The Closure of Hackney's Mecca Bingo and the Decline of One of Britain's Favourite Pastimes
In the UK, bingo is more popular than church and football, so why are halls being shut down en masse?
Behind the shoddy grey exterior of Mecca Bingo Hall on Hackney Road, the room is heaving with people. Trays of Scotch eggs and pink wafers line Formica tables. Strip lights illuminate slot machines and nicotine-stained seats. Armed with bingo markers, pints and cocktail sausages, row upon row of punters bow their heads in concentration. When one elderly lady shouts "Oi!" instead of bingo, the crowd erupts into laughter and heckles.
Believe it or not, this is the busiest the bingo hall has been in decades. But while tonight might be a full house, from tomorrow it'll be empty. The big turnout for the finale night will not stop the once-thriving bingo hall from closing its doors forever.
As the first purpose-built cinema to be transformed into a bingo hall in Britain in 1961, the art deco building has been drawing in regulars for decades. In spite of this, Mecca Bingo has decided to sell the building off to private property developers for £5.5 million. Club managers said it had been "struggling for some time" due to less custom. Nevertheless, this isn't an isolated case. The bingo industry has taken a hit in recent years, with around 200 bingo clubs having closed since 2005.
Along with many, May Dunn, 78, is distraught that the place is shutting up shop. "My husband died four and a half years ago, and I've been in this bingo ever since. I would've been dead without it," she tells me. "I've spent a lot of money, but it was worth every penny. It's kept me alive".
"I've been coming here since it first opened in the 60s," May says. "When I had to look after my invalid son, I only came three nights a week, but when I lost my son 20 years ago I started coming here till 9PM, seven days a week. And then when I lost my husband I didn't have to go home at all, so I was here till midnight or 1 o'clock every single night. When my husband died, I didn't want to go on holiday, the only place I wanted to come was here. I'd come in, say hello to everyone and even get a kiss and a cuddle. It's like a big family in here."
Now that it's closing, May does not know where she'll go: "We're all very upset. None of us know what we're going to do." She inhales deeply and savours every last breath of smoke.
"This is the first night this bingo hall has been full in a very long time," says May, gesturing at the overflowing foyer behind her. "Normally you walk in and you can sit where you like. Upstairs was closed for four years until tonight".
The club has long served as a lifeline to elderly locals who have few other sources of support. "We think our old friend Lena died of a broken heart when she found out this place was shutting," May tells me. "She used to say, 'What am I gonna do when this place goes?' She was really worried. She was scared to be on her own. Lena was also here since it opened. She'd be sitting in the corner, with her long coat and her little purple handbag, smoking like a trooper."
At the ripe age of 80, Lena passed away. "She was on her way to bingo a week ago, but the cab driver didn't think she looked well, so he took her home, where her daughter was waiting for her, and she died."
Like May, Marina Martin, 81, is also sad to say her farewells. "Coming here got me out the house. Without it, we're gonna be sat indoors day and night, and I don't think that's good for anybody," she tells me. "Even though I don't win, I just enjoy playing bingo. It's not about winning, it's about company."
A game of chance, Marina swears there's no skill involved: "It's all down to luck, and I'm not a lucky person. I pick up scores and 40s, but I never hit a grand." All the same, Marina says the prizes aren't what they used to be: "It's got too expensive. It used to be a social club, but it's more of a business now – they want to make their money."
Even if it has become more money-orientated, the club has still failed to draw in the crowds it needs to stay afloat. "Back in the day, upstairs was full, people were sitting on the stairs and queuing round the whole building. Now look at it. It's sad, really," says Marina.
Although, she does add that the place has managed to attract younger crowds in recent years. "My daughter comes in here, and all the students have started coming in quite regularly. Even they're gonna miss it, because I'm sure they wouldn't travel either." Looking around the hall, I'm suddenly struck by the overwhelming amount of women. According to Marina, "Bingo's always been known as a woman's game. Men have got the pub and football and betting."
When I ask Marina what she'll do now that Hackney Road's closing, she hesitates. "I definitely won't play bingo online. I know too many people in debt for that – the point of coming here is it's a social thing." But living just five minutes away in Bethnal Green, this is the only bingo hall in travelling distance.
Once I tell Marina that a free daily coach service to Mecca Bingo in Camden will be piloted for eight weeks, she plucks up slightly. "I'll definitely try that, but it's still not the same as walking five minutes to your local with people you know."
Having lived in Bethnal Green and Hoxton all of her life, Marina has seen East London change first-hand. "The area around the bingo club has changed a lot," she says. "It's trendy now, but it used to be as quiet as anything around Hoxton and Shoreditch."
Slap bang between Shoreditch and Broadway Market, Mecca Bingo has absorbed the overspill from its increasingly gentrified neighbours. Creperies and cocktail bars are scattered between William Hill's and wholesale handbag shops. In fact, it is probably this avant-garde juxtaposition of pawnshops and pop-ups that make properties like Mecca Bingo Hall so lucrative.
Nevertheless, Mecca Bingo's old school exterior is not enough to stop it from being sold off. After all, this working-class leisure pursuit doesn't exactly cater for an incoming class of JP Morgan employees who swig rosemary cocktails at Street Feast. On the contrary, bingo belongs to a bygone era. A time when cinemas were for watching films, not drinking; and pubs were for getting pissed, not eating £8 scotch eggs.
But this begs the question of what will become of Mecca Bingo Hall? Within a few months, Mecca Bingo will have joined the ranks of Hackney Road's iconic gay venue, The Joiners' Arms, which is no longer. Pluto Properties will have turned the Bingo Hall into a luxury gated property complex. In turn, residual communities will be displaced by children who slurp babycino's and adults who eat fro-yo.
But what will happen to the elderly folk who rely on the club as their only source of support? While bingo might have long been regarded as a joke by some, Hackney's Mecca Bingo provides an irreplaceable sense of community and camaraderie for its members. It goes without saying that when relics of old working-class Britain like Mecca Bingo close, the fabric of the area fades.
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But why has bingo taken such a dive in recent years? The combined force of the growth of online bingo, the smoking ban and the recession has meant more and more bingo clubs have closed their doors.
As new, advanced leisure pursuits have vied for Britain's attention, it has become increasingly difficult to drag people away from their surround-sound TVs, garden gnomes and crates of cut-price lager. What's more, bingo halls have started to look naff and dated. These unchanging institutions remain trapped in a pre-Costa-Del-Sol era, where families play Bingo at Butlins in Bognor Regis and Blackpool's B&Bs are chock-a-block.
What's more, the few rather fraught attempts to revive bingo have probably done the industry more harm than good. With the Evening Standard's ES magazine declaring it "hip", and Prince William and the Queen publicly endorsing it, no wonder the game has struggled. Other attempts to modernise the industry have gone as far as updating "bingo lingo" – the slang callers use when they're reeling off numbers. While 71 has been changed from "Bang on my drum" to "J-Lo's bum", 32 has been changed from "buckle my shoe" to "Jimmy Choo".
Nevertheless, bingo hasn't always been a dying breed. In the 60s, bingo – rather than X Factor – was the opiate of the masses. After gambling was liberalised in 1960, Britain's first bingo halls sprung to life. By the mid-60s, a quarter of the population was playing bingo, and the number of club members had reached 14 million. In many ways, the golden age of bingo marked the dawning of mass leisure and the night-time economy. When a worker walked out the factory gates, he was freer to decide how he passed his free time than he'd ever been before. As pastimes like bingo carved out a new sphere in the life-work realm, leisure and recreation – things we now take for granted – became increasingly accessible to growing numbers.
And bingo is still a hell of a lot more popular today than most of us would imagine. Believe it or not, more Brits play bingo than attend football matches and church. In 2011, three million customers made 49 million visits to bingo in the UK.
Standing inside Mecca Bingo on its finale night, I am transported to another England. Lucky trinkets and framed photos of members' relatives stand proudly next to stacks of bingo booklets. Without the polyphonic ringtones, it could be the 80s.
Despite being born and growing up just over a mile away, this is the first – and last – time I have been inside. As with many remnants of old working-class England, bingo has faded as London has become intent on shedding – and sanitising – its cultural past.
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