Wednesday, 18 April 2012

RIP Pages from Ceefax

There has been much lamenting by television nostalgics today about the end of Ceefax, that blameless service which has become collateral damage in the great digital switchover. Actually it still seems to be clinging on in various places but it disappeared in London today when the Crystal Palace transmitter went digital, hence the national news story.

Ceefax was born in a Brompton Road pub in 1969, when a group of television engineers met to work out how spare capacity in the new 625 line TV signal could be used to provide subtitles for deaf viewers. When Ceefax started in 1974, it was the first teletext service in the world - enabling the viewer to ‘see facts’ - and the start of interactive television.

Ceefax was a minority interest at first, as you needed a new television to get it, but the popularity in Britain of rented televisions, which could easily be upgraded, ensured a steadily rising uptake. The service received a great boost in the 1980s when gaps in the schedules began to be filled not with Test Card F but with a selection of pages from Ceefax, accompanied by bland lift music (which, according to Test Card fans, was never a patch on the music by unknown session artists that accompanied the girl with the balloon and the blackboard. Bob Stanley of the band Saint Etienne is doing a talk at the ICA next week on this very subject.) In 1981 there were less than 120,000 teletext TV sets; by 1990 there were 7.5 million.

Ceefax’s go-to pages were well known to initiates: 102 for news, 302 for football, 400 for weather, 430 for train timetables, 888 for subtitles – good for watching Top of the Pops if you wanted to decipher the lyrics. Some people would watch the football on Ceefax, staring at the 0-0 score and willing a goal for their team. I suspect this is more gripping than it sounds.

Anyway, RIP pages from Ceefax, little Zen moments of stillness and contemplation in the otherwise endless flow of television. We have no need of you now that television is on all the time and it will never, ever end.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for this, Joe. I grew up with Ceefax and (as it then was) Oracle (later to be superseded by the drearily-named Teletext UK) and remember them fondly. The digital versions over-promised and under-delivered hugely. You still had to wait, whereas with old-school teletext services, you knew you were going to have to, and that was an inherent part of the experience rather than an anachronistic irritation.

    For anyone wanting to indulge their own nostalgia, there are excerpts on YouTube, or try this: a resume of what Ceefax offered in October 1983, at http://teletext.mb21.co.uk/gallery/ceefax/evening/19831003/index.shtml

    Are you going to write about Ceefax and Oracle in your upcoming book on TV? I hope so.

    Jo

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  2. Thanks Jo - Yes there might be a bit about Ceefax if I can shoehorn it in somewhere.

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