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Bingo is Back!
Once bingo seemed to be in terminal decline, but this national pastime is holding its own against austerity, online gambling and the smoking ban. There’s even a new breed of youthful card-dabbers knocking back Jägerbombs as they play.

Earlier this year in Arlington Road, Camden, north London, a massive queue formed outside an industrial-looking building in this side street. Fashionable young people in their 20s mostly, some in their 30s, dressed up for a night out, energised and excited. Two queues, in fact – there was another smaller one heading the other way: for the guest list.

A club? Too early, it was only 7.30pm. Must be a gig then. Who was playing? Actually, everyone was about to. Playing bingo!

What! Well, it’s new bingo reinvented for a new generation, for the 21st century, with bells and whistles, but still unmistakably, undeniably, bingo. There are cards and callers, numbers to be crossed off or dabbed, lines and full houses to be had, winners in waiting.

Traditional bingo has been hit hard in the past 20 years or so: by the national lottery; by scratch cards (basically, instant bingo); by the smoking ban (about 60% of bingo players smoked, and half of them stopped coming when the ban was introduced in 2007); by the internet and the rise of online bingo and other gambling; and by austerity.

In 2014, George Osborne halved the tax on bingo halls, from 20% to 10%, and the decline began to slow, “almost but not quite to flat, so now it’s kind of level, maybe a whisper south of level,” says Baron. “So the rot has stopped, if that’s the right word, but we’re not into growth just yet. What needs to come first is the investment. The first priority for a lot of operators when the 10% duty came was to to get up to standard, put that new roof on or refurbish those toilets, do the things they’d perhaps been a bit slow to do.”

The levelling out of what looked like the terminal decline of a national pastime is not just reflected by a healthy turnout in one bingo hall. In October, Caledonian Investments, the trust that manages the wealth of the Cayzer family, one of Britain’s richest, agreed a £241m deal to buy Gala Bingo’s 130 clubs (although not its online bingo business). Gala Coral, itself planning a merger with Ladbrokes, is the UK’s biggest bingo operator, with 38% of the UK market, 4,000 employees, more than a million active members and 15 million visitors a year. Its pre-tax profit in the year to September last year was £33m. Oh, and they are even opening a brand-new £5m bingo club in Southampton this year.
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