Review: BBC Four’s “Eyes Down! The Story Of Bingo”

I was quite excited to catch “Eyes Down! The Story Of Bingo” (part of the Timeshift documentary strand) for a number of reasons. Firstly because I spoke to the researchers for the programme last year; and secondly because there’s not to my knowledge been such an in-depth documentary done about the game’s history here. The last time we saw anything on the game was back in 2007 when The Money Programme did its show on bingo and the smoking ban.

So what did I think? Well, it was a superb hour of TV for me, on a number of different levels. There was so much great archive footage and photographs in there, it was really great to get that look into the game’s past. There were clips illustrating all sorts of aspects of the game’s past. We got clips of naval sailors and soldiers playing the game, seaside bingo games, posh English TV presenters talking down their noses to working class bingo players, interiors of halls and bingo players in full swing and various other news reports about the game from the last 50 years and more.

There was also lots of talking heads about the game and its history, from academics such as Dr Carolyn Downs and Keith Layborn through to people working in the industry and actual bingo players themselves. As you’d imagine, with a scant hour to cover the game, things were glossed over at times, but they managed to get across the highlights and background of the game at an engaging and informative level. It could have easily been broken down into three separate episodes – one on pre-1960s, one on the 1960 and 1968 gaming act and a final one on the modern game, but as it stood, all these areas had a showing on the documentary.

My personal favourite archive clip was a brief glimpse of the trusty old bright yellow and blue Top Rank uniform. That and a brief glimpse of our old friend Brett Hyrjak calling away, just a shame they didn’t name check him as well.

One of the interesting themes through the show was the scorn poured on the game by the chattering classes and the press (before the press embraced the game itself as a marketing ploy.) There were lots of clips of plummy voiced proper English BBC types asking bingo players if they had nothing better to do with their time and the like, which really did make me cringe. It seems the press can still be relied on for such a sniffy purview of the game even now. I spotted this review on the Telegraph earlier which basically carried on the dismissive and highbrow opinion of the game in its review.

“With all due respect to Fyfe Robertson, it turns out that there is indeed one thing that is more mindless than playing bingo, and that is watching people play bingo.”

Yeah, good stuff Benji Wilson, obviously you’d rather be watching Civilization or some such bombastic bore, but those of us with an interest in the game found it both fascinating and a rare treat. The documentary highlighted the massive number of players that enjoy the game, but its perceived low-brow appeal has ensured that there’s not much history out there enjoy, which is a real shame and what made this documentary all the more pleasing.

The programme is currently available on the BBC iPlayer and can be viewed here.

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