Technology never stands still and things nearly always move forward in the consumer world of communications for the better. Nevertheless, the final switch off of analogue television in the United Kingdom has left me a little saddened. Not only has it brought back lots of memories of how I used to watch television through the years, many of which would seem like the depths of primitivism to the hip kids of today, but the real loss is the quite glorious and wonderful Ceefax, a faithful servant through the decades, the demise of which seems to be a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Analogue TV may well have had to go, but where’s my old buddy Ceefax now when I need him?
Even as a child of the 1970s I’ve been through quite a few changes to viewing patterns and technology before and can only wonder at those born twenty years earlier who might faintly remember the days of one channel television on real museum pieces of furniture. My first memories of ever watching television at all are on a black and white set when I was about two. Colour television had been experimented with in the UK in the 1960s and became general across the channels in 1970 but it’s easy for people to think now that everyone suddenly woke up to a new colour dawn as soon as the 70s began. Far from it. Colour TVs were more expensive and a colour TV license was more expensive. Furthermore, a lot of programming was still in black and white, particularly any repeats, so many persisted with black and white sets for a number of years until colour TVs eventually became the norm. Even once my family owned our first colour TV I would still step back in time at holidays spent with my grandparents who were trapped in the world of black and white. Added to that, a lot of television aimed directly at children was being broadcast in black and white right up into the 1980s with old repeats of Flash Gordon, King of the Rocket Men, Champion the Wonder Horse, Robinson Crusoe and the like.
These were the days of only three channels of course and, when I was young, I rarely found anything to interest me on BBC2 so there may as well have only been two. Television tended to finish soon after midnight with the playing of the national anthem and shutting down, there was no breakfast news in the morning and certainly no daytime programming to speak of other than for schools and children in the morning and dreary efforts in the afternoon. I can well remember days spent off school sick, lying on the sofa with a blanket around me while enduring Crown Court or being mentally tortured by the unspeakable boredom of Australian imports such as The Sullivans. It was all a cunning ploy to force children back to school, to show them that staying off came at a price and that getting well soon was a virtue. And, of course, lying there sickly, you really did have to endure what was on. Remote controls were a device from the future, probably to only be obtained shortly after jetpacks, and changing the channels in those days meant getting up and walking across the room. Planning your viewing was important back then as no one could be bothered making the walk to the TV needlessly (I can still remember our first remote control – a curious device in the early 80s which was connected to the TV via a lead which only stretched halfway across the room, allowing only one chair to control the channels). And even then planning was also more difficult. No digi guides back then. No, you had to buy not just one but two listings mags as the Radio Times published only the two BBC channels and the handful of BBC radio channels while the always inferior and cheap TV Times published your single local ITV channel’s listings.
Another point about planning your TV viewing (which seems impossible to my own son today) was that if you missed something then that was it, no second chances. Sometimes a show might get repeated the next year if it was a popular comedy but often if you missed something then you never got another chance to see it. No DVD or Blu-ray release the following Monday, no BBC3 repeat the next day, no Virgin On Demand allowing you to watch it at a time of your choosing later that night, no Tivo hard drive to record it on, no iPlayer on the internet, no illegal torrent downloads available, not even – wait for it – a VHS recorder. In the 70s I can remember that the threat to stop you watching a particular programme if you misbehaved was the ultimate nuclear sanction. The most deadly of all weapons in a parent’s arsenal. “You can’t watch your programme until you’ve finished your dinner.” “But it’s on already.” “Then you’ll just have to eat all the quicker, won’t you?” It should also be pointed out that these were the days before second TVs were even common. Every house I knew of had only one in the living room and I can still remember the horror as I missed an entire episode of Doctor Who while fighting my way tearfully through a dinner in the back of the house which contained my old nemesis, baked beans. It was impossible for me to eat these foul things quickly and not even Doctor Who could prompt me into doing so which was why I begged for mercy. None was forthcoming and by the time I had eaten the last of the disgusting beans I ran as fast as my legs would carry me into the living room only to see literally one second of a giant rat running towards the camera and the final credits going up. It was the first episode of a story called The Talons of Weng-Chiang broadcast (so the internet tells me) on the 26th February 1977. I finally saw the episode when it was released on VHS in November 1988. The nuclear threat indeed, although I’ve never eaten a single baked bean again in my life so something has come out of it at least.
My favourite programme was Doctor Who and I can well remember the rising panic that came often when family shopping trips into town seemed to be heading dangerously into the part of the evening reserved for Who. I can still clearly hear the assurances that we’d be back home in time on a November evening in 1975 as I was particularly enjoying Tom Baker’s struggles against the evil Sutekh and his robot mummies. We made it back for the last five minutes. It was released on VHS ten years later in 1985. When Tom Baker was pitted against vampires on a dark night at the tail end of 1980 I knew we wouldn’t make it home in time and so my dad and I sat in the cold outside the window of the TV hire shop Radio Rentals, which always had a display TV switched on, and I was able to watch the episode with no sound. It was 1997 before that one was released on VHS.
When I first heard my dad speak of a device which was able to record television when you were out of the house so you could watch it back later it seemed like some kind of witchcraft to me. I remember not being able to understand the concept or quite believe that such a thing could be real. But, after hearing about it for the first time at the start of the 80s and perhaps starting to see them being giving away as the star prize on game shows, we found ourselves in possession of one around 1982 via the trusty Radio Rentals with piano-type levers you pressed down on at the front and tapes loaded in on the top as some fearsome spring popped up a door. And life changed. Not only could I record things when I was out but I could keep them forever if I wanted. However, the cost of tapes was prohibitive. I seem to remember 60 min tapes made by Thorn EMI costing six or seven quid which is a whopping £17 in today’s money. I’ve just checked that I can buy a 100 disc spindle of DVD-Rs from a reliable manufacturer like Verbatim for £17-95, each capable of holding 120 mins of video. In other words, it’s now 200 times cheaper to record than it was back in 1982.
My dad came home nearly every night with offerings from some place called Freddy’s Video and the family soon found themselves connoisseurs of badly dubbed Bruce Lee movies and everything else which was going. We devoured TV like never before and when programmes like Fawlty Towers and Monty Python became available to rent I sucked them in and loved them over and over before the rental period was up. Happy times. Eventually the price of tapes started to come down a little and then wars would erupt in the household between myself and my sister over who had the right to permanently keep something on a tape. My vote was always for the Colin Baker Doctor Who stories which were being shown at the time while my sister would always demand that her recordings of Wham on Top of the Pops were more worthy of eternal preservation.
It was around the early 80s as well that we became a multi-TV household. First of all there was a small portable TV and we stepped back into the world of black and white as black and white portables were vastly more affordable than colour ones. Its useless aerial demanded constant readjustment every time the wind changed direction in the slightest and each person displayed onscreen was often accompanied by a ghost of themselves overlapping the main image. Nevertheless, this new piece of technology, primitive as it was, seemed like a luxury at the time. I fondly recall being allowed to take it up to my bedroom so I could stay up late and watch episodes on ITV of the US comedy import Soap which I watched with the earpiece plugged in. Yes, this TV was so technologically advanced that it came with a short piece of wire with one earphone on the end so that you could listen to it personally. But only in one ear.
Eventually, the ancient family TV was moved from the living room to the back room and we became a three TV house around the time we got the VHS deck. The old TV had been something of a wonder when we bought it in the mid 70s as the buttons didn’t need to be pressed in but responded to the touch of your fingertips on their metal surface! The manufacturers were even forward-thinking because there were four channels and I wondered at the day that might become possible and there would actually be four channels. Over the years though its channels had actually decreased to less than those available to watch as some of the touch buttons no longer worked and you could only watch two channels on it. As sad though as I was to see this old trooper being shunted into semi-retirement the new living room TV was a thing of beauty because it had Ceefax!
I used to watch Pages from Ceefax when I was younger. They would be shown during the times when TV was often not on, back in the day before 24/7 TV became the norm. It could be viewed on Saturday mornings while waiting for Swap Shop or Saturday Superstore to come on or perhaps late at night for a while after a channel had stopped broadcasting programmes. It seemed like some sort of marvel to me. That you could press something on a remote control device belonging to some TV of the Future and you could then access quizzes and news and weather and all sorts of stuff. Truly, the world of tomorrow had arrived. However, we could only watch a selection of the pages on an endless loop while a piece of, often very cheesey, mood music played over it. When we got our first TV capable of displaying Ceefax I couldn’t wait to get home from school that first week so I could look up almost any page that was on it. Horse racing results, cookery tips, holiday offers, it didn’t matter what I was looking at almost, it was the fact that I suddenly could look at it. My sister and I now fought for control of the remote so we could make Ceefax work in our own preferred way as its master.
Of course, there wasn’t just Ceefax but there was also the ITV equivalent, called Oracle. Even at the age of 13 or whatever I was though I could see cheap things for what they were and Oracle was always a very poor cousin of Ceefax indeed. Not only did it not look quite as good (yes, Ceefax’s chunky block graphics once looked like cutting edge) but you also had to endure pages of adverts which would invariably flick up before you had finished reading the page forcing you to wait until the page you wanted came round again after the advert. No, Oracle was never up to much and remained unloved in my house even after it changed its name to the incredibly bland Teletext which was the exact equivalent of a TV channel calling itself Television.
Once the initial novelty of Ceefax wore off I got my pages down to a regular order of importance and every day would start off with the news that Ceefax could give me. First up was Page 102, the main News Index. Then it was Page 302, the football news index. Next was Page 501 for the index on Entertainment News and, finally, I’d look up Page 160 for the dreary stories of the Troubles from Northern Ireland’s local news index. These one page stories of text were an incredible news digest service which kept me up to date with everything I needed to know about the world, my country, TV and film and football. Ceefax over breakfast brought me up to speed each morning and you could still listen to BBC’s Breakfast Time (as it was then known) in the background. I continued this ritual for thirty years!
There were other changes to TV between then and now, of course. Breakfast television itself was a huge development when both ITV’s TV-am and the BBC’s Breakfast Time began broadcasting in 1983 and when Channel 4 appeared one year earlier in 1982 it was a very big deal. I recall rushing home from a holiday at my grandparents to be back in time for the switching on and the first programme. which was… err… Countdown. And then hearing the same piece of music for three minutes every ad break for weeks on end as there was some sort of dispute with the advertising and all they could put in the ad slots was the channel ident graphics with the Channel 4 theme. Still, the most impossible thing for people to imagine today is that, back then, Channel 4 was actually a superb and worthwhile TV channel.
We became a two VHS deck house in 1989 when I took advantage of some sort of Radio Rentals student deal to get myself a colour portable TV (making us a four TV house!) and a video player. Now I not only had video in the comfort of my own room but could, on occasions hook up the video to the one downstairs to copy movies and TV series among friends. I’d never had it so good! I still have both the TV and video player to this day in my bedroom, even though it’s only good for watching VHS tapes on as it can’t pick up digital signals.
Satellite TV arrived for me in the early 90s and Sky always looked slightly naff to me from the start. Aside from sport I just wasn’t interested in their entertainment schedules (though I would later catch up with many years’ worth of The Simpsons feeling that I’d missed out). Much, much better looking was the other satellite option of BSB (British Satellite Broadcasting) which had a really good basic entertainment channel and even made some of its own programmes. Above all else though it was dedicated to showing the best of British archive television rather than flogging some lame and cheap US import to us as Sky did. Also, while the early Sky dishes were renowned for playing up in bad weather in terms of reception, the BSB dish was much smaller, technologically better and was square! It was a sad day for me when the news broke that the fledgling British satellite market wasn’t big enough for two players and the two companies merged into British Sky Broadcasting. This had all the hallmarks of your favourite childhood comic merging with another title only for your comic’s name to be a tiny subtitle beneath the other’s and which would be dropped altogether in due course while the handful of characters you enjoyed would be eventually discontinued from the range of strips. British Sky Broadcasting was obviously just going to be known as Sky, all the BSB channels were dropped, all the original programming was dropped, all their archive TV was dropped, the Square dish was dropped and I was forced to get Sky’s inferior one with all their inferior programming. And pay Rupert Murdoch for the privilege. Still, I got to see Manchester United win their first title in 26 years during that first season of live Premiership football so it wasn’t all bad.
In the meantime, for Saturday afternoon football that wasn’t on live I would often sit at home with Ceefax as my companion. Page 316 was the Saturday page of choice for any football fan as it ran through all the top level matches with the scores and goalscorers over a number of rotating sub-pages. Quite often I’d forget that I could actually be listening to reports and commentary on the radio as I’d be engrossed in watching the pages flip round, waiting for one of them to change with new information. Television itself had changed beyond belief since I’d started watching three channels on our one black and white set. By the 90s we had TVs all over the house and we had the beginning of the multi-channel revolution and devices for playing back programmes which I could buy or record to keep forever. But still, good old chunky, blocky Ceefax looked exactly the same as it had always done and I loved its stability and refusal to change.
Digital television came upon us and I knew the end was coming for my old friend. Digital television has a text service on its red button but it’s a charmless thing which seems a lot less informative and less wide-ranging than the faithful old dinosaur Ceefax. It was announced that analogue TV services, which carried the Ceefax signal, would be switched off throughout the United Kingdom by 2012 with different regions bowing out in stages earlier than others. It seemed like a move backwards to opt for the red button text service over something which I thought was actually better like Ceefax. Nevertheless, some crumb of comfort was found in the knowledge that Northern Ireland was to be last in this process of forced digital viewing on Tuesday 23rd October 2012. If Ceefax was going to sink beneath the waves, at least I could stay on deck right to the bitter end.
And so the final day came and it was a minor news story throughout the UK even for those regions which had lost their own ability to view Ceefax many months or years earlier (the digital rollout began in 2008 and various regions dropped out of analogue broadcasting over the course of the next four years). It was good to see that Ceefax itself was mourned just as much as the end of analogue TV was being marked. I took a few photos of the final day of pages just to keep as a record of this old TV companion of mine and to act as a final resting home on this page for anyone who might stumble upon them and might be interested in them, like some virtual online Bagpuss’ shop.
As for analogue TV itself, BBC2 switched off in Northern Ireland (and therefore the last place in the UK) a fortnight before the final deadline. BBC1 Northern Ireland and Ulster TV joined forces for a joint broadcast of their greatest hits through the years called The Magic Box. BBC1NI (and Ceefax) switched off just after 11.30pm with some nice old idents and a final image of the current BBC logo. UTV followed a few minutes later with a service announcement and offering some phone lines for those still confused about the whole thing! Channel 4 kept ploughing on past the supposed 11.30 cut-off and finally disappeared some time between 11.40 and 11.45 during some random moment it would seem of an episode of Homeland. Five, or whatever it’s called theses days, held on into the next day with their usual snowstorm reception, not even mentioning its imminent switch off when it started a new programme at 11.55pm! They were still showing regional Northern Ireland adverts after midnight during the first commercial break and then analogue TV finally winked out in Northern Ireland, and the UK as a whole, halfway through the post-ad-break opening line of dialogue of an episode of CSI:NY. As it was, the final sentence ever spoken on analogue broadcasting in the UK was the unforgettable, “Hey, come with me”!
Farewell then to good old analogue Ceefax. You served us faithfully, but nothing ever stays the same forever, and neither it should I guess. I’ll still miss you though.
Final regional news index page
Final football index page
Final entertainment index page
TV listings page for the final night
Music chart page for the final night
The incredibly detailed weather map of the UK on the final night
Front index page for the final night
The start of a sequence of pages with Ceefax bidding farewell to its readers in the final moments.
And with that Ceefax fades slowly down to a white dot on the screen before disappearing altogether.
Analogue TV on the BBC bowed out with a compilation of the BBC idents over the years.
This one being the best, of course!
And this was the final image.