An Interview with the man behind Bongo’s Bingo
2016 threw many unexpected things at us and one thing that no one saw coming was the resurgence of bingo. I, along with many others, thought the game was confined to the dingy bingo halls of Gala and Mecca frequented by grandmas. But Jonny Bongo had other ideas. Along with business partner Josh Burke, they’ve created Bongo’s Bingo, a bingo rave full of debauchery, dancing and … dildos. It’s revolutionising UK nightlife and has given a new lease of life to the game. The event is not even two years old, and already packs out venues across seven UK cities, and is soon to launch in London.
When I caught up with Jonny Bongo, co-founder, bingo caller and DJ of the event, he seemed genuinely surprised at how quickly the night had become so popular. “From when we started, to where we are now, it’s become a proper show, and we never expected it at all. It’s mental, tickets sell out in 5-10 minutes now. It’s very humbling.”
The concept of the night was conceived back in Liverpool, where Josh ran a club night, and Jonny ran a pub quiz with a twist. The guys joined forces, and Bongo’s Bingo was born. “One of the big things is the prizes; even though you can win money we also give away mad stuff like Coco Pops, a 23-inch dildo and a Henry Hoover.” And this really gets at the heart of why the night is so popular; the guys aren’t out to make money or rip people off, they just want the audience to have a good time. “The one thing I care about is that people enjoy the event. It’s never been a money-grabbing event. The money from your ticket goes back in to prize money and prizes.”
If you’ve yet to experience the thrill of a night at Bongo’s Bingo, Jonny claims it’s an atmosphere that’s almost impossible to describe. “You kind of have to see it to believe it; I know that sounds really cheesy. People really do take it seriously, one minute everyone is up on the benches dancing to Vengaboys, and the next minute when the next number is coming out, you could literally hear a pin drop. We always give away a giant pink fluffy unicorn, and that is the most sought after prize. People sometimes concentrate more for a unicorn than £200-£300.”
It’s a mixture of serious bingo playing and absolutely bonkers entertainment; the night is interspersed with dance offs, a 20-minute full on rave with glowsticks, and the occasional special guest – David Hasselhoff and Fatman Scoop have previously featured. It’s an event where you have to expect the unexpected, and you absolutely have to get involved. There’s no sitting on the sidelines here.
Arguably, it’s the immersive and interactive element of the night which has led to its success. As Jonny explains, “If you go and play bingo in a traditional bingo hall it’s boring, and especially if you don’t win it feels like a bit of a waste of time. On the other end of the spectrum, if you go to a club night where it’s four hours, you can’t really talk to your mates, and it’s quite monotonous. So we come in the middle; it’s still a mad night out, you’re dancing up on the tables, but you’re also, again it sounds cheesy, but you’ve got an activity to do.” With claims that the younger generation are increasingly rejecting typical club nights in favour of special, one-off immersive events, Bongo’s Bingo taps in to the market well, and does it in a carefree, unpretentious style. The event may be held at Canal Mills, but there’s nothing edgy about the Vengaboys and Henry Hoovers. “I think club nights are in decline, and I think people don’t settle for average now.”
Jonny has become almost as famous as Bongo’s Bingo itself; his Northern Irish lilt and often ruthless audience interaction being an integral part of the night. “People get a lot of abuse if they don’t concentrate or make false calls, because it is serious bingo at the end of the day. So a lot of people get called dickheads.” And his favourite bingo call? “A meal for two with beautiful view – that’s 69.”
I’ve often wondered who you’re supposed to concentrate on playing bingo six pints in to the night, and it turns out that a lot of people don’t. “It’s a marathon not a sprint, and as the night progresses the prizes get better”. So basically, pace yourself and you could be in with a chance of winning the big bucks, but get too drunk and you’ll be bundled in to the back of a taxi with only a fluffy pink unicorn to keep you company.
The event has been such as success that the team are in talks about taking the event to Dubai and Australia, and after Parklife and Creamfields last year, Bongo’s Bingo will be hitting Snowbombing in April. And with the event’s second birthday coming up in the next few months, Jonny and the team have a big extravaganza up their sleeves.
So if you haven’t already had a shot at winning that oh-so-coveted fluffy unicorn at a Bongos Bingo night yet, you’re missing out. Before you buy your ticket, here are Jonny’s words of advice for first-time bingo-players. “Keep your eye on your books at all times, and just don’t be a dickhead.”
Bongo’s Bingo comes to Canal Mills every Wednesday night. Further info here.
(Images: Tandem PR and Justin Gardner Photography)