vlcsnap-2016-08-13-15h54m13s246I make no apologies for this post being aimed at a certain age-group demographic. Of course, one cannot but betray one’s birth certificate in writing about contemporary cultural, political or social events; the tendency to reference the past with personal experience gives the game away somewhat, though I’d like to think I’m not strictly preaching to the converted. That said, today I unashamedly focus on the pre-internet age and will hopefully spark recognition in those who worked, rested and played in that age. I am talking technology, albeit the kind of technology that would probably leave The Kids baffled. I’m talking Ceefax.

Yes, we all remember Ceefax. Whether in its incarnation as the alternative test card to fill television downtime in the 80s with the same ‘pages’ on a loop accompanied by soporific saxophones and limp funk, or the analogue equivalent of the super-information highway, Ceefax was the nearest thing we had to the internet for sourcing information at speed before the twenty-first century. By the 1990s, I doubt any TV sets were manufactured that didn’t have Teletext facilities attached. Ceefax was the BBC brand name for their version, though it rapidly became the generic label for the whole system, despite the fact that ITV (and Channel 4) originally called theirs Oracle.

The idea of incorporating on-screen text into the television service was hatched at the BBC in the late 60s, though the limitations of technology at the time proved an obstacle to success. The concept was initially a TV answer to the newspaper ‘stop press’, whereby the latest news headlines could be quickly accessed by the viewer at a point long before 24-hour rolling news channels had been devised. Developments in electronics revived the notion in 1972, in tandem with a wish to provide the deaf with subtitles for popular BBC programmes, and Ceefax officially came into being in September 1974, promoted as a great leap forward by the likes of ‘Tomorrow’s World’, even though special TV sets would be required to receive it. As most of the nation was still getting to grips with the novelty of colour television, TV Teletext took time to catch the public’s imagination and when the IBA launched their own Teletext service not long after, the need to collaborate on an industry standard was eventually achieved in 1976, becoming known as World System Teletext.

As when the BBC Television Service came into being from Alexandra Palace in 1936, the audience for this new innovation was limited to the wealthy and industry insiders. Ceefax expanded slowly as a consequence, but by the turn of the 80s the information – on ‘pages’ – had developed beyond the original news headlines to include weather forecasts, business updates, TV and radio listings, sport, travel, recipes, quizzes, music, film and television reviews etc. Everybody of a certain age probably experienced that great moment of envy when popping round to a mate’s house and being given a guided tour around Ceefax courtesy of the flash new telly his parents had purchased. When BBC2 began to devote endless afternoon hours traditionally reserved for the test card to showcasing Ceefax, the system and its unique design-classic graphics seemed a must-have for every 1980s household. Indeed, I’m surprised Dominic Sandbrook hasn’t honed in on this fact during his current pop culture dissection of ‘Delia’s Decade’.

If for you, like me, watching a programme on a commercial channel was soured by the constant interruption of the ad breaks, Ceefax was a Godsend. The minute the ‘End of Part One’ caption appeared I would immediately reach for the Teletext button on the newfangled remote and see what was happening in the world for the duration of the advertising interlude, able to overlay the info on the picture that was being transmitted or to fill the screen with the full Ceefax experience. Then again, I’d often switch on the set solely to check Ceefax, especially on a Saturday afternoon, when it was the best way to receive updates on football scores. Before the World Wide Web, Ceefax was invaluable in accessing information at the flick of a switch.

On the other side, Oracle’s Channel 4 division (4-Tel) had a memorable music page (originally called ‘Four O’Clock Rock’) that was akin to an online music paper, featuring reviews, interviews and entertaining readers’ comments. I remember I once even had a demo tape reviewed favourably on it. Being able to see what the top 40 singles or albums were merely by pressing a button is such a given now that it’s hard to emphasise how brilliantly innovative Teletext was for this. There was an ongoing children’s serial involving a badger and his animal pals called ‘Barney’s Bunch’ as well as a cult quiz called ‘Bamboozle’, one that often revived the battered brain cells of stoned clubbers returning from raves in the wee small hours of the early 90s. By the middle of that decade, it appeared that every interest under the sun was catered for by Ceefax and its ITV equivalent. Technology couldn’t get more interactive. And then came the internet.

The writing was on the wall for Teletext, and the system was slowly wound down as the 2010s and the nationwide digital switchover approached. Indeed, it was the end of analogue TV as much as growing reliance on the internet that phased out one era of technology in favour of another. The ITV system ended in 2010, whereas Ceefax hung on for another couple of years. Sentimental insomniacs tuned in to the final ‘Pages from’ schedule in the early hours of 22 October 2012 to see the service one last time, and the apt closing tune was ‘Bart’, one that a generation of schoolchildren associated with its use as schools and colleges interval music in the 70s and 80s. It was a fitting farewell.

The news that a bunch of enthusiastic fanatics who probably should get out more (but aren’t doing any harm) have launched a nostalgic homage to Ceefax called Teefax has been compared by its spokesman to ‘restoring steam engines’; and while anyone born after 1999 will no doubt be bemused by the fuss and fascination with this archaic service, it’s always important to remember that every up-to-the-minute innovation has its roots in a predecessor, however primitive it may appear to a modern eye that never gazed upon it with awe in the absence of anything else.

© The Editor

6 thoughts on “CEEFAX ANORAKS

  1. There is a nerdy anecdote about the technology behind Ceefax. It worked in the “dead time” between fields (half-complete pictures) that was available while the scanning electron beam was returning from the bottom right to the top left of the TV screen, ready to start scanning the next field. The field rate was 50 times per second, and two fields were interlaced to produce a complete frame, hence 25 frames (complete pictures) per second. The amount of time available for Ceefax was therefore quite limited, which was one of the reasons for its primitive graphics capabilities.

    The engineers had devised a way to insert data into the dead space between fields. This is what you could sometimes see twinking away at the top of the screen on an old TV set. Some of the data could be used as test data by engineers working in the transmission chain, to check on picture quality etc, while the rest was available for what became Ceefax. The official name for the technology was going to be Television Insertion Test Signals. However when somebody spotted the acronym TITS this was rapidly changed to Vertical Insertion Test Signals.

    Ho hum. Time for a new anorak methinks.

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  2. Teletext was a brilliant, if clunky, stepping-stone to the Internet – it brought the first taste of interactivity and opened up new opportunities to take advantage of up-to-the-minute data.

    My primary use of it was in the late 80s and through the 90s, when I’d discovered that, once having arranged a week off work, I could then scan Teletext on a Thursday, find bargain-basement holidays which the tour companies knew were getting very close to expiry date, call the operator, haggle a bit more, and get a week in the Canary Islands starting Saturday, from the local airport, for less than £100, occupying an otherwise expensively empty seat. Given that I could save vastly more than that amount on the duty-free smokes available there and cunningly imported home for the next few weeks of pleasure-inhaling, then it was a no-brainer – a week’s guaranteed sunshine 2,000 miles away and an overall profit. This usually happened 4 or 5 times a year. And all down to Teletext.

    As with most technologies, and like me then, it had its day in the sun, but could never hope to survive against the full-on Internet of today. But respect to the guys (and guyettes) who made it happen and showed us an early glimpse of the way we were going.

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  3. Nice piece, and interesting comment from Rodderick too, but this: “its unique design-classic graphics”?!? Come on! My memory is that from the moment it arrived it seemed dated & designed to give you a headache with its gaudy colours…

    I certainly flicked over from ITV during the ads, though. The worst pages were those which actually consisted of several pages-within-pages, automatically advancing after a minute or so; if you missed the first one there was no alternative but to wait for it to slowly return to the beginning so you could begin reading… aargh! Horrible feeling of no control – the information was there but you just had to be patient (something I am not). A precursor of dial-up misery, and perhaps the start of the re-wiring of our brains which led us to become so irritable and demanding rather than comfortable potatoes on the couch.

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    1. If memory serves me correctly, it was possible to pause pages before they changed, though that of course meant by the time you released the pause button it had advanced several pages and you had to wait for it to come around again! As for the graphics, I think they had a certain kitsch appeal. Limited, granted, but easy for parody…


      1. After writing the above I had a bit of a traipse down Memory Lane and realised that I probably ‘discovered’ Ceefax AFTER having already been exposed to video consoles and computers – so my memory may be a bit slanted towards “these graphics are worse than a ZX81, let alone my shiny new Atari 800XL”. I was the last of my friends to have a video-recorder at home, for example, so the family were probably still making do with the old non-Ceefax telly (with no remote controller, something hard to imagine now).

        Now for a Cumberand Tart!

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