An Interview with a Bingo Caller

Cosmo Bingo CardWe spend an awful lot of time writing about bingo on this website, as well as playing it online of course.

We love everything about it, but we are guilty, like many people, of ignoring the real thing for the easier option.

This never used to be possible of course, the internet changed everything and bingo is included in that, and this got us thinking about the impact these changes have had on clubs and players alike.

To get to the bottom of this and explore the topic a little bit – and because it was a good excuse to play bingo at work, let’s be honest – we thought it was high time we closed our laptops and headed out to where real bingo is played by real people, and start asking some questions.

We visited Cosmo bingo in Stalybridge to chat to bingo caller Tony, and manager Mark, about how the real world of bingo really works, and also to see what has changed since the good old days before the internet.

It turned out to be a real gem of a club, and right on our doorstep too.

About Cosmo Bingo

Cosmo Stalybridge

On the Eastern edge of Greater Manchester, in the borough of Tameside, sits a little working class town called Stalybridge.

It is a town that grew up during the Industrial Revolution around a cotton mill that was built in the area, and still has a relatively small population of around only 30,000 people.

It’s a lovely little town with great architecture, one of the only remaining Victorian train station buffet bars, and some interesting quirks, such as having the two pubs with the longest and shortest names in the Guinness Book of Records; The Old Thirteenth Cheshire Astley Volunteer Rifleman Corps Inn, and The Q.

More importantly than that though, it is the home of one of only two Cosmo Bingo halls.

Cosmo bingo has a long and rich history in the bingo industry, having been founded way back in 1980 by John Downs who ran the Stalybridge club as a family business ever since, adding a second venue in Eccles in 1988.

While giants like Gala have fallen on hard times and rebranded, the independent Cosmo weathered many storms during several bingo declines not to mention a global pandemic, and is not only still surviving, but thriving.

After almost a 40 year tenure, Mr Downs retired in 2019, selling his clubs to Boylesports, a huge bookmaking company who run the bingo brand respectfully and from a distance. So it retains all the atmosphere and care that comes from an independent club, but with the backing of a much bigger business.

For an authentic experience but with all the mod cons, we couldn’t have asked for a better place to play than this busy club.

First Impressions

Cosmo Bingo Stalybridge

The bingo club has quite a grand and decorative entrance with a great big LED sign leaving me in no doubt about where I am.

This is Cosmo Bingo Club in Stalybridge, and I have come to talk to Tony, the main bingo caller, as well as meeting other members of staff like the manager, Mark, and Julie, a member of staff who has been working at the club for decades.

This length of service is a common theme as it turns out; lots of the staff have been at the club for most of its life. You know a place is special if staff stick around that long!

Although still called Cosmo, the brand was actually bought by the Irish bookmaker Boyelsports back in 2019, and they injected a lot of cash into updating the venue which is evident when you walk into the impressive foyer area.

It looks great, with gaming machines right in front of you, mood lighting, and the girls on the door selling tickets and Bee deals along the wall to the right. I’m not one to show off, but I’ve been to the casinos in Atlantic City, and for a moment it felt like I was back there.

Tony gave me a tour of the place and pointed out the changes, including the new Smart Lounge – an area where players who don’t mind a bit more noise during the games can sit and play without disturbing the traditionalists in the main hall.

The hall is only on the other side of the doors though and doesn’t feel disconnected, although it is a very different vibe in there.

“Welcome to the 80’s” says Tony as he shows me in, “Can you guess what this room was designed based on?”.

It is a very pink room, with the panels around the sides shaped to look like waves, and the stage and ceiling design having a distinctly nautical feel.

Apparently, the original owner was a big fan of cruise ships.

It’s a great space though, big enough to hold plenty of excited bingo players, and old enough to feel like the real deal without coming across as too dated or shabby. Some of the newer halls can feel a bit cold and soulless – not this place.

Interview with a Bingo Caller

Cosmo Bingo Crowd

We have a little time before the game starts (at 11:30 sharp), so Tony tells me about how he got started back in the 80s.

He called numbers at Kings Bingo in Oldham for 5 years before moving on to other things, including working in a drag bar as his alter ego, Annie Handbag, before coming back to bingo in 2017. Annie Handbag has made the transition with him as a matter of fact, and even makes an appearance every so often.

I ask him if he thinks the job has changed while he was away.

“Not really. The calling system and programming is exactly the same, and the principles haven’t changed. You’re still on the mic calling numbers.”

A quick glance at the system and I can tell he isn’t lying, it looks ancient, like a 70s filmmaker’s idea of future tech, but it works, so why change it?

The fundamentals might be the same, but new elements such as the Bee’s, the portable ipad type devices that people can play on, are certainly not original.

“Oh they used to be a nightmare,” Tony tells me, “They used to freeze or stop working.”

They work well these days with very few issues, but this was one of the stumbling blocks many clubs no doubt faced as the bingo industry tried to keep pace with the new world of technology.

The licensing laws were different years ago too. I’m told about old machines which players had to queue to use, then could only spend £1 on at a time by law, before they had to go to the back of the queue and wait for another turn.

I ask what makes a great bingo caller and Tony stops to think;

“Obviously you need to know the bingo rules inside out. You need to be fair.

You have to have a bit of personality, have a bit about you, a little sparkle perhaps, but the customers need to bring that out of you as well.”

Do you have to be an entertainer?

“No. You’re a bingo caller,” he says, making a clear distinction between the two, “with maybe just a hint of an entertainer. A likkle bit.”

And it’s this sort of thing that he is talking about I suppose. A ‘likkle bit’ of personality.

When I ask about the best part of the job he doesn’t stop to think for a second;

“The customers. The customers make the bingo, along with the caller. It’s a partnership I suppose.”

And it really is. It’s immediately obvious that there is great rapport between Tony and his players, especially those who come to sit near the front who he can have a quiet natter with, a bit of back and forth between games.

I talk to one lady in her 90s, and I’m warned by Tony that she is ‘a real flirt’;

“You’ve got him jealous, love” she tells me with a twinkle.

There are a lot of ladies like her dotted around the club, and I wonder if the stereotype about little old ladies and bingo is true, but I’m soon put right.

In general there is about a 70/30 split between men and women by Tony’s estimation, and in terms of age it really is from 18 to the late 90s. Yes, there are more older people here today, but that’s because it is the morning session and we are in the bingo hall. If I go and check out the Smart Lounge, especially later on, I will see younger faces.

The Smart Lounge: Changing Times

Cosmo Bingo Smart Lounge

It’s true, the crowd in this room just behind the main hall are more in the 30-50 range. There are more alcoholic drinks on the tables (it’s called the morning session but it was gone 2 o’clock at this point) and music was playing.

Each table in the Smart Lounge has a big red buzzer for making claims, and the audio from the main hall is audible through the music speakers, with TVs showing each number as it is called.

Mark, the manager on shift during my visit, called the Smart Lounge a Godsend; one of the improvements made since the Boylesports takeover.

He had astutely identified that younger generations come to bingo for a different sort of experience – probably inspired by the likes of Bongo’s Bingo – and in the past it had caused clashes between those looking for more of a party atmosphere, and the traditionalists. The Smart Lounge solved that problem.

“Business is booming. You can’t move in here on Friday and Saturday nights,” he tells me.

That seems to be the trend at the moment, bingo is doing very well especially here, but why?

Cosmo have always been a brand that tries to think outside the box and go the extra mile for their customers, but there is no denying that the Boylesports takeover helped.

“We can pay out bigger prizes now,” Mark tells me.

Having a huge betting company backing your brand grants access to greater resources, so as well as a nice shiny refurbished club Cosmo can promote games with £100 full house prizes that don’t rely on ticket sales.

If you consider there are 5 of them in a row plus a £10 and £15 prize for a line and two lines each game, it adds up.

“It’s a bit of a risk, but you’ve got to take it,” he says, and it does seem to be working, with Thursdays being very popular at Stalybridge precisely because of those big potential wins.

I’m interested in the takeover by Boylesports, because Cosmo seems something of an unlikely target for an Irish bookie. I learn later that rather than being sought out, the business was actually put up for sale by its’ original owner, John Downs, because he was retiring, but still, Boylesports spent several million quid on the brand so they must have seen real potential.

Are they planning a chain of clubs to rival the likes of Buzz, Mecca and Club3000? From what Mark says, it’s unlikely.

“They did some streamlining – we don’t serve food anymore – but the customers won’t have noticed a difference because the name was kept. They felt it was strong because it had been going for 40 odd years so it had a very good reputation in the industry. There was lots of continuity; same managers, same staff, there was no razzmatazz going from one owner to another.”

“The only difference for them is that we pay a lot more out now. Because of Boylesports.”

The timing was potentially very fortunate too, since the takeover occurred just before the coronavirus pandemic sent the country into lockdown.

“Actually, that might have saved us because they are a big company and could weather the storm a bit better than maybe the original owner might have been able to. Who knows.”

During the pandemic the club stayed in contact with their customers via social media, even raising awareness for those who may have little social interaction without their regular bingo sessions, and their loyal players didn’t let them down when reopening was allowed.

Of course things were different for a while, but the team at Cosmo pulled together to keep the ship running and the customers safe, and today, you would never even know they had been away.

Eyes Down: Back to the Bingo

Cosmo Bingo Game

So how did my session go?

Well I won precisely sod all, but I had a lot of fun doing it.

Tony let everybody know the first game was about to begin with the warning;

“Phones on silent please or they will end up in Cash Converters”, and we were away.

The session hops between linked games with hundreds of other clubs that are called by callers all over the country; cash games between those in the room that are called using an automated system; and the main stage games which are called by Tony and again will be won by someone in the room.

The linked games have something of a Eurovision Song Contest vibe to them, with one club calling a game before thanking everyone and wishing them a good afternoon the handing over to the club that will be calling the next game.

It’s all done over ISDN so players in each club can hear the caller, but only the caller in each club has the ability to stop the game, so you have to be quick with those claims.

There is a lot of support for those winners at Stalybridge, lots of quiet congratulations passed from one table to the next, but the tuts echo around the room if a prize is won elsewhere.

One Cardiff based caller stopping the game with a very loud and enthusiastic claim is even met with, “There’s no need for that” from somewhere in the room.

I didn’t join in with the cash games as these are seen as ‘interval games’ and have much smaller prizes that are based on the number of tickets sold, so talking is more acceptable while these are going on.

For me, it was a good opportunity to talk to Tony and a few other members of staff before the main stage games began.

I meet Julie who has been at the club for decades, taking on every job the place has to offer and who clearly knows the place like the back of her hand.

I ask Julie what she remembers of when the smoking ban came in, did she notice a drop in attendance?

“They did drop off for a while,” she says, “but then they started trickling back in after a while”.

I suggest it may have been a ‘toys out of the pram’ reaction and she agrees, but also points out that the club quickly created a heated outdoor area where smoking was allowed but bingo could still be played. The bees still work out there and there are even a few games machines. Not all clubs adapted so well.

Any conversations during the session itself are no more than a minute or two long though, as the action really never stops, so Julie and I are cut short and the main stage games begin.

These are called by Tony himself and it is now that I can see why he is such a valued caller at the club.

The professionalism of the calling balanced with the hint of the entertainer he talked about earlier is evident.

“Oh look, that’s woken her up,” he says after someone makes a claim on the front row; when two people claim at the same time for a £15 prize he quickly chips in with “Two claims, sharing is caring” and no one seems to mind only getting half the cash.

In fact, the joy of little wins seems no less full than that of bigger ones.

In fact, Tony tells me that the biggest win he ever saw was £50,000 on the National Game, and the woman didn’t even smile.

“We could have had a party and the lady who won wouldn’t know. She just sat straight faced and asked when it would go in her bank. She was a very experienced player. She still comes in.”

Yet when I see a lady at the table across from me win £7.50 she was literally dancing in her seat.

There is a real community feel during the main stage games, as they are introduced with Cosmo’s own theme song and people sing along and tap to the beat (it’s genuinely catchy), and each time we move on to the “full house for that one hundred pounds” the players all give a little “wooooo!”.

It doesn’t stop at the bingo either, players and staff alike all pitch in to help each other. Tony tells me he is part bingo caller part social worker to some of the customers.

“Customers come to you with their problems. It can be anything from relationship advice to they’ve had this letter from the council and they don’t know what to do. So you end up helping them with all sorts.”

Before I Go

Cosmo Bingo Mainstage

As the last game finishes I get ready to ask a few players what they think about the club, but as the last claim is made they all scarper faster than I can cope with.

Literally the moment the claim is confirmed they are up and out – the hall is empty in 3 seconds.

I want to ask Tony and Mark a few more questions before I go though, on topics that are a little more serious.

I suggest that loneliness might be an issue for some players, and that there may be people who come to bingo as much for the welcoming atmosphere as the game itself.

Tony and Mark both respond emphatically and in unison.


“That’s why we try and look after everyone here as best as we can,” Mark continues, “It’s important. We have ladies who come and play together every week, but they won’t go to each other’s houses or anything like that. They met at bingo and this is where their friendship is.”

The club even do work with local charities such as The Together Centre, and put on a semi-regular continental breakfast spread for members who want to arrive earlier and socialise.

It’s these little touches that make people feel at home at Cosmo Bingo, and it’s not just the odd breakfast buffet either.

“We like to make a fuss of them on their birthdays, says Mark.

“Yeah we’ll give them a free glass of water” jokes Tony.

The banter between staff is non-stop, and clearly as much a part of their personalities as part of the job. It’s an affectionately playful working relationship that even plays out in front of the customers.

For example, when one of the cash games was about to start Tony said over the mic;

“The next game starts in one and a half minutes so if you need change put your hand up and Julie will get to you sometime next week”

This was met with some serious side eye from Julie.

Everyone here clearly gets on with each other well, which no doubt goes a long way to creating the warm and caring environment I have been witnessing all day.

What about problem gambling and addiction?

Tony explains that it is rarely an issue for the club, but there are systems in place internally to help anyone who needs it, and that all staff are on the lookout.

“If we spot something we will go and have a quiet word with management and then ask the customer if everything is alright. And there’s a number they can call.”

I get the impression that this is hardly ever necessary, but it’s good to hear that staff are so well versed on how to handle such a situation.

It strikes me that the relationship the staff have with the customers is a strength in this department too, because they truly know the people who play at the club. They aren’t some faceless corporation, so if Gerladine suddenly changes her bingo behaviour, you can bet your bottom dollar it won’t go unnoticed.

So what is it that makes bingo at Cosmo, and real life bingo more generally, such a special and unique past time?

The game is simple but that gives space for the people running and playing it to get to know each other better than with most other staff/customer dynamics. For example, can you think of another place where the customers buy the staff birthday cards? It happens here.

Mark mentioned earlier that bingo clubs are a bit like the social clubs or working men’s clubs that the old industrial towns used to have so many of, where staff and customers were on the same level. Perhaps that’s it?

Bingo is more of a working class game after all, and this is working class town with working class values.

The people in this building genuinely care about each other be they customers or staff, and it shows, so ultimately, while bingo is the reason the building exists, it’s the human interaction that gets people through the doors.

Like Tony said to me just before the game was about to begin:

“We’re social creatures at the end of day, and bingo is a place where people can be together. Just don’t make a false claim or this lot will lynch you”

He might have been kidding, but I was not brave enough to find out.