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In 1657, unhappy with the spread of merrymaking amongst the citizens of London, Oliver Cromwell outlawed the capital’s one and only Bingo club. Unwilling to forgo their solitary vehicle of enjoyment in a country torn apart by political unrest, the gamers drove the activity underground, forming a hardcore group who would gather in clandestine caverns across the capital. This collection of brave soldiers met up weekly to play bingo, knowing full well that if caught flouting the new law their actions could be punishable by death.
In the years to follow, 436 men were tried for playing bingo, and of those, 207 were either hanged or burned at the stake. But the rebels were strong and continued to play the illicit sport in underground clubs across the land until 1842 when, after nationwide marches and violent protests against the by-now widely unpopular law, the government finally legalised the nation’s favourite pastime.
In spite of the change of law, the rebels were reluctant to surface to the mainstream, and despite a proliferation of legalised bingo clubs established by Lord Mecca of Hull, amongst others, these courageous warriors vowed to continue what they had started, as a means of honouring those who had so heroically laid down their lives in the name of bingo. They would call their clan ‘The Underground Rebel Bingo Club’ (URBC for short), and pledged to offer a subterranean alternative to conventional mainstream Bingo for all eternity.
Or so the story goes.
Whether or not it is true, heavily embellished, or entirely made up for the purposes of this article is largely irrelevant, for there really is such a thing as The Underground Rebel Bingo Club operating right now, in the year 2009. Run by Freddie Sorensen and James Gordon (stage names Freddie Fortune and James Golden), nights are put on weekly, out of a secret location in the dark abyss of the East End of London, disclosed via email to gamers 24 hours before balls are drawn.
“We’ve known each other since we were little kids, and that’s how it all started”, James tells me. “We used to go on holiday to Cromer in Norfolk and we would go with our families and sit through bingo. Then one year, when we were about seven or eight, Freddie won a set of towels and a pack of beer.” “It’s the first thing I remember winning, and I was so excited about it! I just wanted to do it again” Freddie chips in, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, like a 15 year-old discovering Youporn for the first time.
Little did they know then that some 20 years later that boyhood felicity would be a precursor to what is rapidly becoming known as the capital’s most electrifying night out. “When we started URBC, we were doing it monthly, but it snowballed quickly”, James explains. Within a matter of weeks, the boys went fortnightly and soon after, weekly. Now tickets sell out long in advance, with queues of hopeful punters snaking around East End backstreets a common Friday night fixture.
So what was it that kick-started the bingo brothers’ entrepreneurial venture? Worlds away from the glitz and glamour of URBC, it was an unsavoury experience in one of the capital’s dowdier bingo halls that galvanised their boyhood bingo dreams, after the two best friends unwittingly found themselves staggering into a local Mecca in the small hours of the morning. “We stumbled in, and it was like a scene out of Shameless”, James says, palpably mortified. “Not just Shameless, but hard-core Shameless!” “We liked how seriously people took it”, Freddie adds, “but we thought we could do it better.”
So how exactly do you make something as démodé as Bingo, well, ‘cool’? Surprisingly, it’s actually not so tough. All it really comes down to is five simple steps:
Step one: Booze. Not flat Bombardier ale to wash away the aftertaste of stale pork scratchings, but the finest liquor and wine you can get your hands on. And lots of it, at that. Being sober at a URBC night is about as inappropriate as turning up shitfaced at an AA meeting.
Step two: Bingo Bitches. Forget stout bald men bellowing ‘Two Fat Ladies…88!’ No no no. At URBC balls are plucked and announced by tantalising burlesque sensations ‘Lucrezia La Bomba’ and ‘Chiquita Bonita’. So it’s out with ‘Buckle my shoe…32’ and in with ‘Come on my tits…66!’ and ‘When you fuck me make it dirty…30!’ Oh, and did we mention they’re wearing the sort of flimsy erection-coaxing attire that the likes of Lady GaGa couldn’t get away with in her wettest dreams. Whether you’re boy or a girl, gay or straight, you will be drooling onto your Bingo card, because these femmes feral know how to turn the dial up to mega-sexy. Just make sure you don’t piss them off. “One time a guy came up on stage and was being a bit inappropriate, so they made him get down on his knees, and then Lucrezia kicked him really hard in the nuts!” Freddie warns me.
Step three: Music. Not a half-arsed karaoke rendition of ‘Living On A Prayer’ that you’d normally expect to soundtrack a soiree in a Bingo hall, but music that wrenches you off your by-this-point-heavily-intoxicated rump and gets you on the dance-floor cutting more shapes than Mark Speight and Tony Hart in a beyond-the-grave silhouette-off.
Step four: The rules. OK, so we all know the rules of Bingo, but at URBC there’s all manner of special edicts. If two people call Bingo at precisely the same time, for example, they are forced to compete in a gruelling and potentially humiliating contest of musical statues to determine who gets to walk away with the coveted prize. Though just by taking part, both contenders are already winners in a very special way.
So it’s out with ‘Buckle my shoe…32’ and in with ‘Come on my tits…66!’
Step five: Prizes. Forget about a hamper of fruit, a magnum of Lambrini, or effervescent bath salts – the usual throwaway prizes at this sort of affair – at URBC the booty on offer exceeds all hope and expectation. How about an enormous stuffed bear? If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, you might be able to bag an umbrella that lights up. Or some rainbow-coloured limbo-string to prance your way under. Or even a luminous yellow sleeping-bag-come-jump-suit! These are prizes that come with a 5-year fun guarantee; if you aren’t the sort of person who’ll enjoy them, you really aren’t worth knowing.
So there you have it – the simple formula to a truly unbeatable night. But the real beauty of URBC is the audience participation. Put simply, you’re not just sitting on your arse being entertained; you are the entertainment. What that means is that instead of waking up, logging onto Facebook and seeing innumerable photos of yourself pulling the same gormless gurn in a faceless club, you’ve got memories of something just a little bit different. “Most of my youth is forgotten in a haze of events” Freddie reminisces. “But with our nights, it’s all about waking up the next day and having these pictures and being able to say something different, not just ‘oh yeah, that was us in that bar.’”
In the murky economic vortex we seem to find ourselves being sucked further and further into, there really is no better time to indulge in something just a tad different to escape from those recession blues. “I think Bingo’s the perfect antidote to the recession, because it’s just really good fun!” says James. “The good thing with Bingo is that when you come away from a night, if something happens to you in that night, it becomes 'your' night. If someone in your gang wins you can remember it through being there, and it happening to you.”
So what’s next for Freddie and James then? “I don’t know if we should talk about this yet”, James coyly whispers, “but we are developing the Underground Rebel Party Games. It’s going to be a similar vibe to the Bingo – all top secret. It’s just for people that are really hardcore into partying.” Plans at this early stage are loose, but one crucial part of proceedings, according to Freddie, is to have a “huge fuck-off scissors, paper and stone arena”.
But for now, all of their energies lie with Bingo. Not that that’s stopped them from dreaming big. “My secret aspiration is to have another Underground Rebel Bingo Club and have it linked up via Internet. The final draw would be like a pool of the prize money from both places and it would be really exciting” James gushes, before adding the caveat: “But obviously, it would still need to be secret and stuff.”
So if you find yourself at a loose end next weekend, take a holiday from the banality of normal life and indulge in the most fun ball-drawing you can have without access to an elephant’s testicles and a pack of multi-coloured felt-tips. And when you find yourself crawling out of a bingo grotto at 3am with the words ‘I WAS MADE TO BINGO!’ scrawled in indelible ink across your forehead and Bingo Bitches hanging off both arms, take a moment to smugly savour the fact that you’ve just experienced England’s best-kept secret since John Prescott’s bulimia. Just don’t tell anyone about it. We wouldn’t want it getting out now, would we…
REBEL BINGO LISTINGS INFORMATION:
WHAT: Rebel Bingo
WHERE: At a secret location somewhere in Shoreditch
WHEN: Friday 14th & Saturday 15th September
PRICE: £6 - £12 online & £15 on the door
TICKETS & INFO: www.rebelbingo.com