Inside the bingo hall at the heart of the Rhondda

Judges is a valleys institution which has served the locals of the Rhondda for more than a century.

A hushed reverie descends over a rapt congregation. A man takes to his pulpit, where the assembled throng hangs on his every word.

However, this isn’t a church and it isn’t god standing in sober judgement, but someone equally as revered – veteran bingo caller Philip McCarthy.

Something of a local legend, the retired former manager of Judges Bingo in Tonypandy has been enticed out of retirement for one night only to celebrate the 110th anniversary of the hall, which was opened in 1909.

To mark the occasion a special £5,000 jackpot is on offer for a lucky winner and the hall is buzzing like karaoke night in a hive.

This excitable hubbub might be as much for the fact that there are TV cameras stationed around the interior of this Rhondda landmark as it is for the bumper jackpot on offer.

Known as the ‘Las Vegas of the Valleys’, Judges Bingo has been entertaining the crowds for decades.

(Image: BBC Wales)

The hall itself has a rich tradition. Used in its heyday for Variety performances, boxing tournaments and snooker, today it is the venue for the erstwhile bingo pugilist, with dabbers drawn ready to do battle.

As the regulars celebrated their milestone anniversary, the hall was rigged with dozens of cameras to record the special night and shine a light on the lives of the club’s dedicated clientele of bingo players. The results can be viewed in the TV programme Full House, which will be aired next week on BBC One Wales.

While all were hoping to hit the jackpot, for most the club is a home from home where old friends meet up and families have a safe space to thrash out their problems to a background of bingo calling.

(Image: BBC Wales)

As the night unfolds, we listen on as a host of dramas play out, all the while, the clock ticks down to the big prize of the night and a life-changing sum for someone in the hall.

Filmed last year, pre-coronavirus, Full House offers a window into the lives of this close-knit community, where playing bingo offers more than the possibility of a big win.

In the course of the evening, we meet a host of colourful characters who give us an insight into their lives as they all hope for that big win.

Avuncular supermarket worker Nash is looking for love after a divorce and is hoping his family can help him in his quest for the perfect partner. For long-standing member Helen, a night out at the bingo with her friend Kath provides a much-needed respite from caring for her dying husband, while 21-year-old Meg, who has been celibate for just short of a year, seeks support from her best friend Leah to keep her from falling for the wrong men.

However, for first-timer Eric, the bingo hall is the last place on earth he wants to go but he agrees to give his partner Debbie a chance for some quality time and to make a special memory while he battles a debilitating disease.

Big on laughs, heartwarming and engaging, the hidden cameras eavesdrop and capture intimate moments in people’s lives. All are hoping to hit the £5,000 jackpot but some things are more important than cash – friendship, love, family and community.

If there is one person who knows how important Judges is to the local community, it’s Philip McCarthy, the bingo hall’s former manager, who spent five decades as a key part of the hall’s history.

The hall was opened by Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise and the Duke of Argyll under the original name of the Judge Williams Memorial Hall – as a commemoration to the late Judge Gwilym Williams. Over the years, the hall has held dances, concerts such as Black Sabbath and hosted around 300 boxing events.

Among those, legendary Welsh fighter and Rhondda’s own Tommy Farr fought there for the Welsh Light Heavyweight title against Charlie Bundy on September 14, 1934, with 2,000 people watching on.

However, for 60 years, the hall has been run mostly as a bingo club – and was the first club in Wales to win the national game in 1986.

Another landmark moment was observed when, in April 2016, bingo caller Philip hung up his microphone after 52 years at the venue.

“Judges is important because it’s one of the main meeting places for people from right up the valley,” says the 68-year-old. “People come in for a social.

“The luckiest thing that’s ever happened to me was getting the opportunity to come here, from then it’s been my life. To be invited back for the birthday bash is an honour. Being retired has got its good points, but I really miss the people.

“And I sometimes wish I could have done another five years.”

The master of ceremonies for the night, presiding over celebrations, admits that while Judges Bingo has held onto its traditions – not everything remains the same and that includes the old-fashioned calling of numbers, now consigned to history as something of a bygone art.

“We all know the old-fashioned calling things, all the legs eleven, all the 2s dinky do, garden gate number 8, doctor’s orders number 9. It’s proper calling and that’s it.”

He was a mere teenager when he first started working there as a 13-year-old selling tickets, a stand-in for a worker who didn’t turn up. He says he has collected a lifetime of memories from his hometown club.

“The biggest single win was of £200,000, around 15 years ago,” he recalls. “But perhaps more significantly we became the first local club to win the national game (a game played between bingo clubs around the UK) in 1986 and someone walked away with £50,000, which was huge back then. You could’ve bought two houses for that.

“I remember her story,” he adds. “She’d come to bingo without her friend who she always came with. And she said straight away she’d share the money with her, which was a fantastic gesture.”

His love for bingo began when he was just a teen and has remained a constant throughout his life.

“I was lucky to get it, I suppose, because someone didn’t turn up to do the job. I got asked to sell the tickets as a replacement. By the time I was 15 or 16 I started calling numbers, and by 18 I was manager.

“I’ve never thought of doing anything else. When you’ve got bingo in your blood there’s no going back. Once it’s there, that’s it – it’s been there for 52 years with me.”

And during that time, he’s seen massive changes.

“We started off with little plastic numbers and then it changed to a ball machine. Now, all you have to do is press a button on a machine.

“The smoking ban saw a huge change in the hall, too.”

The bingo hall was formerly known as Majestic Bingo when it was purchased by the chain in 2014, but reverted to Judges Bingo in 2016.

During its history, the bingo hall has had numerous owners with the name changing many times along the way. However, whatever it has been known as, the community and its customers have always known it as Judges.

Philip is quick to add that Judges is nothing without the support of the people who continue to flock there. He recognises it as the beating heart of the community, a social hub as much as a bingo club.

“If there’s one thing I would say to local people it is to keep supporting Judges. Like anything, when this club is gone it will never come back.

“People come to here to socialise, to have a chat every day. They are largely the same people, sitting in the same seats. It’s so important for the local community.

“This has been my life, this has been my baby and now I’m handing it on to the next generation to look after it.”

Bingo isn’t going away any time soon. In recent years it has undergone something of a resurgence, increasingly as popular with youngsters as it is with what is seen as it’s traditional demographic – the over 60s – or, in other words – that indomitable force – the nans.

During lockdown this enduring pastime was a simple unifying force for good in many lives, uniting families forced apart during isolation as grandparents, parents and children gathered around a laptop screen for an impromptu game of bingo.

More than a decade of austerity has seen many community meeting places forced to close. Many bingo halls like Judges remain mainstays of the community, providing a key social function for its regulars.

(Image: BBC Wales)

For longstanding members Helen Llewelyn and Kathleen Griffiths, who met at Judges, the club is a weekly institution and the two have been coming to play every day of the week, except a Tuesday when it’s closed.

The escapism of a night at the bingo is especially significant in the life of Helen, providing respite from caring for her dying husband.

Underlining how important places like Judges are at fostering friendships and a keen community spirit, the pair talk about how they first met at Judges and have remained a tower of strength for each other ever since.

“Kath came in and sat by me then and we just talked and talked,” remembers Helen.

“We clicked didn’t we,” replies her friend.

“The only day we don’t come is Tuesday. We don’t go out anywhere else, that’s all we do is go to bingo about three hours a day,” says Kath.

“We don’t go on a Tuesday for the simple reason that it’s closed,” adds Helen.

“That’s a shame isn’t it?” laughs Kath.

So enthusiastic is Kath about bingo, she has a lucky piece of coal that she brings to the club with her. Although it’s not certain it’s actually brought her any luck, but, nevertheless, she refuses to leave home without it.

“When you’re playing bingo it’s taking you out of your everyday normality or whatever problems you’ve got you can forget them,” muses Helen.

“Sometime something will happen and I think, oh, I must remember to tell Helen,” says Kath. “It doesn’t seem so bad then. A trouble shared is a trouble halved.

“I know I can chat with Kath and what we talk about in bingo stays in bingo,” chips in her friend.

Helen is keen to talk about her husband David, who she has been married to for 50 years, but who is sadly suffering from a terminal illness.

“We’ve been very happy with four children and six grandchildren and a great grand-daughter as well,” she says. “He’d just retired when he became a diabetic. As a result about two years ago he went for a routine kidney scan and they found a mass on his right kidney. His left kidney is full of cysts so he can’t have a transplant.

“I can’t say it’s a nightmare but it’s like you’re in limbo because you don’t know what’s going to happen next. They started giving him dialysis, which he couldn’t take. He told the nurse, he said, I’m not going to have any more dialysis, I don’t want it. I was gutted. Because I thought I’m going to lose him. And Kath was the person I confided all my fears in.

“I would tell Kath because I know she will support me in ways that my children can’t. She’s my rock.

“We understand what is going to happen and everything,” she adds. “I have to be strong because I’m the glue that keeps the family together, the mother is the glue of the family.

“Life is cruel sometimes.”

What is evident from this tight-knit friendship borne out of a bingo hall is that, before the coronavirus pandemic turned all our lives upside down, these real-life conversations were being played out in bingo halls across the UK every day of every week.

When First Minister Mark Drakeford announced that, from August 3, bingo halls could reopen in Wales, it no doubt played a part in helping the community of the Rhondda try to resume some sense of normality.

As this new BBC Wales programme demonstrates, Judges is so much more than a bingo hall, it plays a vital role as the beating heart of a community.