Thursday 27 July 2017

Television: BBC goes to bookies: guess who wins?

Britain at the Bookies (BBC1)

Illustration: Jim Cogan
Illustration: Jim Cogan
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

The three-part series Britain at the Bookies was perhaps the first sustained effort on the part of a major broadcaster to cover the gambling phenomenon. So it needed to be first-rate, as it was in certain moments - just flashes really, like the way it captured the rabid euphoria of the punter who has just won, and the equally overwhelming self-hatred of the loser.

It wasn't half-bad either, in bringing us through the thought-processes of the addict, which mainly revolve around the idea that he is not in fact addicted at all, that he is just a very serious and committed investor, effectively a professional gambler who just happens to be about 75 grand down at the moment - but the tide will turn of course.

Or not as the case may be.

Indeed, in covering this area myself, man and boy, I would say that one of the most dangerous developments has been the number of people calling themselves "professional gamblers" who may indeed do nothing else seven days a week except gamble on the internet, but who in most other respects have none of the attributes of the actual professional gambler - and I am not just referring here to the restraint and the discretion and the discipline of the professional, I mean his unnatural habit of actually making money at this thing.

There used to be about three such people in the whole country, now there are three in every village, and this series did manage to convey some of the self-delusion of such unfortunates.

So in its portrayal of the punters, it was sound. Where it went wrong, was with the bookies.

The series was made with the co-operation of the Coral chain, and for them, and by extension for the whole bookmaking community, this was a corporate triumph of historical import.

Indeed, if Coral themselves had made this series, they could hardly have presented themselves in a better light - given that they would be obliged to show us some of the dark side, just on the grounds of basic credibility, they could hardly have represented themselves or their industry in more sympathetic terms.

These guys are good. These guys - as I have frequently pointed out in these pages - are too good.

At a crucial time for them, when there is growing awareness of the endless potential for human destruction to be found in the online betting in particular, these Coral folk came across mainly in two ways - either they were likeable, or they were not far off loveable.

Partly it was just the inability of the makers to break away from the rules of television, their insistence on bringing us "characters" with whom we can "identify" who are supposed to be "real", though of course nothing is real when there's a TV camera rolling. There were chilling periods early doors when I thought this was just going to be a reality TV show featuring the ups and downs and the little daily dramas in the lives of the folks who run t'Coral office in 'uddersfield.

Even the standard issue oleaginous PR executive seemed like quite a nice man really. And in dealing with troublesome punters who are clearly addicted and losing horribly on the evil FOTB machines, the Coral staff in general gained our empathy as they struggled with these great moral questions - how to balance the imperatives of a business which must make a profit, with the need to protect these vulnerable individuals from the consequences of their own foolishness.

You would really think that they cared.

The makers further restricted themselves with the illusion of "balance", even though the struggle between the betting corporation and the individual has never been a 50/50 proposition - Damon Runyon explained that all of life is six to four against, and even that would have been a fairer representation of what we are dealing with here.

So we saw a glimpse of the dark side, without getting anywhere near the true darkness, the way that the corporate bookies tend to keep taking the money off clients who are clearly addicted while purporting to be "responsible"; the obvious dishonesty of their insistence that just a tiny percentage of gamblers might have a problem.

The BBC went out to capture the bookies in Britain, and by the end, the bookies had captured the BBC.

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