Pinball Geoff Harvey - A Life In Pinball
Pinball Geoff Harvey loves pinball so much that as a teenager he gave up his bed so he could have more machines in his room.
Geoff is something of a celeb in Stoke Newington, where he’s lived for 25 years. When he’s not at the flippers he can often be seen in local pubs playing drums with the Bikini Beach Band.
As he puts it, he might be the only person who gets paid for doing his two teenage passions. He fell in love with the arcade game as a teenager, and his fascination has never tilted.
“It all started when I went to Jersey and I played pinball for the first time,” he tells the Gazette. “When I got back I was telling a friend and he said he knew someone who was giving away a load.
“I got 10 or so – my parents were away and when they came back they couldn’t get in the front door. They were in the hall, up the stairs, in their bedroom.
Geoff has 12 machines of his in the Margate funfair.
“They said to me: ‘You can have as many as you like, Geoffrey, but they will have to be in your room.’ So I got rid of my furniture and my bed.”
Geoff was 14. He didn’t have a bed again until he went to university years later.
“My neighbours thought I was learning to type and were very impressed,” he chuckles. “They didn’t realise I was just playing pinball – for about six or seven hours a day.”
Despite training to be a psychiatric nurse, Geoff initially took up a career hustling – Paul Newman style – in Leicester Square’s Golden Goose.
“I made my living doing that,” he says. “It was only pocket money but I got to play pinball for free. I ended up getting a job working for a pinball company, fixing them.
“It was a little bit shady. I was working for a really nice crook. He was an incredibly honourable man though – I had a great time.”
Geoff became fascinated with the history and the mechanics of the machines – which were born out of table-top game bagatelle, in which the aim was to get into holes by ricochetting them off wooden pins.
“In my flat I have a pinball machine from the 1930s,” he said. “It’s a beautiful pre-flipper machine called the Flying Scotsman.”
The 1930s saw the introduction of electrification. In 1933 LA firm Pacific Amusements produced a game called Contact that had an electrically powered magnet to propel the ball out of a bonus hole in the middle of the playfield, and another rang a bell to reward the player.
“Pinball as we know it came in the late ’40s and ’50s,” Geoff explains. “And in England we got it in the late ’70s. It’s always been an innovative game in terms of design, you know. They are these industrial machines that have to be made to last with a big metal ball flying around at 30mph, but they have these beautiful designs.
“Before they were film-themed they were cowboys and space, stuff like that. They were very much made to be on site for ages. We used to think of a machine being old after 20 years, but now with the film themes they are outdated a lot sooner.”
A big debate at the time of the pinball phenomenon was whether it was a game of skill or chance.
“The designers say there’s an art,” Geoff adds. “It’s a game that’s meant to be exciting. Really it’s 75 per cent skill and 25pc chance. And when you play a game you can see that. The luck element makes it a lot more exciting.”
Geoff now owns close to 300 machines. About 30 or 40 are in pubs around London – the oldest of which, from the ’70s, sits in Walthamstow’s Mirth, Marvel and Maud.
Margate’s hipster funfair Dreamland has 12. Geoff also ran a now-closed museum called Pinball Parlour in Ramsgate.
And after all these years, he still gets a buzz playing.
“I get replays on most of them,” he boasts. “It still really gets to me. And I’m 61 now.”
Pictures: Michael Walton