Numbing numbers: When Bingo espouses hi-tech, the two fat ladies head for the door. Dolly Dhingra went in search of entertainment and found misery

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The Independent Culture
In March, Gala Clubs erected London's first purpose-built bingo hall in Stratford and invited the public to enrol without charge to 'a full house of entertainment'. Anything offering free membership is bound to attract someone and sure enough, the huge sand-coloured building - with a large blue flashing board - has already become an East End landmark.

Membership may be free, but it's not instant: it takes 24 hours to metamorphose into a bingo player. Once inside, punters are greeted by a foyer-full of fruit machines. This leads to a huge hall, three times the size of the average sports hall, whose decor of white and neon blue is so low on imagination it's almost offensive.

Gone are the 'clickety clicks' and 'two fat ducks', replaced by a monotonous monosyllabic drone from speakers. It takes some time to discover exactly where the voice is coming from: a suited man with less charm than an insurance salesman, his mike supplying row upon row of would-be winners with their magic numbers. The glass box with its flying ping-pong balls has been replaced by six digital boards that flash winning numbers and rewards. At each end of the hall there's a large bar and a restaurant that sells mostly fried food.

Membership is predominantly white and working-class, about 70 per cent male and broad in age range. Each member sits glued to her card, scanning it like a speed reader. It is easy to distinguish novices from experts - their heads move with their eyes and, instead of smoothly browsing the card those eyes move up and down frantically. This is no leisure activity - it is a serious vice. It is hard to imagine any other situation where a group of around 700 people would be so silent.

Eric Noble, the assistant manager, has been in the business for over 30 years. He 'loves this club to bits. At the age of 62, I was flattered to be asked to be the assistant manager of such a venture'. He doesn't get his kicks from the game, though: 'I have disciplined myself to play once a month just to see it from the other side - I don't enjoy it very much myself. I like the people, though - you get all classes and creeds. They're actually quite a cosmopolitan bunch.'

A middle-aged black man swaggers over to make it known that there is 'humanity, love and tenderness' to be found here. Old Mrs Carter comes 'to have a laugh with the girls and get away from it all, and, oh yes, to win some extra pin money.'

The biggest payout on the night was pounds 54.74 (although there was a pounds 3,000 win on the opening night). During the 15-minute intermission, some couples pulled out a pack of playing cards and played without talking. There is an eeriness about this place - you get the feeling that David Koresh could be one of the players and nobody would notice.

Gala Clubs (and there are around 125 in the country) have successfully stripped bingo of its old patter, liveliness and community feel. Nobody even shouts out 'bingo' anymore: they just put their hand up. Stay at home - read a book, wash your hair, watch EastEnders, anything - just don't go.

Gala Clubs: Stratford, The Broadway, E15; 081-534 1208. Head Office: Nottingham 0602 484333

(Photograph omitted)

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