Ceefax

On 23 October 2012, at 23:32 British Summer Time, Ceefax died.

Ceefax (“see facts”) was the world’s first teletext information service. It was developed by BBC engineers who were testing out ways of providing television subtitles for the deaf (closed captioning). After some test transmissions, the Ceefax system was properly born on 23 September 1974, when the BBC broadcast about 30 pages of information. Ceefax ended when the Olympic Games champion Dame Mary Peters turned off the UK’s only remaining analogue TV signal in Northern Ireland.

The UK’s digital switchover was finally complete. After 38 years of broadcasting, the “text” button on the TV remote control was forever fated to be dead.

For those who can’t recall the funeral services, teletext was a way of transmitting pages of text, and a few (very low-res) images, through a spare bit of the analogue TV signal: the field blanking interval. That’s the interval it takes for the electron beam that “draws” the 625 lines of each frame of your television picture onto your screen to get itself back to its starting position ready to draw the next one. Spare space! Ripe to stuff with information!

Teletext was broadcast in numbered pages. News: page number101. Business: 201. Sport: 301. Weather: 401. Entertainment: 501. TV Listings: 601. The subtitles lived on page 888. You keyed into your remote the three-digit page number you wanted and, after what seemed like a small eternity, the page finally displayed on the screen.

Ceefax

The delay was because the broadcaster constantly broadcast the pages in sequence. You’d request the page then wait for it to be broadcast and displayed. The more pages being broadcast, the longer you would wait. The teletext pages arrived in seven colours of blocky text on a black background.

Teletext was like an incredibly arthritic internet. But, when you didn’t have any internet at all, and hadn’t even imagined one, it was like lightning. Before Twitter, the Ceefax pages were often the first place you could read about a breaking news story. Before the web, the only way to find out what was happening right now was to wait for the next TV or radio bulletin to air. But Ceefax could get there first. You got the same information that was coming into the newsrooms, as soon as the journalists had time to type it up. That was incredibly exciting.

Teletext was cutting edge. The future. Stock market prices, flight information, whether it was going to rain: facts at your fingertips in a way that simply wasn’t available elsewhere, when newspapers printed once a day and the news wouldn’t be on until 5.40pm.

ITV’s teletext service, Oracle, then Teletext Ltd, became famous for offering bargain holidays. So famous, in fact, that one firm still trades as “Teletext Holidays” even though some of its customers may never have seen the eponymous information-delivery device.

My favourite memories of Ceefax, however, are probably the “Pages from Ceefax” television programme.

On-air broadcasts of Ceefax pages started in 1982, in the hours after the main programmes went off-air, after the little white dot. The pages scrolled by, accompanied by elevator music, and were often the only entertainment available to those coming home late, the sleepless, or the early risers. That was me, in 1988, when my first child was born. I’d stumble downstairs about 5.30am to feed and change him, and sit on the sofa as a selection of random facts filled the screen. It wasn’t interactive at all but still held out the promise that you were in touch with the world, even if the world was dark and everyone you knew was asleep.

If you miss the blocky letters, you can visit a dedicated teletext museum which will also fill you in on all the technical information about the way the service was developed, refined, and assassinated. You can also watch the last ever “Pages from Ceefax” should you find yourself, one early morning, in need of a little nostalgia.

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