IT is a game enjoyed daily by millions.
But there is a far more darker undertone to bingo than many of the eyes-down brigade will realise.
That seamier side is exposed tonight by a Huddersfield historian.
In his latest TV appearance, University of Huddersfield historian Professor Keith Laybourn has the challenging task of explaining the origins of bingo and the exceptionally complex web of legislation that effectively made the game illegal for several decades.
He reflects on how Catholic priests in Huddersfield in the 1960s were prosecuted for organising bingo nights to raise cash for their churches.
And political parties were caught in a legal minefield when they depended on the proceeds of the game to pay constituency costs.
The prestigious BBC documentary series Timeshift turns its attention to bingo in an hour-long programme titled Eyes Down – first scheduled for screening on BBC4, tonight at 9pm.
The focus of the programme is the bingo boom of the 1960s, when the game became a multi-million pound business, played by almost a quarter of the population.
One of Professor Laybourn’s areas of expertise is the history of working-class gambling, and his research has included the origins of bingo – or housey-housey – as a popular pastime among servicemen in World War One.
But when it spread to the civilian population, bingo would be ensnared in what Professor Laybourn describes as “the most confusing set of laws ever”.
For Timeshift he was interviewed in an appropriate setting – the bingo room at Beeston Social Club in Leeds – and spoke about the evolution of bingo and the legislation that helped and hindered its progress.
The origins of the confusion lay in legislation of the 1820s, which would make public lotteries illegal until 1994. Bingo was deemed to be a form of lottery and was also defined as a game of chance, rather than skill. Therefore it could only legally be played at private clubs.
Police would sometimes crack down and in early 1960s Huddersfield, Catholic priests were regularly prosecuted for using bingo to raise parish funds. Also, the main political parties had come to depend on bingo nights to earn the money they needed to pay local agents.
The Small Gaming Act of 1956 attempted to clear up the confusion, but it was legislation which came into force in 1961 that led to the golden age of bingo charted by Timeshift.
Thousands of clubs emerged, says Professor Laybourn, and the Labour Government, led by the Huddersfield-born Harold Wilson, was so worried by the bingo boom that in 1968 it introduced a licensing system.
Prof Laybourn said: “The real problem was the confusion in the law. You really needed to be a lawyer to understand it.”
Professor Laybourn is regularly called on by radio and TV – for example, he has made two appearances on BBC1’s highly-rated Who Do You Think You Are? and in a recent BBC World Service programme he explained the background to the General Strike of 1926.