Britain At The Bookies review – UK special
The BBC has enjoyed good mileage from the ‘docu-soap’ format. If you think otherwise, it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s fully 18 years since the Beeb introduced us to Maureen Rees, the most inept person ever to sit behind a steering wheel, on Driving School.
While it might come dressed up as a serious investigation into the UK’s obsession with gambling, Britain At The Bookies is very much in the same vein as Driving School, Airport and the like.
As with those programmes, it’s dependent on big characters, and they don’t come much larger – either literally or figuratively – than Tony Kendall, manager of a brace of Coral branches in Huddersfield.
What with his love of novelty T-shirts and his homespun wisdom, Tony is what Peter Kay might come up with were he asked to improvise a Yorkshire bookmaker.
If we’re free to laugh at Tony, there’s also a lot to admire about this man, what with his emphasis on staff morale and standards. He also grasps the comlex responsibility that comes with his job – though he acknowledges that his first concern is to make money for his employer, Tony confesses that he’s refused to accept bets from people who clearly can’t afford to make them.
The other strands of the show include a look behind the scenes at Coral’s East London HQ where the lid is lifted on such matters as the securing of new customers – apparently, offering them a free 30 quid does the trick. The programme also investigates the tricky matter of setting odds for such novelty events as Strictly Come Dancing and the naming of royal babies.
While the national face of Coral is Broadcast Director Simon Clare – slick, personable, pretty much the PR man’s PR man – the two sides of the gambling divide are represented by Stuart, an addict bent on recovery, and Sean whose success gambling online has all but enabled him to renovate his house.
Such fair-handedness runs throughout Britain At The Bookies. The moral dilemmas facing the people who work in the industry are always to the fore – Tony’s wife doesn’t seem entirely taken with her husband’s chosen profession. But by the same – fruit machine – token, director Chris Taylor points up the steps Coral and other high-street bookmakers have taken to assist those for whom gambling has long since ceased to be fun.
‘But isn’t it just an hour-long advert for Coral?!’ That’s what people who couldn’t be bothered to watch the programme will be saying. Had they been decent enough to do so, they might agree that, were all commercials as searching and even-handed as this, the Advertising Standards Authority could shut up shop for good.
Next up, we’ll run the rule over episode two – a look at all aspects of the nation’s love affair with the sport of kings, horse racing.
After hanging out in a Huddersfield bookmakers last week, it’s rather nice that the second episode of Britain At The Bookies – subtitled Punter Vs Bookie – largely takes place at Doncaster Races.
Not that the show isn’t still obsessed with character. This time around, the bulk of this particular load is carried by Keith, the Yorkshire bookie who gives a valuable insight into the life of the turf accountant. He also moans that times are tough only to then start boasting about all the golf holidays he’s about to take.
Away from the track, we spend some time with Steve, a golf tipster and Racing Post columnist who dreams of becoming a professional gambler. The only impediments are that i) he’s married – to the most patient woman in all Christendom, ii) he’s about to become a dad, and iii) he has a reverse Midas touch that’s seen him turn a £100,000 house deposit into £25,000.
On the upside, Steve’s found a way of making some extra cash by writing about his betting anxieties for The Racing Post. That this, in turn, means his wife knows exactly how much money he’s losing is the sort of obvious eventuality only a mug punter like Steve could never foresee.
And while we do see Steve win – huge sums on both gold and darts – Britain At The Bookies is upfront about the fact that many of those who gamble are saps and suckers. The guys punting on horses that share their children’s names; the blokes at the bookies searching for patterns – it doesn’t matter whether you’re working a stool at the local branch of Coral or sat at a desk at head office; the chances are, you’re on to a hiding.
How much of a hiding is made apparent by the behind-the-scenes footage at Coral HQ. Here we discover how the company limits its losses by manipulating odds and lay-offing bets with other bookmakers. True, these won’t be revelations that will surprise people with a grasp of the betting industry. But they’re sure to interest people for whom gambling means an annual flutter on the Grand National.
As episode one was even handed in its look at the high-street bookmaker’s lot, so Punter Vs Bookie demonstrates that not every gambler is bound to spend their life surrounded by broken dreams and shredded betting slips. Affable Northerners Andy and Gosia not only enjoy their racing but they’re pretty good at studying form and noting owners’ body language. And their average stake per race? A pound.
But as the programme closes on an image of Andy and Gosia hand-in-hand enthusing about their ‘free’ day out, we’re reminded that gambling needn’t be a bad habit or an addiction. It can be genuinely enjoyable – and the fun is that much greater when you’re enjoying all the sport of kings has to offer.