Confessions of a Ceefax Addict

Ceefax has sadly gone forever, and whilst I might not be able to earn a living without the Internet, I will never replace it in my heart. The quizzes, transfer rumours, late night sex text and festive Plum Duff remind me of an age I'd like to return to...
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Ceefax has sadly gone forever, and whilst I might not be able to earn a living without the Internet, I will never replace it in my heart. The quizzes, transfer rumours, late night sex text and festive Plum Duff remind me of an age I'd like to return to...
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Ceefax has sadly gone forever, and whilst I might not be able to earn a living without the Internet, I will never replace it in my heart. The quizzes, transfer rumours, late night sex text and festive Plum Duff remind me of an age I'd like to return to...

You spend your childhood dreaming of the robot butlers, food pills and hover boots that will greet the older you, and yet on reaching a certain age, you may feel compelled to HOLD the passage of time (not that we have robot butlers and the like) and go back a page to a simpler time. Back to when life was ruled by anticipation. When our free time was spent on an information super ‘B-road’. The godfather of the net. Teletext.

More and more these days I’m wanting life to go backwards. I’m pining for the past, but not because I can’t jive with the kids, no, but because I don’t think a lot of the changes we’ve experienced have been for the best. Going to football for example has reached an impasse because the experience is too[ital] comfortable. People are now paying for facilities they don’t actually want and possibly can’t afford. I want the Dell, the old Den, Upton Park, not a stadium designed for hurdles and pole vault with meal deals and seats covered in leatherette. I liked the weed-covered terraces and the smell of cigarettes on the old man’s flat cap. I could stand for 90 minutes without the aid of a jumbotron TV and a half time cross-bar challenge.

Take, mobile phones for example. These are an irritant. A nasty buzzing box of garbage that monitors moves, changes moods and leaves one open like a 24-hour call centre of despair. TEXT: “Sorry M8 I’m gonna B hlf hour late!” Cheers. If I could ditch it, without the wheels falling off my life I would. Miserable things.

Irony of ironies is that of course I’m writing this for an online magazine – a terrific organ too – but I can’t help thinking that there are some stops on our technological road trip through life, which at least seem[ital] to be better than the destination.

Ceefax graphics were cool and Spartan, later emulated by the BBC Micro computer, whereas ORACLE looked like the shop brand baked bean, with its brash colours and adverts

The internet is OK. If all of life can exist in a grain of sand, then the net is the Sahara. Or maybe Margate. It’s bad, sad, exciting, boring and there’s too much of it. It can do good. It can do evil. But this is where I feel that it starts to fall down as a scientific breakthrough, because I like my technology to be bereft of humanity. That’s why for me, teletext beats the net block-graphic-hands down.

Teletext in its generic sense (rather than the ITV adopted name of 1993) was the shit. Anyone who can recall going to bed as a child not knowing your team’s midweek results, will know what I’m talking about. Ceefax and ORACLE blew our minds, as our television sets with their crummy four channels, were transformed into makeshift computers during the late ’70s/early ’80s. Analogue made to look like digital with clumsy computer graphics and dark screens. Suddenly War Games and Tron were our in our living rooms. The TV remote allowed us to enter the matrix. A British matrix.

Teletext – initially pioneered by the GPO (with its two-way modem-based service: Prestel) and the BBC simultaneously since the late 60s – was the game changer when the Beeb and then the ITA first slotted this genie into our sets, on a mass production scale during the early 80s. Prestel had splintered off. ITA’s ORACLE ‘Optional Reception of Announcements by Coded Line Electronics’ and Ceefax (see facts geddit?) had been available on a limited run since 1973 and 1974 respectively) but by 1982 two million of us had it. Teletext with a small ‘t’ is still the generic term – formerly known as teledata – although the Daily Mail capped the ‘T’ in ’93, but more on that later.

I was a Ceefax man. I’ve always been BBC (on FA Cup day and the like) and for me it was a no brainer. Ceefax graphics were cool and Spartan, later emulated by the BBC Micro computer, whereas ORACLE looked like the shop brand baked bean, with its brash colours and adverts. Although to be fair, I did bed hop quite a bit. Ceefax just seemed more reliable and sobre. ORACLE was a little more loose and cavalier, seen in the launch of the first text ‘soap’ in ‘Park Avenue’. Channel 4’s hip-and-happening text was worth a look too; got my ‘ten best things of 1987’ on there. But what joyous scenes these were as Britain led from the front, for the rest of the world to follow.

Christmas was celebrated with a giant pixilated plum duff, complete with moving steam. For many that crummy dessert was[ital] Christmas. A Santa hat-wearing Bamboozle, their only friend.

When ORACLE gave way to the craftily re-branded ITV service Teletext in ’93 – after unsuccessfully trying to keep its licence – we were in the middle of a text war. But ORACLE refused to go out without a fight, however, and its last transmission on New Year’s Eve 1992 before the dawn of the Daily Mail group’s Teletext was thus: “00.00 The End of ORACLE. Now the Nightmare Begins.”

It wasn’t a nightmare though. It was a massive improvement – or it seemed to be – and even some die-hard Ceefax lads started looking over their shoulders at the new slick-as-an-otter’s-arse competitor. Suddenly Ceefax was looking a little dowdy.

I wouldn’t say I was an addict as such, I mean I could go on holiday without having to press “300, 302…” like a crazed chimp, but if the telly was on, the likelihood was that text was on. Advert breaks on ITV were the prime opportunity. When FastText came out in the late 80s, shit was real. A five-minute commercial cessation from the main feature was a desperate race against time, as football scores flicked from page to page, with the all-important ‘club line’ pages stuck to the end with all sorts of cryptic lies.

One of the most exciting days of my life was the introduction of the score UPDATE button that returned the TV to a normal state, as you waited for a joyous little box to appear should a goal be scored. Even cross-country on Grandstand was somehow exciting not knowing when these little red and green text bombs would explode.

Bamboozle and his younger brother Brian’s quizzes utilising the righteous REVEAL function (on C4), were a student treat, whilst SEX TEXT (blue content after 23.00pm on Teletext), was possibly the most sublimely ridiculous idea ever conceived. If you could get off on reading Teletext then you could probably achieve an erotic endgame with a novelty cruet set.

The teletext (small t) editorial was so sublimely clipped. Brevity reigning. No bullshit. The top 40, TV listings, record and film reviews and the utterly mystifying chess pages, teletext was blissfully free of conjecture

The teletext (small t) editorial was so sublimely clipped. Brevity reigning. No bullshit. The top 40, TV listings, record and film reviews and the utterly mystifying chess pages, teletext was blissfully free of conjecture. I remember learning about Cantona’s kung-fu kick (I instantly switched the radio on after) on text. Princess Diana’s death and Tony Blair’s triumph are stored away in blocky nuggets of memory. Christmas was celebrated with a giant pixilated plum duff, complete with moving steam. For many that crummy dessert was[ital] Christmas. A Santa hat-wearing Bamboozle, their only friend.

Text was better than the net, because it had dignity. It also looked like a computer, which the net doesn’t. Teletext didn’t bring you down. You took only that which you wanted. It was honest, decent and truthful; apart from when a football score was incorrect and the heart would flutter for a second time on its correction. It also made you wait a little bit to get your hit. It had suspense built in, especially if you had dodgy reception that corrupted those precious words. Sometimes you could freeze time itself with an all-so precious HOLD. Just like the net, it had clandestine things going on too, for those Textheads who remember the hidden texts on the 888 test pages, but for the most part of it was a gentleman.

The net ultimately prevailed of course, after satellite TV had already drawn us away from the main four sites of teletextual excellence; ‘5 text’ was certainly nothing to get excited about. And on 1st Jan 2010 Teletext was finally pulled and Ceefax is now a Digitext service which is an insult to the real thing. Tinted, translucent onscreen panels and red buttons, it does nothing for the purist.

So, it’s the net now. It was a fair old scrap. But as we sit on our phones, or jabbing away at our laptops just remember one thing: who was it that carried on reporting 9-11 when the web had ground to a halt after the first jet hit? Page 100, NEWS, page 101 HEADLINES. Tele-fucken-text. That’s who.

So, thank you teletext for all the great times we shared. I’m sure if you could have reported on your own death, a flickering candle symbolising the nation’s love, would have graced your home page. If only we could have pressed HOLD at precisely 23.59, and 59 seconds.

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