In a searing indictment of the awfulness of French TV, close to 300 people packed into the local village hall (salle polyvalente) on a Saturday night, in order to play bingo or – as they call it here – Loto.
We joined them, eschewing the far more uplifting televisual entertainment offered by British programme-makers (Britain’s Got Talent; National Lottery – In It To Win It…oh). This was somewhat against our better judgement, but at the behest of our English friends from the next hameau (the same ones who dragged us to the Belote). They assured us that it would be an experience.
Well, so is electro-convulsive therapy, in its own way.
We arrived at about a quarter past seven, the scheduled time for the doors to open. They were locked, to the increasingly vocal impatience of the scrum of sixty or so people waiting outside. A number that doubled in the following five minutes, until finally the deputy mayor drew back the bolts and, with the wisdom born of experience, got the hell out of the way.
The press of people surged forward – and then stopped. Unfortunately, this didn’t prevent those in the rear continuing to push forward. It was like standing on the old Kop on derby day.
We couldn’t understand why until we reached the door ourselves. Just inside the entrance were two tables – one each side – on which sat great heaps of well-thumbed, greasy bingo cards. It was apparent that the bottleneck was caused by the eager locals stopping to grab great handfuls of these cards, flicking through them in search of their lucky numbers (incidentally thereby demonstrating a complete lack of understanding of the concept of ‘game of chance’) before proceeding.
This arrangement makes even less sense than it sounds. Because, of course, the French have no concept of queuing. So, while the theory was that you collect as many cards as you want on your way in, then hand over your money at a desk a little further into the room, the practice was that the two tables halved the available space in the entrance and, when you’d managed to negotiate that choke-point, you came up short against the scrum at the check-out, as it were.
If you’ve never seen an aged crone laboriously writing a cheque to pay for a fistful of bingo cards, while dozens of people seethe vociferously behind her then, my friend, you have never lived.
We weren’t the only ones to find these arrangements unsatisfactory. However, being British, we naturally left it to others to do something about it. Some people who appeared to have an administrative function started removing some of the notices. We managed to grab four thus freed-up seats and took our places. Fortunately, this was just before somebody else went up to the notice-removers and whispered in their collective ear. I’d love to know what was said, but they stopped what they were doing and sheepishly started putting some of the ‘Reservé notices back where they’d been. Patently, some people are not without influence round these parts.
Anyway, we were settled in and not shifting for anybody, so, as there was no prospect of the Loto itself starting any time soon, we took in our surroundings. The popular [sic] image of bingo is of a pastime pursued mainly by old ladies and largely for social reasons. Not here though – it’s a family outing. Everywhere there were three-generation family groups setting up camp, unpacking picnic hampers and opening bottles of wine. They were obviously settling in for a long night and I remember idly wondering whether they knew something we didn’t.
They did. By the time the place was packed to the rafters and ready for the off, it was after nine o’clock. I’d rather hoped the whole thing would be starting to wind down by then so I could be back in time for Match Of The Day. Not a chance.
Do I really need to tell you about Bingo? Some bloke at the front shouts out a list of numbers, and when he’s shouted out all the numbers that you happen to have on your card or cards, it’s your turn to shout out and everybody else hates you. Simple really. Of course, there are a number of interesting [no they’re not. Ed.] variations – sometimes, for example, you only need all the numbers on just one line, or just the numbers at the ends of each line. Abso-bloody-lutely bloody fascinating.
All the prizes were either goods or bons d’achat (shop vouchers); no actual cash. Some kid won a cheap tablet, to his endearing delight but, as with the belote, there seemed to be no logic to the prize distribution. Intuitively, you’d expect the prizes to get progressively bigger and better, building up to a fever pitch of excitement for the final cliff-hanger, but it was all very random: maybe a €50 bon d’achat for a single line, but only two boiling chickens for a full house (that’s every number on the card, for those fortunate enough to be uninitiated). Go figure.
On and on it went. And on. And then on some more. We gave up at a quarter to one in the morning. Despite the hour, the place was still so packed that we had to squeeze through the emergency exit because there was no way of reaching the main door.
And no, we didn’t win anything either.