Memories · Notes from West London

Pinball binges of the 1990s

Last Saturday afternoon my 13-year-old son and I took a trip to Croydon, about an hour’s drive away. Our destination was Flip Out London, “London’s only pinball club”, home to 30 different pinball tables in a unit on an industrial estate. You can check out their website here. It’s open most weekends, and for an entrance fee of £10 you get unlimited use of all the tables (and it’s free for under-16s). We also play regularly at Chief here in West London (click here for details). It has 10 machines, mostly set at £1 per credit or £2 for 3 credits. It’s a coffee shop with a room full of pinball tables downstairs, open 7 days a week till around 6pm. If you’d prefer a few evening games, in a pub, there’s the Brewdog on Goldhawk Road. In recent years it has usually had a few tables out the back. I haven’t been there for a few months so can’t give you any up-to-date information about it.

We also went to Flip Out at the start of the month. While the rest of London was enjoying the hottest May Day Bank Holiday weekend on record we spent three hours trying out dozens of pinball tables. We were joined by a friend of mine but it wasn’t really a social occasion. We each played our own machines and didn’t talk much until the journey home and dinner at The Raven. Last Saturday it was just my son and me, four hours of game time, with a break for some snacks half-way through. We missed most of the FA Cup Final, but we weren’t bothered about that.

Our visits to Croydon have prompted me to recall previous pinball sessions, particularly in the 1990s. Nothing in my past has involved as many different machines as we have enjoyed this month but a couple of us used to play for 3 or 4 hours at a stretch back then. The 1,500 words that follow recall those pinball binges of the mid-to-late 1990s.

In those years pinball enjoyed a revival here in West London. At different times between 1995 and 1999 half of the pubs on the High Road hosted machines. For several months, starting in the autumn of 1995, I spent most of my Saturday afternoons playing pinball with an old schoolfriend. We would meet around 2pm and play until 5 or 6pm without a break.

The machine that I remember most fondly was “Batman Forever”, a tie-in with Val Kilmer’s one outing as the caped crusader. After many successive Saturdays playing the game, the two of us discussed whether we should go and see the movie instead one weekend. We never did, and I have still never seen it, but I did spend between 50 and 100 hours playing the pinball table based on it.

Recently I heard a quiz question which asked, “Who played Two-Face in the film ‘Batman Forever’?” It’s Tommy Lee Jones and I knew the answer from visualizing his face on the back-plate of the machine, along with Jim Carrey (The Riddler), Nicole Kidman and Alicia Silverstone (not sure what their characters were called). Like most modern tables this one featured music and dialogue from the film, and one of the often-repeated phrases was, “You’re as blind as a bat!” Also, as the silver ball drained at the end of a game, Kilmer’s voice would often comment, “All those heroics for nothing”. It’s a phrase I still use when playing.

The pub that I spent all those Saturday afternoons in was the Packhorse & Talbot. I didn’t drink alcohol back then, and have never smoked. I was there for the pinball. My playing companion was a heavy smoker and was never off the beer. This was long before the smoking ban in public places. I would return home stinking of his cigarette smoke, my teeth recovering from several glasses of sugary drinks, and my arms sore from all that flipper work. I also had a trick with that “Batman Forever” machine which left me with bruises on my forearms. I discovered that if you were quick enough you could lift up the table from the front and tilt it back to send the ball back into play if it had drained down the middle. The machine was so heavy that I would lift it with my forearms rather than my hands alone, hence the bruises. Most machines would register this as a “Tilt” but not this one. It was very forgiving. I risked injuring my back and arms, but it seemed worth it at the time. We named this trick “the Lazarus Manoeuvre” and it was brought about by frustration one afternoon at losing something like 6 games in a row. Thereafter, and once my regular game-play improved, a typical afternoon’s play would result in one of us winning maybe 11-10 or 12-9, like the Sunday morning football kickabouts of our youth (“next goal’s the winner”, that sort of thing). We were evenly matched. After a few months I no longer needed to employ “the Lazarus Manoeuvre”. There were two machines at the pub but we rarely played the other one. I can’t even remember what it was.

One Saturday early in 1996 we arrived to find that Batman had gone. He had been replaced by “No Fear”, a good machine, but I preferred its predecessor. It did, at least, provide us with a new catchphrase: “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.” Within a few months the pub was closed for a refit, and when it reopened there were no pinball tables.

We went in search of tables in other pubs. Briefly the George IV had a machine, until it too was refurbished. The Barley Mow (currently called The Lamb) had machines at various times until the late 1990s, including “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” (based on Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 movie) and “South Park”. We had a few pinball binges there in the later 1990s. From May 1997 I was back on the beer, for reasons that I have outlined here, so these later sessions would involve a few pints rather than a litre or two of sugary drinks. The Robin Hood and Little John, now re-named as Connolly’s, also had tables for a while, including “Baywatch” and “The Simpsons”. There were rumours that The Roebuck, which was briefly renamed as a Rat & Parrot, also had a machine, but never when I went there. Just over the border, in Hammersmith, The White Hart also had machines, along with classic arcade games and an L-shaped pool table. When it was refurbished and rebranded as “The Hart” (wood-fired pizzas a speciality) it no longer had any of these entertainments. These days it’s no longer a pub. There’s been a branch of Sainsbury’s Local on that site for many years.

The return of pinball machines wasn’t limited to our part of London. In January 1996 I travelled to the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, changing planes at Minneapolis St Paul airport. My connecting flight to Salt Lake City was delayed by several hours, and  I was happy to spend much of that time playing pinball in one of the terminals. There were around 8 machines in a line, and all these years later I can’t recall what any of them were. There was an Addams Family game at Heathrow Airport in those days, which I played many times, but 8 in a row was something completely new to me.

Later that year, in May, I travelled to Spain to stay with my brother and his family. Spending a few days in the seaside town of Torrevieja I found a well-lit games room attached to a café. It had a selection of arcade games and a World Cup 94 pinball table. I spent many holiday hours there trying to master it and it’s still one of my favourites. One evening my brother and I drove somewhere inland and found a bar with a “Last Action Hero” machine. As with “Batman Forever” I have never seen the movie but we played this machine all night. At one point I launched a Multiball feature that released a dozen or more balls and I ended up on the list of High Scores.

I should point out that despite my enthusiasm for the game, and all the time spent playing it, I am not especially good at it. Places like Flip Out and Chief, and the old Pipeline in Middlesex Street before that, have introduced me to people who regularly occupy the High Scores on any machine they play. They enter tournaments and play for 10 or 12 hours at a time. It’s a world that I do not inhabit. It’s still rare for me to get onto the list of High Scores. When I do, it usually indicates that the machine is not played much by the real experts. This was true of the tables at places like the 12 Bar Club and the Intrepid Fox, which have had plenty of mentions on these pages already (here and here, for example), and which have both closed in recent years. I achieved High Scores on The Addams Family and Funhouse but they could easily have been wiped off by an expert player spending an afternoon on both machines.

Anyway, back to the 1990s. A handful of places in town and other parts of London also hosted machines at various times. The Chandos near Trafalgar Square, at the end of St Martin’s Lane, had “Apollo 13” (up to 13 balls on its Multiball feature) and Guns ’n Roses at different times. The latter was the first machine I had seen based on a band, and soon afterwards I discovered one based on “Tommy”, the Who concept album and film which introduced us to the song “Pinball Wizard”. It was in a bar between Covent Garden and Holborn (called, as I recall, the Brooklyn Bar, or was that just the name of the beer we drank?). During one feature a metal screen covers the glass plate so you can’t see what’s happening. You play blind (though not deaf and dumb), like the movie’s title character.

Further north, at the World’s End near Camden Town station, we spent a few evenings playing “Scared Stiff”, featuring Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. It has one of the best running commentaries, voiced by Elvira herself. South of the river, at The Hole in the Wall next to Waterloo station, there was usually a machine, and these days there still is. It was the first place where I saw one of the shorter tables, with more computer simulation than the older machines. At different times we played “Star Wars” and “Revenge from Mars” and last time I was there (summer 2017) the latter was back again. In between times “Medieval Madness” seems to have been there much of the time.

Compared to the second half of the 1990s, the first decade of this century was mostly pinball-free. For a while in 2001-02 there was a lone table in the basement bar of a hotel on the Cromwell Road, opposite Gloucester Road station. The amusement arcades of Soho probably still housed a few machines but I was put off such places long ago, by 1970s TV documentaries about predatory adults and rent-boys. These days you are unlikely to chance upon pinball tables in the way that you could 20 years ago, but they’re out there if you know where to look.

 

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