Britons rally 'round the Union jackpot

January 14, 1995|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,London Bureau of The Sun

London -- Millions of Britons will be transfixed tonight by a 15-minute television show that comes complete with screaming audience members, shrieking hosts, a whispering mystic named Meg, testimonials from factory workers, endless drumrolls, blaring trumpets and, finally, a cylinder full of bouncing pingpong balls that will determine if one lucky ticket- older will win a jackpot worth at least $27 million.

Lottery mania has come to Britain, and it has people acting in a most uncivilized way.

Consider Vicki Jarvis' nightmare prelude to the Saturday night madness.

With an hour to go before the $10 million drawing last week, a line of expectant gamblers curling out of her tiny newspaper shop off Oxford Circus, and the lone lottery machine for blocks around -- the one that she was frantically operating -- shut down.

She banged on the keys. Nothing. She called the lottery company. No help.

The crowd grew restless. Then surly. And finally, as the deadline passed, ugly.

"We had a few death threats," said Ms. Jarvis, deputy manager at Martin the Newsagent. "It was quite crazy, really. This is quite a dangerous job, you know."

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey, had already warned about the lottery and the possibility of vast winnings becoming "frenzied preoccupations."

In the eight weeks since Britain joined the rest of the world and started its own numbers game, ticket sales have climbed to $568 million. And that's considered a disappointment, even though only 11,000 of a potential 40,000 lottery machines are now on line.

But the lottery is clearly a runaway success, at least in the television ratings.

How else can you explain one of the least entertaining programs in the history of TV winding up as one of the three most-watched shows in the country?

"What's the lure?" said Christopher Rogers, an avid weekly watcher and player. "It's a matter of retirement."

One lady who could retire very comfortably anytime she wants is said to be playing: the queen, according to one tabloid.

And Buckingham Palace doesn't deny it. "I can't give you information as that would be a private matter," a royal spokesman said. "Certainly, most of the country is playing."

Lottery has been late in coming to Britain.

Most European countries have had it for decades. There were lotteries here in the 16th Century, and one numbers game lasted until 1837, the year Queen Victoria came to the throne. Recent attempts to revive the lottery were blocked by another strong-willed woman: Margaret Thatcher.

"People close to Mrs. Thatcher when she was prime minister knew she did not approve of gambling," said Peter Gummer, chairman of the Arts Council Lottery board. "It simply wasn't in the cards."

John Major, the current prime minister, had no such reservations. Besides, the government could always use some spare cash.

So welcome to the UK, a new gambler's paradise, where last year bettors put down $9.8 billion in wagers in the 9,400 legal parlors that seem to dot nearly every city neighborhood.

Now, not only can you play a lottery, but in another precedent-shattering move, gambling has become legal on Sundays. The full impact of Sunday wagering won't be felt, though, until May, when the horse racing tracks open for business.

For now, the lottery's the national passion. The odds are 13,983,816-to-1 against hitting the lottery jackpot, yet millions of people line up every week to put a pound -- currently about $1.50 -- on a six-number ticket.

That's a little more than Maryland, where you get two six-digit Lotto numbers for $1 and the odds are 6.9 million-to-1. But also unlike Maryland, the prizes here are tax-free. Winners get the whole prize in one delightful check instead of a 20-year annuity.

But even a winner can end up losing.

The winner of the first jackpot of $27.7 million wanted to remain anonymous. Unfortunately, he confided in a relative, and soon, about half the people in his home city of Blackburn, Lancashire, knew his identity.

And so did the tabloids.

Mukhtar Mohidin, 42, father of three, come on down.

But there was a slight problem. Mr. Mohidin, a devout Muslim, apparently violated Islamic prohibitions against gambling. The stricture does not bother wealthy Arab oil sheiks who squander fortunes at Europe's poshest gaming tables. But Mr. Mohidin has not been seen in weeks.

"Mr. Mohidin and his family are on extended holiday," a lottery spokesman said.

Fifty percent of the weekly lottery take is dumped into the prize pool, but the real winners in this game are the beneficiaries of what's left.

The government takes 12 percent. The Camelot Group, which runs the lottery, grabs 5 percent for overhead, and any remaining profits. Among the five companies with a stake in Camelot is the Rhode Island-based GTECH, which operates lotteries in 27 states, including Maryland.

The shops where tickets are sold earn 5 percent.

"Right now, on Saturdays, people can't buy anything but lottery tickets," said Ms. Jarvis, of Martin the Newsagent.

Twenty-eight percent of the revenue will fund the arts, sports, the National Heritage Fund, and the Millennium Fund to mark the 21st century.

The big hitters are looking for the big money. The director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is seeking $75 million to help refurbish the stage facilities, add a studio theater, and create a permanent home for the Royal Ballet.

"For many of us, the lottery can make the difference between being able to function in the next century and being unable to function," said Jeremy Isaacs, Covent Garden general director.

"A great theater built in 1858 can't go on unless it is drastically modernized," he said. "The government said, 'Oh, we can't help you, but a lottery can turn out to be an answer to your prayers.' "

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