Ceefax: A love letter

Millions lose Ceefax With the latest switch-off, only a handful of places in the UK still have Ceefax. In a personal view, long-term addict Matthew Engel mourns its demise.

Living in deep country, I have been grieving for nearly two years now. Londoners, as usual, are about the last people in Britain to find out.

But today they will finally get the message. Or, to be more precise, they will have stopped getting the message.

One of the last major areas of population in the UK - London - has switched over to digital TV, enabling licence-fee payers to watch, without further payment, 40 channels instead of five.

However, my digibox still doesn't seem to work reliably, something I might try to do something about if there was much on any of the 40 channels I ever wanted to watch.

And nothing can bring back the TV service I miss the most. Lost in the changeover - a fact somewhat played down on the Digital UK website - is dear old Ceefax.

It has been the news service of choice for discerning BBC viewers for the past 38 years.

For now, Kent, Sussex, north-east England and Northern Ireland can still wallow in it. This could lead to a sudden exodus from London.

But the situation is hopeless. Within months, the UK's Ceefax service will be lost forever.

For the benefit of some benighted foreigners who never had the privilege (Americans, for instance), Ceefax is, or was, a push-button service that enabled viewers to bring up basic textual information on their screens.

It was invented in the 1970s when engineers exploited unused parts of the broadcast spectrum and quickly took hold as text-enabled sets became available. ITV's Oracle (later Teletext) competed with the BBC's Ceefax.

They will, I suppose, be remembered as primitive precursors of the internet, with four paragraphs of text per page and a limited number of characters - requiring considerable skill from the sub-editors.

There were also sweet but strange graphics.

Obsolete? Well, maybe. There are a zillion things one can do on the internet that are impossible on Ceefax.

It would have certainly struggled to replay yesterday's edition of The Archers or show you a porn film. But it had some strengths that seem irreplaceable.

Firstly, it could do the basics very fast. I have four immediate needs first thing in the morning: a pee, tea, a period of reflective silence about the day ahead, and a quick reassurance that nothing has happened in the night that might change that day drastically.

About 362 nights out of every 365 nothing does happen. But a journalist needs to be sure - the memory of the 4am death of Princess Diana is still seared into my brain.

Ceefax was perfect for that job - press 101 for the news headlines, 201 for business, 301 for sport, 401 for the weather (I adored that weather map, made up of coloured spots, like a pointillist painting).

All quiet, thank you, and back to bed to finish the tea before the average PC has finished warming up.

Secondly, it provided an instant and BBC-certified timecheck, accurate to the second, on every page. I have no idea how you can replace that in a Ceefax-less world.

And thirdly, I am assured by BBC sources that it was also a joy to work with.

"If you were amending a page, it went through instantly," says my snout. "When you change something on the web, it may go through instantly. Or it may not."

Unusually for me, I was an early adopter and for a while I could ring my office and say I had just had a tip-off about some breaking news, until they got a new TV set and rumbled me.

Soon everyone was on to it and at its peak - in the 1990s, I guess - more than a third of the UK population checked in at least once a week.

On any given day there might be 2,000 pages - travel news, ski and surf reports, kids' games, recipes, all sorts of stuff. It was a great way to follow the cricket scores.

I remember one unusually thrilling top-of-the-table county match in the 1990s - Warwickshire v Northamptonshire, eight to win, last pair at the wicket. Just seeing the scoreboard tick over on the screen was somehow more exciting than being there.

ITV which, after a promising start, failed to match the Beeb for content, managed to get a useful earner for a while by building a big trade in holiday ads. All gone now.

Officially, son-of-Ceefax will continue to exist.

Press the red button on your new digital-enabled set and you get a text service - of sorts. It isn't the same and I'm sure the BBC knows it.

For about-to-be-deprived Londoners, I can only suggest two forms of therapy.

Two years after we lost Ceefax here on the Welsh border, I have rebuilt my life by bookmarking different news websites and, well, I get by.

And on the internet, teletext nostalgia is in full cry. A site called http://teletext.mb21.co.uk/ offers material for recovering addicts and what appears to be a diminishing number of functioning links to the European services that still exist.

But even I may be willing to accept there must be easier ways of getting the headlines in Slovenian.

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Matthew Engel is a cricket writer and a columnist on the Financial Times. And read more on Ceefax's red button replacement by Steve Herrmann, editor of the BBC News website.

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