The fascinating story of Britain's turbulent love affair with bingo - Written by Graham Soult

A game with a rich history

When you're celebrating that winning line in the
bingo hall, or chatting over a game of
bingo online, it's hard to imagine that the Italians
were doing much the same thing back in the

Now, as then, bingo brings together a unique
combination of experiences - the thrill of the
game itself, the allure of cash prizes, and the
fun of playing with friends.

Of course, while we'd recognise that Italian game
from 500 years ago, there were no
bingo halls in those days and certainly no
online or mobile gaming. Bingo, for sure, is a
popular pursuit that has truly kept evolving with
the times.

Bingo's changing fortunes

As always, not all change is a positive thing. Did
you know, for example:

The number of bingo clubs in Britain
has dropped from nearly 600 in
2005 to fewer than 400 today? At the
peak between the 60's and 80's, there
were well over 1,000

Many jobs have been lost,
too - though the bingo industry
still employs 12,500 people, another
6,500 jobs have disappeared in the
past decade alone

This then is the fascinating story of Britain's
turbulent love affair with bingo.

On the one hand, it's a story of decline - of
closing clubs, and a bingo industry left
behind as new activities and attractions
compete for our attention.

On the other hand, though, it's also a story of
hope - as the industry comes together to
champion bingo's social role at the heart of our
communities, and to delight bingo lovers with
new and exciting ways of playing the game.

It hasn't been an easy ride, but the story
of bingo may yet have a happy ending...

Bingo's Growth

The birth of the bingo hall

Remarkably, commercial bingo - the 90-ball
game that we now know and love - was only
legalised in Britain in the 1960s, though plenty
of people were playing it as a fundraising
activity before then.

You may have heard references to 'housey
housey' before - the name that British armed
forces gave to bingo during the First World
War - or the charity 'tombola' game that
millions of holidaymakers enjoyed at Butlins
in the 50's.

It was the Betting and Gaming Act of 1960 that
brought about the first bingo club, which
opened on 3 January 1961. The concept was an
immediate success, with Mecca alone
attracting 150,000 players a day to its bingo

By 1963, the number of bingo club members
in the UK had reached an astonoshing 14

It was a period that would truly be the golden
age of the high street bingo club, and came at a
fortunate time for Britain's picture hour and
dance hall operators - already reeling from the
decline in admissions after the launch of
ITV, and sensing, through bingo, a chance to
reform their venues' fortunes.

One of the biggest companies, Rank, converted
a raft of its Odeon and Gaumont cinemas into
Top Rank Social Clubs - usually keeping a mix
of bingo and films to start with, but typically
jettisoning the movies as bingo's popularity

In other places - such as Darlington and
Newcastle - bingo provided a lifeline for
struggling ex-cinemas that Rank had already
converted into ballrooms in the 1950s.

Another big name, Granada, transformed
many of its theatres into Granada Social Clubs.

Note the interesting choice of terminology
though - even back then, the bingo hall was
being heralded as a sociable place, right at the
centre of the local community.

The seeds of change

Bingo clubs were still riding high in the 1970s
and beyond, with more than 1,600 venues
across the UK in the mid-1980s.

Sometimes the name on the front of the club
would change, as the big names snapped up
smaller chains and independents - so, Top
Rank clubs became Mecca, and the Coral and
Granada ones Gala.

The 1980s also saw new innovations in the
bingo industry. There was the launch of the
UK-wide National Bingo Game, which
connected venues together to offer larger
cash prizes than ever before.

And 1988 saw the first of many purpose-built
bingo halls, their out-of-town sites giving
players more space, attractive modern
facilities, and better parking and access.

The flipside, of course, was that many of the
landmark ex-cinemas that bingo had helped to
save in the 1960s - like the old Gaumont
cinema in Newcastle
- would eventually find
themselves being vacated in favour of these
new locations.

Still, while the look of the bingo landscape was
changing by the end of the 80s - with fewer,
bigger, newer clubs - the total amount being
stakes by enthusiastic players was still higher
than ever.

...         And Decline

The National Lottery hits bingo attendance
Since the 1990s, bingo has faced new
challenges from all kinds of directions.

One of the biggest was the launch of The
National Lottery, in 1994.

Gaming Realms founder Simon Collins, who
has nearly 15 years’ experience in the online
and mobile gaming industry, recalls how the
rapid rise to dominance of the Lottery

impacted on many gaming formats

including the football pools as well as bingo
halls - with neither able to compete with the
Lottery’s “unrivalled prizes”

Certainly, the first year or two of the Lottery
saw a fall in bingo attentances, while the
number of bingo clubs - already starting to
decline by then - plummeted by 21% between
1995 and 2000.

1920 1980 2014

Evolution of the New Westgate Picture House, Westgate Road and Clayton Street, Newcastle

Online Bingo Growth

It’s really the last decade, though, where bingo
halls have come under the greatest pressure

As far back as 2003, the bingo industry was
starting to recognise the potential - and the
possible threat - of online gaming

Rather cannily, Rank - the owner of bingo
giant Mecca - snapped up the Internet
bookmaker Blue Square, giving it instant
access to the technology and platforms it
needed to launch its own brands online

The success of online bingo has been a double
edged sword for the traditional bingo industry

On the one hand, it’s allowed the established
big names, like Gala and Mecca, to offset the
decline in trade at their bingo halls with a
welcome new source of revenue online. Clever
marketing of these new ‘multichannel’
businesses - like Gala’s use of X Factor judge
Sharon Osbourne in its ads a few years
ago - has helped them dispel the old-fashioned
image and attract a new, younger clientele

From 2006 to 2011, Mecca even piloted
Europe’s first fully-electronic bingo hall in
Edinburgh, with 540 interactive terminals
that provided electronic payment and touch
screen food and drink ordering - as well as
bingo and gaming, of course

On the other hand, the explosion in popularity
of online bingo has created a landscape where
the traditional bingo hall brands are having
to compete with hundreds of new operators

From well-known names like Foxy Bingo, to
bingo sites run by The Sun, Sky or supermarket
chain Iceland, it feels like everyone wants a
piece of the online pie

Online Charity Bingo

Even charities have got in on the act. Marie
Curie Cancer Care recently launched
TicketyBooGames.com, the first online
bingo site to give all its net profits to charity

Craig Pollard, Marie Curie’s Gaming
Development fundraiser, highlights

the power of a strong and
trustworthy brand

to boost the site’s profile among new
supporters, and TicketyBooGames.com’s
unique selling point of being directly
connected to Marie Curie Cancer Care

While there are plenty of other online
bingo sites raising money for good
causes - which Craig welcomes - Marie
Curie is the first charity to actually be
involved in running and fundraising via
its own site

Of course, while online bingo may be
relatively new, the principle of bingo as a
fundraising tool goes way back. In the
1930s, a Catholic priest in Pennsylvania
began using bingo as a method for raising
church funds, and the idea caught on in
both the US and the UK

So, today’s charity bingo is really a neat
reboot of what was happening nearly a
century ago

Smoking Ban

The Impact of the Smoking Ban
The traditional bingo hall was already coming
under pressure from online competition, then
the smoking bans introduced across the UK
in 2006 and 2007 certainly gave it an extra

Bingo industry experts like Gaming Realm’s
Simon Collins and TicketyBooGames.com’s
Craig Pollard agree that outlawing smoking
in enclosed public spaces had a big impact
on a game where 50% of all players enjoy a

England could see what was coming, as
experiences in Scotland - the first part of the
UK to introduce a smoking ban - had
already given a flavour of the impact

Gala, for instance, revealed that 8% of its
Scottish customers at one club were now going
outside to smoke during the interval - instead
of spending money on the club’s lucrative
table-top bingo games

Miles Baron, CEO of the Bingo Association
and National Bingo Game Association, has
worked in the bingo industry for over 30
years - starting his career at Mecca in
- so has seen all the changes first

He believes that the smoking ban is the
single biggest event to have impacted on
traditional bingo

When half of your customers
smoke, at the same time as
online was becoming more and
more predominant in people’s
lives, it was inevitable that the
[bingo hall] business would
suffer a sharp reversal

Of course, the smoking bans could be seen as
having an upside too. They prompted some
clubs to upgrade their facilities, creating a
more appealing environment in an effort to
win over a new generation of younger
players - some of whom may not have been
attracted by the smokey clubs of old

Bingo Duty

Unfortunately, however, the smoking ban and
National Lottery weren’t the only tricky factors
that bingo club operators couldn’t control

Simon Collins immediately highlights the ‘unfair tax
advantage to the bookmakers and National
Lottery’, where bingo halls’ profits have been taxed
at 20%, compared to 15% for bookmakers and
fixed-odds betting, and just 12% on the price of a
lottery ticket

So, it was a Catch 22 for bingo hall owners
in the face of all these challeneges, with the
high rate of tax making it harder to invest in the
facilities that would help them stand out
and compete

Miles Baron acknowledges this dilemma:

Those who invested have benefited
more than those unable to

Consumer Spending Squeezed
The economic downturn, too, has inevitably
impacted on bingo club’s fortunes

Salaries and benefits being squeezed mean that
the game’s core audience has had little choice
but to rein back it’s spending - all at a time when,
as Miles Baron notes, ‘there is more competition
for the customer’s leisure pound and far greater
customer expectation of a good night out’

And it’s not just the cost of going out itself, as
Craig Pollard points out, but potentially childcare
and travel too

That, he argues, is one of the factors fuelling
online bingo’s success

It reaches out to people who can no
longer afford to go out for the
evening to a bingo hall, but still want to
do something they enjoy and belong
to a community

Meanwhile, as Simon Collins acknowledges, the
bingo industry has also had to deal with the crash
in commerical property values - not
something that customers are likely to be aware
of, but a real problem that has further hit the
finances of bingo hall operators and owners

So, while efforts to modernise clubs in the wake
of the smoking ban and National Lottery
have borne some fruit, it hasn’t been sufficient
to reverse the overall trend of decline - whether
that’s measured in terms of bingo halls (600 in
2005, but 400 in 2014), customer visits (from 80
million in 2005 to 43 million in 2014), or local jobs

Bingo Fights Back

‘Boost Bingo’ campaigns for fair taxation
Recognising that something more radical
needed to happen if the bingo club was to have
a future, the Boost Bingo campaign was
launched in January this year

Led by the Bingo Association, the campaign’s
central message was that bingo duty should
be cut from 20% to 15%, to relieve the
industry’s ‘tax burden’, prevent its ‘stagnation’
and tackle the anomaly of a ‘soft’ form of
gambling like bingo being clobbered with the
gambling industry’s highest taxes

Just as important, the campaign argued, was
bingo’s unique position as ‘a social activity
that is at the heart of British Culture and local
communities across Great Britain’. In other
words, when a bingo hall closes, part of the
fabric of that place disappears with it

The Stats Tell A Powerful Story

Campaigners claimed, however, that the 20% tax rate had precipitated bingo hall closures
at the rate of one a month, and the loss of almost 2,000 jobs in the previous year alone

Certainly, the figures for the number of bingo clubs tell a powerful story. At the start
of 2014, for example, Gala was operating 137 venues - still by far the biggest UK bingo hall
brand (with Mecca next on 97), but some way down on the 162 that existed in 2006

Across the bingo landscape as a whole, recent figures paint an even starker picture. While
the bigger names have seen relatively little change in bingo hall numbers in the last
year or two, it’s the independents that have really struggled - falling from 192 clubs in June
2012 to just 129 a year later

Meanwhile, recent data from the Gambling Commission revealed - not surprisingly - that
the number of people employed in the bingo sector was falling as clubs closed. Total
employment in the industry dropped from 17,822 in 2010-11 to 16,048 in 2011-12 - a drop
of 10% in one year alone

Even in 2011, however, three million customers still made 49 million visits to UK bingo
clubs - demonstrating bingo’s continued importance to local economies and to people’s
social lives

Support from All Corners

The Boost Bingo campaign quickly gained
support from over 330,000 signatories in a
petition, and - recognising bingo halls as hubs
of their communities - from 54 MPs of all
political persuasions

The burning question was whether the strength
and passion of the campaign - and its support
from influential quarters at Westminster - would
be enough to pursuade the government that
change was necessary

Campaign success and an immediate boost

Remarkably, the campaign didn’t have to wait
long for an answer - and a positive answer at that

In March this year, the bingo industry received
a huge boost when Chancellor George
Osbourne announced in his budget that
taxes on bingo halls would be halved from
20% to 10%, “to protect jobs and protect
communities” - even exceeding the cut to 15%
that Boost Bingo had been campaigning for

The positive impact on the bingo industry
was immediate

On the day of the budget, Rank Group
annoucned that it would be adding three new
Mecca Bingo clubs to its current tally of 97
- reversing a long trend of declining numbers
of venues - and that the future of several
other clubs would be secured as a result
of the tax cut

Rank Group’s chief executive pledged that
the cut in duty “created a basis for
renewed investment and innovation”

What Now for Bingo?

Reaping the Benefits of the Tax Cut

After years of relative decline, the bingo industry now has the beginnings of a spring in its step.
Online bingo is going from strength to strength, and the cut in bingo duty has given the future of the
traditional bingo hall a mighty fillip

With the Government delivering what Boost Bingo had campaigned for, Simon Collins argues that
it’s now up to the industry to deliver. “The operators need to invest in their offerings and halls as
well as benefitting from their reduced tax,” he believes

It’s a view shared by Miles Baron, who feels that the future of the industry is now largely in the
hands of the operators

Operators made certain assurances to the Treasury pre-Budget on
how they would use any tax cut to stimulate investment and growth in the
industry. Some of those plans, such as building new premises and modernising
facilities, will take a while to deliver. However, a number of operators will also
increase prizes and customer value from July 1st when the new tax rate
takes effect.
That’s why this duty change is so transformational - it’s another
chance to compete again in the retail leisure space

Innovation in Bingo

And if bingo is to compete, experts agree that continued innovation - including in online and
mobile gaming - will be key

One thing is for sure, says Miles Baron, is that the online bingo industry is here to stay

“I don’t see it as a negative force. I think a healthy online industry
needs a healthy retail presence. Most Bingo Association members
have an online arm and increasingly measure their success in
terms of brand rather than retail versus online”

Simon Collins agrees that the bingo industry as a whole has a vibrant future

“All our bets are on the future of bingo. We have spent a lot of
time and money trying to ensure players can sample the best
experiences technology has to offer”

The Growth of Mobile Games
and Technologies

So what might those innovations in bingo look like?

Simon explains that “social games like BingoGodz are driving a lot of the innovation in mobile and desktop devices” - so, in other words, that’s games that combine the best of traditional bingo with the social functions you’d expect to find on Facebook or Foursquare, such as check-in or loyalty systems

Not surprisingly then, Simon sees the current growth of mobile technologies - and the switch to handheld touch-screen devices, like tablet - as the “main transformation of the online space”

Transforming the Bingo Club Experience

It’s not just online where tablets are having an impact though - they’re starting to “transform the way bingo is played in club” as well, argues Miles Baron

Craig Pollard from TicketyBooGames.com agrees, highlighting the “new innovation” of playing using tablets as the technology becomes increasingly affordable. Simon Collins even envisages a future where players could bring their own tablets into clubs for “more of a hybrid experience”

It’s worth noting that as Sales and Marketing Director at Mecca until 2012, Miles has been responsible for his own fair share of transformation in the bingo industry

He was heavily involved in the launch of Mecca’s ‘Full House’ concept - a new brand of “destination bingo clubs that bring together a wide range of entertainment options under the same roof but not the same room”, including late-night entertainment and a much improved food offering

Though the journey’s still out on the success of the Full House concept - Mecca’s latest annual report points to the converted clubs outperforming the old style venues, but still needing to do better - Miles cites the influence of Full House on Gala’s ‘Genesis’ clubs, which badge themselves as ‘modern, multi-zoned bingo venues where customers can play the game they like, the way they like it’

As online and mobile bingo grow, “a push towards more consolidated entertainment experiences” is a way of bingo halls offering something distinctive, Craig Pollard agrees. “Live music performances or unique events taking place while playing bingo may help give a reason for players to go there”

Competing Better

Of course, for all that bingo is getting a boost from the upcoming tax cut and innovations in gaming, it doesn’t take away some of the wider challenges that hastened the industry’s decline in the first place

As Craig Pollard puts it, “a tax reduction does not help address other factors pertaining to overall decline such as costs of living and the smoking ban”

Miles Baron points out though, that the game of bingo is as popular as ever thanks to its growth outside the traditional bingo environment - such as holiday camps, in high street venues and in working men’s clubs

He also cites the positive impact of the revitalised National Game, launched last year - with a jackpot of £250,000 - where investment in new technology has created a common technology platform across the whole industry for the first time, making it easy for clubs to join together for a live game

Miles admits however, that the total number of bingo clubs is still likely to reduce further - but now from a position of strength rather that weakness

With the tax change as “the catalyst”, he sees the industry “bouncing back” - with an emphasis on “high quality rather than a high number of premises”, and a modernised product that delivers healthy admissions and profits

Online Bingo’s Own Challenges

Online bingo, meanwhile, faces its own set of challenges as UK legislation (through the Remote Gambling Bill and point of consumption tax) catches up with the way the industry operates - much like back in the 60’s, when commercial bingo had similarly taken on a life of its own

Still, Miles Baron is clear about the future of online bingo. “I think the online market will also see a degree of rationalisation in the coming months for reasons of tax and regulatory interventions. But for most it will continue to grow and adapt and be successful”

Mobile bingo, too, will continue to thrive, argues Craig Pollard. “The increase in lower-value electronics such as tablets has allowed mobile bingo to really explode and this will only continue to grow larger,” he suggests. As the market becomes even busier, however, it will “force different sites to really focus on their USPs and players”

A Social Future

Commercial bingo, then, has certainly been through the mill since it was legalised back in the 1960s, experiencing a rollercoaster of highs and lows along the way

In recent years, the days of the traditional bingo hall - responsible for keeping so many important old buildings in active use - have looked numbered. Today, however, the cut in bingo duty and new investment in exciting venues and technologies promises a more secure future

Meanwhile, online and mobile bingo have opened up the game to a new generation of players - who can play when they want, using whatever device they want, and, should they choose to, even raise money for charity while they’re at it

One thing that remains the same, however, is bingo’s great sense of community - whether you’re enjoying a laugh and a drink with friends in a modern venue, or making new friends in an online bingo chatroom

Go back to 1843, for example, and British archaeologist John Stephens wrote about his first experience of bingo (or la loteria) in Mexico, describing the game as a “great gathering place, where persons of all ages and classes go to meet acquaintances and good feeling is cultivated among all"

Nearly two centuries on, long may that good feeling continue!

Case Study:

Arcade Cinema / Gala Bingo, Skinnergate, Darlington

The former Arcade Cinema in Darlington’s Skinnergate – today’s Gala Bingo – is relatively unusual, being an early purpose-built picture house that has remained in continual leisure use for over a century.

The premises are understood to have opened as the 800-seat Arcade Cinema in August 1912, and were built and operated by the Gale & Company Ltd chain. The following year, Gale also opened the 1,119-seat Court Kinema (destroyed by fire in 1947), further along Skinnergate, while the Arcade was extended with the addition of a 500-seat balcony.

By 1922, the Arcade had gained a dance hall, and had been acquired by Provincial Cinematograph Theatres (PCT), the first national chain of cinemas in the UK.

PCT, in turn, was taken over by Gaumont British Theatres Ltd in February 1929. In 1933, the UK’s first Walt Disney ‘Mickey Mouse Club’ – a theatre-based forerunner to the later TV variety show – opened at the Arcade.

On 11 August 1956, the Circuits Management Association – which had brought together the UK Odeon and Gaumont chains in 1948 under the control of The Rank Organisation – closed the Arcade Cinema, but it was immediately converted into the Majestic Ballroom, opening in October that year.

Following Rank’s entry into the gaming market in the early 1960s, the Majestic is believed to have become a Top Rank Bingo Club, though images captured as part of a 1981 photographic survey of Darlington show the club operating under the EMI brand while still retaining the Majestic name alongside.

EMI’s clubs were later acquired by Coral, and then rebadged under the Gala brand.

Today, the Majestic continues to entertain the local community in its current guise as a Gala Bingo club. Traditional bingo sessions take place every morning, afternoon and evening, while there are also twice-daily electronic packages.

On the Skinnergate side, the club’s appearance has changed relatively little from the pictures of three decades ago, though the frontage is rather smarter these days and the one-way street has, somewhat curiously, changed direction.

At the back in Salt Yard, the jaunty ‘Bingo’ signage is sadly long gone, but the colourful tiles remain in place. Look closely, and you can also spot the lighter brickwork where the ‘Majestic’ lettering used to be.

1981 photographs reproduced with the permission of the Centre for Local Studies at the Darlington Library

Case Study:

Odeon Cinema / Mecca Bingo, Flat Street, Sheffield

The former Odeon in Sheffield city centre has had a much longer life as a bingo hall than it ever had as a cinema.

Building work on the cinema, at the junction of Norfolk Street and Flat Street, began in March 1939 to a design by Harry Weedon – the architect behind Odeon’s Art Deco house style – and W. Calder Robson.

However, the onset of the Second World War interrupted construction, and work only recommenced – with Harry Weedon now working with Robert Bullivant – 16 years later. By then, the Odeon chain had been taken over by The Rank Organisation, and the plans for the Sheffield cinema had been redrawn to reflect the austerity and changing architectural tastes of the post-war period.

The cinema finally opened on 16 July 1956, with a capacity of 2,319 – 1,505 in the stalls and 814 in the balcony – reportedly making it the largest cinema theatre to open in the UK in the post-war period.

On 3 October 1965, ‘The Sound of Music’ famously commenced what would become a 16-month continuous run at the Sheffield Odeon, while ‘South Pacific’ and ‘Cleopatra’ also enjoyed long plays during the cinema’s tenure.

In total, however, the Odeon lasted for just 15 years before it closed its doors on 5 June 1971, promptly reopening as a Top Rank bingo hall.

In common with the rest of the Top Rank estate, the site was later rebranded as Mecca following Rank’s acquisition of the Mecca Leisure Group in 1990.

While many big city centre bingo halls have moved out of town in recent years, the Sheffield club continues to operate today – still under the Mecca name – offering traditional bingo sessions throughout the day alongside ‘Mecca Max’ electronic bingo.

The interior of the former cinema – including the balcony and raked seating – remained largely unaltered until at least the late 1980s, though subsequent modifications to the playing area mean that these cinema details are now hidden away.

Meanwhile, Odeon returned to Sheffield city centre some years later, first in 1987 with the purpose-built two-screen cinema at Barker’s Pool (closed in 1994), and then with the ‘Odeon 7’ in 1992 (later extended to 10 screens, and still open today).

Though the interior of the original Sheffield Odeon is much altered, comparison of the 1964 and 2014 photographs shows that the exterior of the building has changed little over the last half century. Indeed, there is even a bus waiting at almost exactly the same location, and shoppers walking across the same zebra crossing.

Look closely at the 2014 view, and you can still see the traces of the old ‘Odeon’ lettering – above the four square windows at the front, and high up around the side – more than four decades after they were removed.

1964 photograph reproduced with the permission of Sheffield Libraries and Archives.

Case Study:

Westgate Picture House / Gala Bingo / 02 Academy, Westgate
Road, Newcastle Upon Tyne

The building that today houses Newcastle’s O2 Academy is one of the city’s longest established venues, on a site that has provided a home for film, music and entertainment for more than a century.

Opened by the Newcastle Cinematograph Company on the corner of Westgate Road and Clayton Street on 12 February 1912, and costing a reported £4,500 to build, the Picture House – as it was then called – had an initial capacity of 850, extended to 1,021 in 1913.

In 1914, the venue underwent the first of its many name changes, becoming the Westgate Road Picture House to avoid confusion with the new Newcastle Picture House in Grey Street.

Under the new ownership of the Consolidated Cinematograph Theatres circuit, the cinema gained a new marble entrance in February 1920, but the venue’s continued success meant that the decision was taken to redevelop the property entirely in 1927.

Closed on 5 March 1927, the rebuilt cinema opened less than eight months later, as the New Westgate, on 31 October that year.

Capacity, at 1,870 seats, was much higher than previously, while features such as a main staircase with “massive ebony handrails”, an “illuminated fountain” on the first-floor landing, and an “illuminated dome” under the balcony ensured that the New Westgate was one of Newcastle’s most opulent cinemas, as well as the largest.

Another innovation was an electric lift for the orchestra, allowing players to be raised to the level of the stage during the film interludes – this, reportedly, was the first of its kind in the country.

Just months after the reopening, the New Westgate was bought by Gaumont for £70,000, with talkies introduced in November 1929 – one of the first Newcastle picture houses to do so.

In 1937, the venue lost the ‘New’ from its name – becoming simply the Westgate – but it was 10 July 1950 before the new owners finally renamed the cinema under their own Gaumont brand.

Just as the coming together of the Gaumont and Odeon chains under Rank’s control had already brought about the closure of the Arcade Cinema in Darlington in 1956, Westgate Road’s Gaumont fell victim to the same wave of rationalisation within the industry.

It closed on 29 November 1958, reopened by Rank on 26 February 1959 as the Majestic Ballroom. As well as hosting lunchtime dances, the Majestic gained a reputation as a venue for touring bands in the swinging ‘60s, welcoming acts such as The Beatles (for their first performance in Newcastle, in 1963), The Moody Blues and The Kinks.

Competition from the rival Mayfair venue meant that the Majestic, in turn, closed in the mid-1960s, with Rank converting the building once again – this time into a Top Rank (and later Gala) bingo hall.

The premises remained in use as a bingo club for an impressive 38 years – nearly as long as the site managed as a cinema – before Gala withdrew in early 2005, relocating to new, purpose-built premises just outside the city centre in Byker.

Academy Music Group (AMG) promptly stepped in, investing £4 million to restore the building and create the Carling (later O2) Academy – a 2,000-capacity live music venue alongside the more intimate, 400-capacity Academy2. A sell-out live performance by Sunderland band The Futureheads launched the Newcastle Academy on 14 October 2005.

Ironically, part of the rationale cited by AMG for opening the venue was the lack of large, quality venues in Newcastle following the closure of the Mayfair – the old Majestic’s 1960s competitor – in 1999. More ironic still, perhaps, is that the Mayfair itself made way for a new Odeon multiplex, as Newcastle welcomed a new wave of cinema screens a century after the first ones.

Gala Bingo, meanwhile, continues to entertain the public of Tyneside at its Byker premises – branded as ‘Gala Bingo Newcastle’ in place of the old Westgate Road site – and at another purpose-built club across the water at Gateshead’s Metrocentre.

Despite all its different incarnations since the 1920s New Westgate days – embracing cinema, dancing, bingo and gigs – the exterior of the O2 Academy building has remained remarkably unchanged.

The 1927 photo, taken just before its opening as the New Westgate, shows the building’s impressive colonnaded entrance porch and stained glass window. By the time of the property’s use as a dance hall in the late 1960s, the porch was still there but the stained glass had been covered up beneath new signage. The 1990s shot, from the building’s Gala Bingo days, shows that the porch had itself disappeared at some point in the intervening period.

Remarkably, the building’s transformation into the Academy rediscovered several fragments of its past – including 1950s ‘Majestic’ signage and part of the hidden stained glass window – while the beautifully restored original details of the building’s auditorium, staircases and balcony continue to impress those who visit it.

In the present-day shot, it is pleasing to once again see a queue of young people eagerly waiting for the venue’s doors to open, much like the scene would have been a century earlier.

Historic photographs reproduced with the permission of Newcastle Libraries.

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