The joy of text

Barney Ronay and his friends spent many a happy hour following football on Ceefax, but teletext is firmly on the retreat thanks to the digital revolution

The disappearance of a defiantly non-interactive, distinctly uncool and often misspelt page of blue-and-white text might not seem such a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But so far the imminent demise of Ceefax seems to have gone pretty much unnoticed. No public protest, no online petitions, no angry letters to national newspapers. Not that it’s happened yet, but it will. Ceefax, Teletext and the vaguely knocked-off looking versions that have recently ceased appearing on Channel Four and Five are all about to be sacrificed for good at the altar of digital communication. The government’s plans to replace all existing analogue TV signals with digital (the Big Switch Off, in irritating New Labour speak) get into gear later this year. The first transmitters will be junked in 2008, with Scotland’s Border region leading the revolution from above.

But what’s it got to do with football? On the face of it, more than you might think, in a don’t-know-what-you’ve-got-till-it’s-gone kind of way. And by the way, I’ve asked around. It’s not just me. Everybody looks at the football scores on Ceefax. The original internet, there is no better medium to experience that white-knuckle final score moment. Nobody else has brought you news of transfer swoops, groups of death and sudden managerial axings (there is something about Ceefax journalism that warms to these cliches – the lack of space perhaps?). And all without trying to sell you a replica Swiss watch or arrange a gynaecological encounter with an unspecified American teenager. Incidentally, it is really just Ceefax I’m worried about. Yes, technically it’s all teletext and the ITV service is in fact called Teletext. But for sport, and football in particular, it’s always been Ceefax, even if only to avoid the adverts for cheap flights that tend to gatecrash between pages on the commercial channels.

Everyone who watches football on Ceefax will have a favourite text moment, even if it’s just the thrill of seeing the screen refresh to reveal, with great dramatic timing, that in fact it’s still 0-0 and you’re staring intently at a black rectangle with some numbers on it. Occasionally I’ve watched the last 20 minutes of a cup tie, or sat through a penalty shoot-out. Sad, perhaps, but surprisingly engrossing. It’s not just football, either. With my four housemates I watched the last 200 runs of Brian Lara’s record-breaking 501 not out for Warwickshire in 1994 on Ceefax. And it was great.

The absence of sound, pictures, or anybody giving you anything but the most basic information is the essence of Ceefax’s appeal. Ceefax respects your desire just to know the score. No “analysis” from Chris Waddle. No banks of four or quality in wide areas, no news of a fascinating round-table discussion next Thursday night. Just the score, thanks. The BBC’s football website live commentaries strive for an echo of this laconic authority (“attacking throw-in Everton Weir left channel” etc) but end up sounding ludicrously stilted. In fact it’s quite tempting to come on all Newsnight Late Review about the proto-Beckettian sparseness of the Ceefax semiotic, its stark and pre-modern clarity. But really, it’s just about the score.

What comes next? Digital communication abhors a vacuum and there are plenty of 24-hour dedicated rolling football news channels out there, all more than capable of filling the Ceefax-shaped hole. It must be said, at this point, that a form of teletext still exists. It must also be said that it’s crap. Press the red button and eventually a sub-standard version of Ceefax will appear, complete with un-navigable Premiership-obsessive football headlines, no lower league fixtures and a big hole in the middle just in case you might be tempted to switch channels without a glimpse of Noel Edmonds’s face. The real replacement for football on Ceefax is the kind of round-table you-watch-the-pros-watch-football show available on Sky Sports and the BBC. You know the kind of thing. Gordon McQueen, Paul Walsh and Tony Cottee stare at a TV screen and tell you that Blackburn have just won a free-kick but it’s come to nothing still 0-0 at Ewood Park, Jeff. This is essentially Ceefax, but a crazily over-manned version with a human face. It tells you no more, except perhaps that attempts to turn football scores into light entertainment are doomed. The BBC trailers for their Saturday afternoon talk-it-up feature Les Ferdinand corpsing with laughter at something Gavin Peacock has just said, Garth Crooks and Ray Stubbs high-fiving, Adrian Chiles pulling a moony. Yes, you think. But what’s the score? And where’s that mute button?

This is more than just a nostalgic harrumph. It’s also more than just football. The invention of teletext was an instance of the kind of British technological ingenuity that seems increasingly associated with the past. The BBC announced the existence of Ceefax in October 1972. Engineers at Kingswood in Surrey had found a way of sending information inside the ordinary analogue television signal. The service was formally launched in June 1974 at a press conference attended by the relevant minister, after which the BBC began broadcasting through a small mini-computer known to staff as “Esmerelda”. By October 1981 the government was announcing the first – and so far only – National Teletext Month, as countries across the world launched their own text services based on the British model. In the mid-1990s an all-time popularity high was followed by a gradual winding down as the future began to look inexorably digital.

According to government figures, 63 per cent of homes in the UK now have digital TV via Sky, Freeview or cable. Can this be right? Certainly in the next few years an unspecified number of old people, occasional viewers and residents in remote areas are going to start wondering why the aerial on the roof doesn’t work any more. Just as certainly, another long-standing, generally overlooked, but unpretentiously useful part of the experience of following football will have disappeared.

From WSC 229 March 2006. What was happening this month

Comments (1)
Comment by AngleofPostandBar 2010-09-19 21:58:14

Further mourning of the demise of Ceefax/Teletext here: