Teletext and Ceefax: A memoir

ByKim Staples
Ceefax

If you’re an old, wizened crone like me, you may remember a certain little televisual relic of days gone by: Teletext, and its BBC version Ceefax.

Back in the years before we all had proper broadband, we had to rely on blocky 7-bit graphics on our TV screens to get the news, weather, flight information, horoscopes, music reviews, hilarious jokes, and 12-question brainteasers. It worked just like the internet, except it was slower than dial-up and only had 999 pages.

And hey, guess what - it's back. Some nerds (who else?) have managed to resurrect the old teletext format using an analogue TV set and a Raspberry Pi, and thus created Teefax.

It's very much real: it pulls in data from a central Teefax server when you press the honest-to-god 'text' button on your remote, and anyone can set it up in their home, provided you're tech-savvy enough. All you need is an analogue TV, a Raspberry Pi, some cables, and enough comfort with the line command.

Once it's going, you can access old-style pages, which some other nerds have pulled from old VHS tapes, check the weather, and even scroll Twitter feeds through Twitfax.

It all sounds amazing, and it really is, but we'll never bring back the real Teletext. Never again will we see the likes of these pages…

Bamboozle

The first thing anyone thinks of when you mention Teletext is good old Bamboozle - the multiple choice quiz that took several minutes to get to the next question, hosted by our 7-bit host Bamber Boozler. It doesn't seem to be back on Teefax (and the chaps behind it are probably sick to death of being asked about it) but you can get it as an iPhone app from the original creators. It even has the same old brick-like graphics - though you can't cheat the system by pushing all four coloured buttons very quickly.

Bamboozle app

Terrible subtitles on page 888

We doubt anyone misses these - modern subtitles are far, far better than the clunky ones we got on page 888. But there's still room for nostalgia for their odd ways - like how they started each line with a hash when you put them on for the song lyrics on TOTP.

Digitiser

Back when video games were called video games and they were still a speciality interest, Digitiser was the place where you'd find reviews, news, and thoughts from fellow gamers. Just like Reddit, only much more moderated and with much older games.

Glug's Jokes

Glug was a friendly figure the service liked to bandy around - he was a sort of worm or grub or larva, it wasn't quite clear. Anyway, he had a page of side-splitting jokes that readers sent in, in which you'd have to make use of the 'reveal' button on your remote control to see the hilarious answer. We're talking real ground-breaking humour here, like:

What's green and sings?
*presses reveal button*
ELVIS PARSLEY!

Good stuff.

Teletext logo

Mabel the mop lady

There were the standard music reviews on The Void, and then there were the real ones from Mabel the mop lady, a charming old biddy who lent her ear and thoughts to the latest releases. If it was a dancey pop album, she liked it, and said she could bop around to it with her mop; if it was moody shoegaze, she hated it.

Frame It

Ceefax, for some reason, got kids to send in their drawings, which they then translated into texty art and put up on the Frame It pages. Here's a great one of The Mask by Curtis, 7.

Mega-zine

No one else seems to have heard of this, but I swear it existed (and here's an article to validate my decade-old memories). The Zine began life as a standard readers' letters page on the teen magazine section of Teletext, but it evolved into something quite different. Readers wrote in with observations, anecdotes, thoughts, jokes, and responses to other letters - only they did it under ridiculous nicknames like The Brigadier and Insane Jam Sow, and completely at odds with the celeb gossip on the rest of the teen pages.

It created a weirdly niche and tight-knit community… much like today's Teletext revivers. Apparently text-based TV services attract just that sort of crowd.

Want to be a part of them? Why not pop along to the Teletext Festival in Cambridge later this year? And take a look at how to install Teefax at home.

 

Topics: Digital TV

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