As the rave bingo phenomenon sweeps the nation, we pick the brains of the man behind Bongo’s Bingo, just as he prepares to export his glitter fest to Dubai.
Less than a second passes, and the shifting hum of the hall is eclipsed by repeated digits, sang to the stage by a crowd of 1500. It’s the best Irish-sounding bingo call. “Number five – stayin’ alive!” I’m pulled from my seat by the force of feet leaping to tables left, right, centre and sideways. The Bee Gees burst from a speaker. For two minutes or so, there is glitter, smoke and blue mood lights, before we sit down again, our eyes pinned to our cards.
This is the fizzing jamboree of BONGO’S BINGO, and it takes getting used to. Moment to moment, you’re pogoing from score sheet to S Club, dancing amidst the drunk-sighted mission of lining up numbers on a grid. I’m in the large side room at Camp and Furnace, now christened the Bingo Hall. It’s the spiritual home of a faith that’s spreading across the UK, to other continents even – that, as more of our clubs are exterminated, there’s still a pulsing vein to be found in fun-for-all nightlife. It just might not be the kind you imagined.
“Sometimes, when we move to a new city, people don’t know how to react, how to behave.” I’m speaking to the master of ceremonies, Mr Bongo himself, who sits across from me two weeks later in a Newcastle warehouse. I never ask for his proper surname, because it seems redundant. He is bingo; bingo is he. “It’s a ‘fight or flee’ kinda thing,” he adds, sipping honey from a bottle.
So, what’s going on? What the hell is the fuss about? Well, if you haven’t heard about Bongo’s events on Facebook or Snapchat or the wagging tongues of your pals who prefer B*Witched to a line of beak, let’s just say he’s bounded into a mad idea – let’s take bingo, a game of stale farts and care home workers, and splice it with a loud, hilarious club performance, with prizes for the winners. It’s simple: you get a scorecard on arrival, keep it, and try to hit as many calls as you can in front of Jonny and his dance troupe. There’s a different theme every night; my experience boasted pirate ships and deckchair skeletons. “It is quite hard to explain,” Bongo says, a stout thirty-something Irishman, and a former bar manager at the Shipping Forecast. “Even I find that. But it works so well because it’s so up and down. And seeing you, y’know, you were using that front space as a dance arena, yet by the time you’ve settled back, you’re in the game again.”
Incidentally, he really is referring to me. This writer isn’t ashamed to say his hips were oiled by the joy, the arm pumps, and the slivers of musical stilton (circa 1998) that were dished up over the evening. I was right below Jonny, who reserved me a spot in the ‘splash zone’. We shared a bottle of Buckfast, a fortified wine with as much caffeine in it as of eight cans of Red Bull. Jonny and his crew are on it around five nights in a row to cope with their touring schedule.
But there’s a ton of energy to maintain, as well as his reputation. Stunningly, 300,000 people applied for 5,000 seats over the April line-up in Liverpool. “A couple of weeks ago, we celebrated a 20th and 70th birthday on the same night,” he tells me, beaming. There’s so much love amongst the young and mature bingo-goers that the cult of Bongo is hard to scorn, especially when you consider that 75% of ticket-buyers are women. There’s a crowd for this concept – those unpretentious folk who don’t want a trap rave in a basement, or to be leered at by men resembling a scoop of old pudding. “The appeal for us is that we’re different. People don’t settle for ‘average’ anymore, as far as their nightly experiences go. We have a pinch of creativity, like Ghetto Golf; and, with the rise of social media or whatever, we can open their eyes a little.”
At a Bongo’s Bingo, the game is king. There’s no violence, no drugs or bum-pinching. All that matters is that everyone has a blast, recovering a sense of focus that’s absent from a lot of plainer, traditional DJ staging. You can win a Porsche, or a Caribbean holiday, or a life-size cut-out of Ainsley Harriott. That last prize is trumpeted by a lunatic acid-house compilation of Ainsley’s best bits on the screen above us; later during my invite, when I’m Keanu Reeves-ing my way to the toilet, I see a woman dressed to the nines, riding a fluffy unicorn toy to the bar and back.
Oddly, Jonny never expected to helm an events brand, even after his offbeat pub quiz at the Shipping Forecast began to gather affection: “I actually got some work on Capital – no, wait, Juice FM it was – and, doing this quiz, I got some cover on there. But I was also grafting for restaurants as well, doing the quiz on Mondays and needing something else to tide me over financially.” It’s the point, he says, when he fortuitously connected to Josh Burke, an early Bongo advocate and now his partner in the business. And they’re doing incredibly well: in the batch of weeks since I last saw him, they’ve taken on two or three more staff members, bumping the total to thirteen.
Josh handles the bookings; Jonny does his thing. They’re a perfect match, turning down a documentary offer because they don’t want anyone to see behind the magic, or how tightly the team can function. “And,” he reminds me, “there’s the fact we’re tailored to every city. No crowds are exactly the same.”
Expansively, he says that Newcastle and Liverpool are just “up for it”, whereas Manchester can be a touch too cool. Leeds is another favourite. He’s true to his word about mixing with the formula: on St. Paddy’s Day, for instance, players could win a Live Leprechaun – a little person comfortable with the label, I assume – who comes to party at your table.
“At which point does he leave?” I ask.
“Oh,” Jonny grins, supping his honey again, “he’ll just stay and party with you until you’re done, then he comes and hangs and drinks with us. He’s slept on all of our sofas; he’s an absolute madman. He lost his car keys on Paddy’s Day, actually, so he had to get his shit together here, cos he lives in Hulme.”
The team are hosting their second-year birthday show, looking at further venues in Magaluf, Ibiza and Dubai – places where there’s a contingent of Brits to fly the flag. So, with much to reflect on, what’s the greatest Bongo’s Bingo moment so far?
Jonny ruminates. “We’ve done two tours with the Vengaboys. They have a really overbearing Dutch manager, so we didn’t get to do a lot with them. But [one of their members] Kim Sasabone sent me a lovely, really long email saying how much they enjoyed themselves. On the next booking, then, I had the idea of taking them to a speakeasy bar afterwards. ‘Where do you want to go?’ I asked them. ‘We want cock,’ they replied. Off out we went, with their entourage, and it was a big moment for us.”
Talk to the dude long enough, and you get a bunch of tidbits like this, such as the occasion on which Fatman Scoop, living up to his name, polished off an entire pot of Dorito cheese dip in his pre-gig limousine.
But there’s more here than novelty or fleeting silliness. It’s almost as much about the bright, musical sugar rush of the 1990s, a period that doesn’t seem too far away, when culture was directed by sensation and pop videos, instead of blogging forums in the dark. An age in which so many of us glowed like Catherine Wheels to tripe that made us feel safer, free, agreeably nonsensical. When we felt we were going to be children til the end of the universe.
And that’s partly where Bongo’s Bingo’s strength lies; it takes something traditionally reserved for the old, infuses it with a nostalgia that still feels relevant, and transforms those things into a new phenomenon that anyone can enjoy.
Bongo’s Bingo continues at Camp and Furnace throughout the spring and summer.