The Generation Game – Coronet Bingo

The familiar nature of bingo and the communities it supports and creates ensure that it is one of the most accessible social networks for people of all ages and backgrounds: a broad church, where all are welcome to join the ‘family’ and fun.

Laurie Carpenter from Coronet Bingo

With around a third of all licensed bingo clubs in Great Britain independently owned and run, many being family run, it is no surprise that in some clubs the ‘bingo family’ includes real family.

New Coronet Bingo in Didcot is one such club. Very much at the heart of a close knit community, the club has been managed, to date, by three generations of the same family, with a fourth generation just testing the waters. Laurie Carpenter, grandson of the founder is currently at the helm, a man who loves his job and is always prepared to go the extra mile for customers at Coronet.

The New Coronet was built in the 1930s as a cinema which Bill and Norma Carpenter took over in 1977 with their son John. The local landmark continued to run exclusively as a cinema until 1974, when bingo was introduced just for four nights a week. Following Bill’s death in 1980 Norma and John took over running the venue and by 1984 had decided to offer bingo seven days a week, due to its popularity.

Norma Carpenter, who was known to all as Mrs. C, was part of the business up to 2021, when she passed away aged 91. Son John is still supporting his son (Norma’s grandson) Laurie, who has been full time in the business since 2002 (after completing university), with his sister also on hand to help out, outside of her full-time job as a teacher.

Laurie was born in 1979 in Oxford, attending school in Abingdon, followed by college at the BRIT (British Record Industry Trust) School in London. The BRIT School is the leading performing and creative arts school in the UK, covering such areas as music, film, digital design, community arts and production. Previous attendees include Katie Melua (singer-songwriter), Tom Holland (actor), Cush Jumbo (actor), Leona Lewis (singer-songwriter), Amy Winehouse (singer-songwriter) and of course, Adele. It was already clear that Laurie had his sights firmly set on a career performing, though quite how this was to manifest was not yet clear.

His next step after the BRIT School was to bring him a little closer to bingo, if only geographically, attending the University of Bedfordshire in Luton, not far from The Bingo Association HO in Dunstable, where he studied for his Degree in Media Performance and Radio.

“My university years were fantastic!” Laurie said. “Quite how beneficial they were for my health I am not too sure! But I did get my Degree, to go with my BTEC in Media Studies and A Levels in Film Studies and Photography.”

Inducted into the world of bingo through work experience aged 15, he thought it was going to be an easy ride, seeing as it was the family business. His Dad had the measure of him and absolutely worked him to the bone, or so Laurie claims!

“I was bred into slavery! I was actually working abroad doing beach watersports in Greece. I would work the summers there then the winters in the UK. Happy days!

“On a return visit to the UK I stopped by bingo for a cup of tea and was asked to help out as we had just lost an assistant manager, around the time of the smoking ban. I said I would for a short while and was then asked to stay on to do battle and bring the club kicking and screaming into the 21st century. It was hard.

“I remember my very first year doing payroll – all on paper. It was a nightmare. One year doing it on paper I swore I would update everything onto computers. All our accounting and day to day running of the club has since been done on computers using Excel programs I have created and enhanced over the years. But the most difficult thing was surviving the smoking ban.

“There were some really hard times, but I don’t miss climbing onto stage into a cloud of smoke! As we finally hit one of the best years we’ve had since the smoking ban, yearend 2020, Covid hit. And that was really tough to take. But again, we survived. And we have learnt some important business lessons.

“Since fully re-opening business has been very good – and we are still paper only! My nan, who worked full time here, right up until she died aged 91 two years ago, insisted we never go electronic. I argued with her, but she was right. It’s now our USP!”

A bingo fan who loves the game, as well as works in it, Laurie has done just about every role there is from cleaning to floor staff, book sales and bar, right the way up to manager and now director.

“I do love it. But for some reason if I visit another club to play they always seem to know I run my own club despite trying to play incognito.”

Bingo definitely runs in the family DNA, but we are yet to discover whether Laurie has passed it on. To the best of his knowledge he only has one direct descendant, though there is a hazy period surrounding four summers in Faliraki. Together with partner of 12 years Ambra, he is waiting to see if any latent bingo tendencies show in their daughter Mila. At 6, it is just too early to tell.

When both your work ‘family’ and your family have a lot of members in common, it may be too much for some. But not so for Laurie, who manages to find quiet times away from work.

“I love being a Dad and family life with Ambra, who is a great mum and cook, and love life at bingo, but I have always liked time out too. My running and long-distance hiking give me some of that which is important.

“I regularly do park runs and volunteer for it too when I can. I am a member of Didcot Runners and have done many long-distance hikes. Several of these have been representing The Bingo Association raising money for GambleAware/Safer Gambling. I have also walked across Spain, East to West (Camino de Santiago) and South to North. Walked Milan to Rome and Coast to Coast from East to West. Walked the length of Portugal from Lisbon.

“In the job you are surrounded by people all the time so sometimes its nice to just stick a bag on your back and go for a long walk on your own to relax the mind. In fact some of my best business ideas have come when walking! It has been a little difficult since having our daughter but before Mila started school we went on a family hike from Porto up to Santiago in Northern Spain, all along the coast. Mila loved the adventure! I’m hoping to walk 800km in April along the northern coast of Spain but will see what happens. I love it. It’s basically a long-distance bar crawl with great food and even better wine.”

As a born extrovert and performer, who’s lifelong commitment to, and appreciation of, food and wine is unwavering, what has kept Laurie’s passion for bingo alive?

“The social side of course. I suppose you could say I fell in love with the people, the place and the atmosphere. It is a great job, slightly unsociable hours but very sociable, and very rarely do I wake up on a Monday morning with the blues. I actually look forward to coming to work.”

“The most rewarding aspects are seeing people enjoy themselves. It is a very comfortable place to socialise, like a home from home and our staff help create that feeling. Most will say this is more like their social life than a job and I am always surprised by how varied our customers are, young and old, singles and groups, all interacting well and enjoying the experience.

“A customer once told me that he brought his mother-in-law to play bingo when he first started dating his wife. He said it was perfect because its social but then you quieten down while the numbers are called and this gave him time to think of questions and conversation with his mother-in-law without the awkward silences. I liked that. But also the chance to see people win money that will make a genuine difference. That’s when it warms the cockles of your heart.”

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