So long Ceefax, I shall miss you

Despite the clunky graphics and slow-to-change pages, Ceefax and Teletext always offered unexpected pleasures.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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Jenny Joseph may have wanted to spend her old age wearing purple and knocking back the brandy, but I always secretly hoped I’d spend mine droning on about Ceefax. This humble text-information service from the BBC, which this week joined other teletext services on the scrapheap after the digital switchover, would be something I imagined being able to boast to my grandchildren about: the digital native’s equivalent of wartime rationing, the Kennedy assassination or the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In the old days, you see, entire Saturday afternoons could be spent in front of the television not watching actual television programmes. Instead, you’d simply be staring at the blocky text in tense anticipation of seeing whether your team had scored or conceded in the five minutes it took to Ceefax to scroll through all the matches going on in your division. ‘In my day’, I could imagine myself saying to the wide-eyed children gathered at my feet, ‘pressing the red button was something you largely only did to indicate your answer to the trivia quiz Bamboozle and hope that it wasn’t wrong so you didn’t have to go back to the beginning’. If you wanted discussion on music, fashion, dating or were just looking for instant headlines but didn’t want to blow your pocket money on a newspaper or magazine, Ceefax/Teletext was your friend. You may not need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, but who cared when you could just type ‘400’ on your TV remote?

Ceefax began life in 1974, primarily to provide hard copy of the latest changes in farming and share prices, broadcasting into homes through otherwise dormant TV aerials during the closedown period after midnight. Alongside its commercial rival Oracle, later succeeded by Teletext in 1992, these services offered a glimpse into a multi-platform universe, enabling you to browse for cheap holidays or check the horse-racing form while watching your favourite TV show. Even your nan could get it. If this mild form of interactivity was too much for you, BBC screened a selection of scrolling pages from Ceefax on air through the night, with soft jazzy muzak offering succour to insomniacs (and harassed parents of newborns) through the witching hour.

Of course on the whole, rather like rationing or the end of the Soviet Union, the demise of Ceefax should not cause false nostalgia or romanticism to take hold. Teletext services, at least in living memory, had never really acted as the harbinger of a brave new world: they were triumphs of practical-information resources, their clunky and sparse graphics testament to its position as a transitional technology, instantly retro almost as soon as it was introduced. Anyone truly mourning its passing, except for curiosity purposes, will be doing so with the kind of ironic veneration of the past which masks a confusion about the present and hostility towards the future.

Yet it is still sad to see it go. Partly because it serves as a seven-bit Proustian Madeleine for my own two-bit youth: seeing Crystal Palace avoid relegation thanks to an eighty-seventh minute goal in 2001; where I first heard about the deaths of Princess Diana, Ayrton Senna and Nina Simone; and the main port-of-call during emergencies such as 9/11 and 7/7 when the internet went into blackout. Like Freddy Mercury’s ‘Radio Ga-Ga’, it was often an only friend through teenage nights, with the added bonus that I didn’t have to listen to fucking Queen. More importantly, it was the first place where I ever got published and paid. (A £10 Virgin CD voucher for a gig review of long-forgotten industrial rockers Pitchshifter, since you ask.) CD voucher! Payment for written articles! Pounds sterling as a measurement of value! All of these concepts, you suspect, will be as readily forgotten as Ceefax.

If there is one thing to miss, however, it was the quality of the content. It had to be good, really, since it had naff all else going for it. Yet, in the age of 24-hour rolling news and blogging, it is difficult not to wish for a return to the concise and crisply accurate reporting of Ceefax’s news service. Like the best news sources, it was an avowed enemy of prolixity and respected no one by reputation alone: heads of state, Nobel prize winners, celebrity gossip and the all-important football-squad announcements were all immortalised in the same black and blue.

While Ceefax’s own forays into cultural review were as drab and uncool as, well, most of the BBC’s forays into popular culture, its rivals at Teletext gave a punkish platform for disgruntled mavericks and enthusiastic amateurs in an age before social media. Anyone trawling around the often overblown and pretentious musings of music websites such as Pitchfork may find themselves yearning for the critical wisdom of John Earls and Colin Irwin on Planet Sound, their evident knowledge and enthusiasm for the job never particularly hampered by 25-odd word limits. Digitiser took such an aggressively irreverent attitude to the fawning and cosy relationships in the video-games industry that its rivals in the print media regularly tried to get the chief writers – Paul Rose and Tim Moore – sacked. Having taunted Teletext’s editors so mercilessly to the point that they tried to censor the phrase ‘the three Rs’, because they thought it sounded like arse, Rose and Moore bowed out by printing an image of a sick worm which looked like an ejaculating penis, which was studiously Blakean, very childish and extremely funny.

All long gone now, pretty much. Teletext all but disappeared in 2009, while Ceefax will still be available in Northern Ireland for a few months. The most you can really say about it is it helped pass the time. It would’ve passed anyway, to borrow from Waiting For Godot, but not so rapidly. Your time has come, Ceefax. Thanks for the memories. Goodbye!

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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Topics Culture


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