Stan Hey: Where men wear gold and women smoke cheroots

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The Independent Online

The trams will probably have to go. Unless, of course, they are given a Starship Enterprise-style makeover and allocated female hostesses in kitchen-foil suits, as well as being fitted with slot machines to keep the gamblers amused as they travel from their gleaming hotels to the new, shore-long line of casinos. Can you imagine Blackpool being like this?

The transformation of Britain into a mini-Las Vegas is what many people must have envisaged yesterday when Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, outlined her plans to relax Britain's gaming laws.

For those who enjoy slot machines or bingo or even an hour in a casino, a spectacular new future beckons. Jackpot prizes for what we have come to know as "one-armed bandits" can be increased to £1m, which will be an awful lot to carry home in loose change on a Friday night if you get lucky. But then, you will able to buy a taxi, not just hire it.

In a similar vein, adults will no longer have to wait 48 hours for membership of a casino so that their credit references or criminal background can be checked. Casinos can probably do that in about three minutes now, given how easy it is to gain access to information about our finances. I can remember arriving in Liverpool for a weekend's filming in the mid-1980s, and the first demand of the lead actor was that my co-writer and I should get membership forms for the nearest casino.

The actor had spent a lot of time in America and had made frequent trips to Vegas. He regaled us with tales of 24-hour gambling in the neon-lit casinos, where there are no clocks to let people know what time it is and no windows to show whether it was night or day. He told us about the high-rollers with beautiful women on their arms, and about million-dollar jackpot winnings from the slot machines.

When we finally got into the Liverpool casino late on the Sunday night, the "rollers" were mostly scouse-Chinese waiters and restaurateurs, playing up their weekend takings. We lost about 20 quid each in an hour on roulette and blackjack before not taking a taxi back to the hotel.

On another, slightly more glamorous, occasion, I was persuaded into a hotel casino in Marbella one night, for the purpose of in-depth research for a comedy-drama series. Here, all the accumulated stereotypes of the casino life swam into vision. There were Latino men wearing gold chains around their necks and tanned women smoking cheroots.

By getting into the lingo – "mas, por favor" or "no mas, gracias" – I was able to make my 20 quid's worth of pesetas last nearly two hours at the blackjack table and conduct an honourable retreat to the desk where I cashed in my winnings of nearly four pounds.

The British are nervous gamers in the main, a legacy of censorious Victorian law-making and gloomy Protestant instruction. In the collective mind, gaming is for flash types only, the fictional James Bonds and the real-life Jimmy Goldsmiths, Lord Lucans and John Aspinalls. It's true, though, that when the Gaming Board cracked down on casinos in 1968, there was genuine fear about gangster infiltration and the "touting" by rival casinos for high-flying customers.

But we have all grown up a lot since then, we have travelled the world and got used to the freedoms of other cultures, a licence that has been too long denied us for fear of our inability to control our appetites.

The British gaming industry is already worth in the region of £42bn a year (can you hear the Treasury smacking its lips?), so it can only grow bigger with fewer restrictions. The doom-merchants will howl and predict social upheaval, but there should still be enough protection around for the weak-willed or for those who take it all too seriously. As for Blackpool, roll on the swish and the chips.

Stanhey@aol.com

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