It's 6AM in the north west London suburbs. The streets are empty, the shops are shut, even the foxes have fucked off to bed – but up the road the party’s just getting started... I take a left out of the tube station and make for a dome-like structure that looms over the deserted high street. Then I see it: “BEACON BINGO”.
The giant red letters stick out against the pale sky. My destination looks like a cross between a Wimpy restaurant and the Roman Colosseum. So what am I doing here?
Bingo is as British as meat pies and alcoholism. And, despite taking a dive in more recent years, it still has around four million regular players – that’s more than rugby, tennis and cricket combined. But how do places like this one, that look like they’ve crash landed out of the 70s, survive in post-pandemic Britain, when even clubs are taking their final breaths?
To find out, I spent 24 hours in Britain’s biggest bingo hall – formerly known as Beacon Bingo, now renamed MERKUR Bingo (the sign outside hasn’t been updated) – with VICE photographer Yushy.
Before we step inside, I check the online reviews to see what we’re in for: “Best bingo hall in Europe!” says Sheep691. “Dirty pooey toilets,” says DianaDorman. “The staff would not even phone me an ambulance when I had chest pains,” says. SammyMiah. I don't know what to expect.
The morning session doesn’t start until 11AM, so Yushy and I have plenty of time to eat and explore. Luckily for us, this place has three restaurants and two bars serving pork benders, Pukka pies, gammon slabs, ham baps, eggs on bread, chunky chips, cheese scones and fish suppers. As someone with the palate of a World War II evacuee, this is music to my ears. I wash down my full English with a pint of tea while Yushy stares into his black pudding.
Fuelled up on pub grub, we go for a walk to get the lay of the land. MERKUR Bingo Cricklewood was built in 1996 as a purpose-built hall with a 2,700 capacity. As such, the ambience in the hall is somewhere between an airport terminal and a motorway services, with a carpet that looks like it's straight from The Shining. Odd, yes – but strangely relaxing.
“I come for the atmosphere, the friendliness of it and just to get out of the house, really,” Mary Gorry, a bingo hall veteran, tells me. “I would tell people to come and try it before they judge. This is a nice place to spend an afternoon or an evening. I’m pretty sure they’d come back again if they tried it.”
She’s got a point. Looking around the room, it’s all smiles and hugs and “nice to see you again”. For a lot of the people here, this is more than just a place to play. It's clearly a community.
Bingo itself is dead simple. It’s zero percent skill, 100 percent vibes. You buy a ticket with 15 numbers between zero and 90, the caller shouts out numbers in a random order and the first player to cross off all their numbers wins. We take our seats as the first game begins.
"One and seven: 17. Six and one: 61. Eight and three: 83–” Yawn. Call this fun? Don’t they know we’ve got PlayStations and pornography, now? “–Five and four: 54. Six and two: 62. Eight and five: 85–” Wait, that’s my last number: BINGO! Fuck me! I'm the bingo champion of the world!
And just like that: I’m hooked. Three hours pass by in the blink of an eye. Numbers whiz around my head like Neo in The Matrix. By the end of the session, I’m £150 up. Drinks on me. I make a beeline for the on-site boozer.
A pint of beer in a central London pub will set you back £6.50. At Alma’s Inn, it’s £3.40. I could buy a round for, like, 50 people. They’re even showing the England match! We settle in for the long haul and pig out on pints and curry.
By the time I realise why no one else is boozing – it’s far too late. The evening session is an unmitigated disaster – I’m too pissed to keep up with the caller and keep getting the run-around from people three times my age.
Miss P, a Cricklewood local, is another punter who’s out of luck. “I’m going to smack him when he comes off stage,” she tells me, gesturing to the caller. If this were an episode of Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, she’d steal the show. She’s warm and funny with a filthy sense of humour. She’s also addicted to bingo.
“I come at 10 o’clock in the morning and I don’t leave till the next morning – eight or nine sometimes. I’m cutting it down now. It costs a lot of time and money. Sometimes, I spend £1,000 in a day.”
To state the obvious: The gambling industry doesn’t make its money from first time customers. I ask Miss P if this place is like a second home to her. “First home,” she replies, with a glint in her eye.
Weird one. I’ve seen first hand the joy and “value” (for want of a better word) this place brings to people's lives. But the line between autonomy and addiction is thin. Where do you draw the line, and who gets to draw it? I don’t have the answers, man. I’m just here to play bingo.
At 10PM (16 hours into our bingo hall adventure), I head to the cafeteria for a sad saveloy and chips. Just in time for the night’s entertainment.
East 17 were once Britain’s best-selling boy band. Think Vanilla Ice by way of New Kids on The Block. At their peak, in the mid 90s, they sold out Wembley Arena – a stadium with a 12,500 capacity. Tonight, however, their braggadocios, body-popping antics fall on deaf ears. Maybe it’s because Brian Harvey or Tony Mortimer didn’t show up. Tough crowd.
The sight of a 45-year-old man doing a headspin in a bingo hall is enough to convince me that we should pack it in. With the bingo done for the night, we head for the only thing in the hall that’s still open: the slots. I pull the lever on the one-armed bandit and watch as sweet fuck all comes out of the machine. And again. And again. I may as well set my wallet on fire at this point.
Skint and running on lager fumes, I curl up in a booth and rest my head on the polywood table. Hours fly by in a strange fever dream about prize crockpots and two fat ladies. Sometime later, I feel an arm on my back. A security guard looks down on me with a sorry smile that says “it’s time to go, mate”, and ushers me out into the suburban night.
So, after 20-odd hours in Britain’s biggest bingo hall (I tried, okay) what does the future hold for the UK’s favourite game? It’s hard to say really – it’s a surprise MERKUR Bingo has lasted this long, but it has. And it’s easy to see the appeal – these buildings offer spaces for those who might not want a big sesh or to be surrounded by jostling young people.