decided to market it.
The game quickly took off and in the years after World War II it made its way across the Atlantic to the UK where the bingo craze swept across the nation. But, as already mentioned, by the 1990’s interest was declining, and it has also been suggested that when the smoking ban was introduced in 2007 this made a night at the bingo an even more unappealing option for many people.
The search for a new audience
Even though the traditional appeal of the halls was well on the wane, the fundamental appeal of bingo remained the same. This wasn’t so much in the playing of the game but in the social interactions that surrounded it. So, the question was how to attract a whole new audience who may never have set foot in one of the old halls but who would both enjoy the game and its social aspects too.
At around this time, in the early noughties, the internet was gradually getting a foothold in the world and so were online casinos and slots sites. Always on the lookout for new games to offer, online bingo seemed like a very logical choice. Easy to play and relying only on a random number selector as a mechanic for the game it had a great deal to recommend it.
And, because the internet was already attracting typically younger users, the fit was perfect.
The rise and rise of online bingo
More and more online bingo sites started to pop up with fun branding and a huge choice of different games to play, whether for a few pennies each time or more serious ones with bigger prizes on offer. The whole tone and style of bingo sites was a million miles away from the old image of bingo, and the age profile of the new players reflected this with the core demographic being aged between 24 and 35 and even including a few men who enjoyed playing too.
The secret behind the success of the very best sites has always been that they’re fun places to spend time with always something different going on and generous bonuses for players old and new.
As well as the games themselves, online bingo sites have also managed very successfully to encapsulate the social aspect of traditional bingo with the inclusion of chat rooms and forums as well as ample opportunities to share and comment on social media.
Live bingo’s back too!
Although it’s not possible to prove as being 100% certain, there’s a very good reason to suspect that the discovery of online bingo has started to send people back to the halls themselves. In the light of this new-found surge in popularity, many of them have reacted by moving steadily up-market so where port and lemon and stout used to be the bingo fans’ drinks of choice, today it’s more likely to be prosecco and craft beer that’s being served.
More surprisingly still, bingo is starting to be a big favourite in many nightclubs where they have themed nights built around the game, but which also feature drag queens, karaoke and manic on-stage dance offs.
There are also a growing number of franchised themed events, the most famous of which is probably Bongo’s Bingo. Originally devised to liven up a Liverpool nightclub, there are now nights arranged all over the country, including a regular spot in the Grand Theatre, Clapham.
Go along and you’re promised a night of organized chaos as you play for fun prizes like a box of Coco Pops or life-size cardboard cutouts of famous celebrities. But make no mistake, the bingo’s taken pretty seriously as well – as anyone who shouts out “house” too early soon finds out.
So, it’s fair to say that bingo is one game that has successfully managed to reinvent itself for the 21st century, picking up thousands upon thousands of new fans along the way. The online game continues to thrive and its cult status as night out with a difference does the same. So if you’re ever at a loose end and don’t fancy the cinema or a bar, get out your dibber and prepare to join the bingo revolution.