EYES DOWN Simon Beckett gets two fat ladies at the Wombwell bingo game

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The Independent Culture
Every seat is taken. Cards are studied, pens are clutched, and the only sound is the amplified voice of the man calling out the numbers. Bingo is a serious business. The only thing to mark this game out from the thousands of others held throughout the length of the country is that it's nine o'clock on a Monday morning, and in a staff canteen. This is how the working week begins at Maplin Electronics plc in Wombwell, near Barnsley in South Yorkshire.

"We don't do physical exercises, we don't do t'ai chi, or anything like that," says Lewis Bowman, chief executive of Maplin and sometime bingo caller. "It's almost like chatting over the breakfast table to the staff."

Maplin supplies electronic components to the public and industry through retail outlets and mail order. The Monday morning bingo sessions started 12 years ago at Maplin's head office in Southend. When the distribution warehouse moved north in 1990, the bingo tradition went too. But South Yorkshire was a different proposition to Essex. Moving into a mining area at a time when coal mines were closing down meant that there was no shortage of potential labour. It also meant that all bosses were viewed with suspicion - not the sort of thing that a company which prides itself on its family relationship with employees had anticipated.

Enter Monday morning bingo.

"In the South, it was a bit of fun and a way of communicating," says Bowman. "But in the North, in a mining community - especially as mines were closing - people distrusted the `gaffers'. As far as we're concerned at Maplin, I'm no more important than anyone else. But how do you actually get that over to people? I hadn't realised how much bingo would be a tool to do this."

Five years on, the "gaffer" is greeted with a casual, "All right, Lewis", by employees as he crosses the warehouse floor. Bingo has broken down the barriers. Of course, there are sound business motives behind the exercise; geeing the staff up in this way is an extremely efficient way of kick- starting them over those Monday morning blues.

The staff are already assembled in the canteen when Bowman enters and takes up the microphone. With the entire Wombwell complement of 150 present, it is standing room only. No one is excluded, even directors. At the head office in Southend, it is either the MD himself or a senior executive who acts as caller. "Anyone who doesn't play is thought to be a bit too snooty, so I'll go and have a word with them," says Bowman. The sessions begin with a preliminary chat, about anything that concerns the company and its staff. This morning's is about the new computer and a possible logo change, and is received with varying degrees of Monday morning concentration.

Then the talk is over and the audience suddenly bends over their cards. Now we're getting down to the main event. There is no air-ball machine - that's reserved for the Christmas party, when a professional caller is also hired. Bowman, who admits he doesn't have the professional patter, simply calls out the numbers from plastic discs, with only occasional embellishments.

There are three "lines" - which, for non-bingo aficionados, means three winners: the first to fill one line, the first to fill two lines, and the first to get a full house. Prize money is dictated by performance levels in the company. "We pay a penny for every order we got out the previous week - if we got them all out. We pay a ha'penny if we didn't." So far, there has only been one occasion when the orders weren't all out in time, and that was when the computer crashed. The players were disgruntled, but rules are rules.

Usually the prize money comes to about £90, which is split equally between the Wombwell and Southend sites. This week, it is a little less; only about £70 between the two. Not quite National Lottery standard, perhaps, but at least it doesn't cost anything to play. "It's a bit of incentive," says Jane, an order processor. "You know, instead of just coming into work and thinking, `Oh God, I've got to work now till five.'. It makes Monday mornings a bit different."

"Specially if you've got a hangover from Sunday night," her friend adds.

Everyone's a winner.