Every day of the week at around 1pm, nearly 600 bingo halls across the UK open their doors to thousands of loyal customers. But, although they can be found on almost every British high street, surprisingly few people ever see what goes on inside. In Bingo & Social Club, London-based photographer Michael Hess opens the doors on this much-loved pastime providing an intimate insight into its gamers and often nostalgic-looking interiors. Candidly capturing the energy and vibrancy inside the often crumbling exterior walls of bingo halls across the country on old classic 35mm black and white film, Hess’ images – taken over four years and in nearly 70 different venues – were published last year in collaboration with writer Maxine Gallagher to great critical acclaim. This week Bingo & Social Club takes the form of an exhibition at The Book Club, London. As Hess prepares for the show, we speak to him about where his fascination in bingo halls all began and what he thinks about their recent decline and increasing closures nationwide.
What sparked your interest in bingo halls?
Nothing more than curiosity. I lived near a bingo hall in Southampton and always used to wonder what went on inside. What kept the groups of women standing smoking outside coming back every night? I also loved the look – a big old converted cinema covered in neon signs and peeling posters. One evening in 2005 I went there and played a game – I didn’t cross off many numbers, I was too busy looking around me. I fell in love with the characters and the faded glamour. The next time I went back with my camera, and four years and nearly 70 bingo halls later I had enough material to make the book Bingo & Social Club.
Why did you find them important to document?
I never went there with the intention of highlighting a dying part of Britain’s history, or to create an important document. I went there to tell a story, to create a snapshot of people who play bingo, to say something about their lives and to capture the essence of these fascinating places. As the project went on I was only too aware how important bingo halls are to many communities, almost like church halls used to be. It’s a sad fact that in 20, even 10 years all that may be left of them are the photographs, especially because they’re mostly small, independent clubs. But all I set out to do was do a simple story about people.
Do you have any interesting stories to tell from your four years travelling around bingo halls?
There’s a story behind every picture. That’s why myself and the writer, Maxine Gallagher, decided to include these, rather than a more conventional social commentary in the book. The words from their mouths were far funnier and more interesting that anything we could say. I’ll always remember one night in Paradise Island in Liverpool. As they’d given me permission to take pictures of them, they demanded that I sang karaoke for them in return. I sang a duet of Suspicious Minds with a hilarious woman called Gill.
Did you pick up any game tips up and have you become a bingo enthusiast?
I certainly proved a lack of talent for bingo. I didn’t win once in four years. Maxine was more lucky, she won £7 in Crown Bingo in Newcastle. The winning ticket is in the book. If you want a tip, though, I’d say find a nice old independent bingo hall with a good, social atmosphere and sit beside someone who looks interesting. You probably won’t win anything but you’ll have a great evening.
What are your thoughts about the recent decline in bingo as a game and the shutting down of numerous halls and clubs across the country?
It’s very sad. As one manager said, they’re an extension to many people’s living rooms. She said for some of her customers, they wouldn’t talk to anyone all week if his hall wasn’t there. I suppose times move on and many of the clubs haven’t reinvented themselves for a new generation. It’s not all bad news though. Some clubs have moved on, and even though they may be chains and often looked down upon, they can still have social club atmospheres. Places like Beacon Bingo in Cricklewood and Mecca in Knotty Ash. It’s a lot to do with the callers, the people who run them, and how much they value people over profits.
Text by Lucia Davies
Michael Hess, Bingo & Social Club exhibition runs Thursday March 3 – March 30 at The Book Club, London. Launch night open to all on March 3 from 6pm – 2am.
Bingo & Social, the book, by Michael Hess and Maxine Gallagher is on sale now.