AS Barrow prepared for the introduction of the smoking ban in 2007, the town thought it could spell the end for bingo. A decade on, Apollo is still attracting more than 2,000 people a week. MOLLY LYNCH investigates.

DEPENDING on which side of the shelter you stand, the smoking ban has either been one long breath of fresh air or a hypothermia-inducing nightmare on every night out.

It’s hard to believe that it’s little short of a decade since fag-puffing was officially outlawed in England, but this July marks 10 years since the country went smoke-free.

Back in Barrow in 2007, with the change in the law looming, campaigners were still hoping for a last-minute reprieve and there were stern warnings that the ban would kill off businesses - and bingo halls and bookies were at the top of the list.

Indeed, the ban, compounded by the rise in online gambling, has claimed some casualties along the way. The Salthouse Pavilion, in Salthouse Road shut its doors in 2012.

Yet Barrow’s Apollo Bingo in Hollywood Park is still standing. Not just standing, but still managing to attract 2,100 visitors a week - no mean feat for any leisure facility in a town of this size.

General manager Dave Marsden, who has been in the business for over 20 years, remembers a time when the future looked bleak for bingo.

He said: “Back in 2007, I’d say 90 per cent of the members where I worked smoked, the other 10 per cent battled through, and I imagine it was similar across the country.

“The members were saying 'there’s no way we’re coming if we’ve got to wait two or three hours to go out and smoke.'”

So how did bosses brace themselves?

Mr Marsden said: “There were robust defences put in place across bingo halls. The way the game was played was changed to allow people to go out and have those breaks. Tabletop games were added and pushed as a way of producing more profits.”

At Apollo, the number of visitors plummeted from 3,200 in 2007, the year the ban was brought in, to 2,800 the following year and continued to fall, when online gaming and mobile phone technology began to open up a whole new world of play to gamers.

“We’ve lost a third of admissions, there’s no two ways about it,” said Mr Marsden.

But in the past three years, which coincides with chain Majestic’s purchase of the Apollo club, there has been a turnaround in the number of visitors.

Mr Marsden believes that people are coming back to the game as an antidote to isolation and an alternative night out. Events such as Ladies Night, held at Apollo earlier this year, went down a storm. A car giveaway night is due to take place soon.

He said: “I think people spend that much time on their phones and devices these days that they’re looking for a bit of a break, a different way of socialising.

“Social media is about what you’ve been doing and telling others, and I think bingo has that fun factor for people. We’ve seen it with people taking pictures of themselves and posting them. When people win they want to announce it.

“I think for young lads and lasses there’s real appeal in starting the night here, because maybe you might then win money to pay for the rest of it. It’s a game of chance and you’ve got 80 chances to win every night.”

The game has also been tailored for a 21st-century audience, and is slowly shedding its innuendo-infused, seaside cabaret image.

“There’s no two fat ladies or anything like that any more in case it offends anyone. Some people do miss it,” concedes Mr Marsden.

The potentially devastating effects of gambling and addiction are well-documented, and because of this halls across the country, including Barrow, are subject to strict regulations designed to provide help and support to anyone who might be at risk.

Mr Marsden said: “We try and spot people at risk or vulnerable and share information with Gam Care and we’re signed up to the national self-exclusion policy, so we have a duty to register customers who recognise they have a problem.”

The same arguably cannot be said for the web, where a gamer can have multiple accounts on multiple websites, all accessible at the click of a button.

Kirstie Gee, head of marketing at Majestic Bingo, said: “There are people who come here and it might be the only place they go throughout the whole week because they feel safe and can socialise.”

-Gamble Aware runs a free national helpline 0808 8020 133. For more information on responsible gambling visit


GAMBLING is in my blood. As a little girl, a day out bonding with Dad usually consisted of a trip to the local bookies.

I learnt to write on the back of Chas Kendall slips. My school stationery came courtesy of Ladbrokes. No Miss, I don’t know what 2 + 2 equals, but I can tell you how much you’d get back if you put 10 bob each way on Exotic Dancer in the 4.20 at Kempton.

Even now, little blue bookies' pens can be found in every drawer of my house.

Football accumulators. Flutters on horse racing. The thrill of having more than just hope riding on a particular outcome just makes everything that little bit more interesting.

But bingo? That belongs to the blue rinse brigade of a bygone era when holidaying in Skegness Butlins was considered the height of sophistication, doesn't it?

Apparently not. My friends and relatives have all caught the bug and regularly talk of big wins and fun nights out with cheap food and booze. I had to see it for myself. So I became a member.

I decided to try my first proper game on a Monday afternoon as I was convinced it would be dead. I mean, Loose Women is still on telly at this time and it’s sunny outside. I collected my book, bought a dabber and entered the main hall, thinking I’d have my pick of the seats.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The huge hall was nowhere near full but it was certainly busy. Granted, the crowd was predominantly women over 55, but there were plenty who weren’t, and men old and young.

The most striking thing was the silence. This was the sort of crowd for whom chit-chat was a fine art; the types who block the aisles in Asda as they stand, trollies in hand, reciting their respective medical records to one another. And yet barely a peep was exchanged across the tables.

No time to dwell though, because the numbers were being called. I turned to my first coloured ticket - with six individual tickets - dabber poised.

“One and six, 16”, OK hmm where’s that one at...“on its own number 7…” OK, hang on, right, yes there in the upper left corner, “84...49…” wait, oh no, my dabber isn’t working! HELP.

Bingo is fast-paced and leaves no prisoners. There’s no time for ‘Legs Eleven!’, never mind dwelling on its non-PC connotations.

Look alive, Molly. Eyes down. Shake your dabber. Concentrate. I could feel the eyes burning into me. Amateur.

The pep talk paid off. A closer look at the grid between games helped me look down the columns for different number groups. I also realised the people shouting out had announced the completion of a line. I’d thought they were just heckling.

The next game was much easier. I was two squares away from a Full House on my lilac ticket but a bloke at the front beat me to it. There’s something really riveting about watching the numbers disappear under the blue ink of the dabber.

There might not be masses of conversation once games start but there is camaraderie and atmosphere.

Staff seem to be on first name terms with many of the members. Warm smiles were exchanged across the tables. Moralists might recoil in horror, but it seemed like a good place for a (18 and over) family night out.

Having watched champagne-quaffers wave wads of cash in the posh parts of racecourses, there’s something rather nice and humbling about seeing people so chuffed to go home with an extra £40 in their pocket.

I’ll be back. And by next time, I’ll be a dabber hand.