Ceefax service closes down after 38 years on BBC


How BBC Northern Ireland viewers saw Ceefax say goodbye after 38 years

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BBC Ceefax, the world's first teletext service, has completed its final broadcast after 38 years on air.

Before Olympic champion Dame Mary Peters turned off the last of the UK's analogue TV signals in Belfast, a series of graphics on Ceefax's front page disappeared down to a small dot.

The Plain English Campaign earlier gave Ceefax a lifetime achievement award for "clarity" and use of "everyday words".

And ex-Prime Minister Sir John Major said Ceefax would be "much missed".

Sir John, who has previously revealed that he regularly checked Ceefax pages between Downing Street meetings to keep up to date with cricket scores, said: "Ceefax will be much missed. At moments of high pressure - with little time for detailed examination of the news - Ceefax headlines offered an instant window on the world.

Fond farewells

  • Gary Lineker (via Twitter): I see Ceefax has finally been put to rest. How on earth can we watch Wimbledon now?
  • Nicky Byrne (Strictly contestant, via Twitter): When I was named in the Leeds United 1st team squad v Southampton in 1995 aged 16 my mam & dad recorded the story from Ceefax!!!
  • Pete Clifton (Ceefax editor 1996-2000, via MSN): I'm mourning the death of an old friend, increasingly slow, creaky and made of Lego blocks - but despite outward appearances, a significant force behind some of the whizziest news services in the UK today.
  • Adam Shergold, via Mail Online: "I always admired the reporters who managed to mention every goal in a 4-4 thriller within the confines of four pixelated paragraphs."
  • Lee Walker, Eurosport: "Today marks the death of Jeff Stelling's electronic stepfather."

"From breaking global news to domestic sports news, Ceefax was speedy, accurate and indispensable. It can be proud of its record."

A few weeks after Ceefax provided coverage of its 10th and final Olympic Games, Lord Coe added his own tribute by saying: "Ceefax has been an invaluable news service for every sports fan over the last 38 years.

"I have checked in on many a sports news story, track and field triumph and, of course, Chelsea results!"

Ceefax was launched on 23 September 1974 to give BBC viewers the chance to check the latest news headlines, sports scores, weather forecast or TV listings - in a pre-internet era where the only alternative was to wait for the next TV or radio bulletin to be aired.

Its premise was to give viewers free access to the same information that was coming into the BBC newsroom, as soon as the BBC's journalists had received it.

Ceefax had initially been developed when BBC engineers, exploring ways to provide subtitles to enable viewers with hearing problems to enjoy BBC TV programmes, found it was possible to transmit full pages of text information in the "spare lines" transmitted on the analogue TV signal.

Ceefax in the news

Roy Essandoh
  • In 2001, Roy Essandoh (above) became an FA Cup hero thanks to Ceefax. He read a plea from injury-hit Wycombe for players and got the winner in a quarter-final tie against Leicester
  • Bruce Rioch found out he had been sacked as QPR assistant manager when he read it on Ceefax
  • In 1999, Glenn Hoddle's daughter Zara wrote to Ceefax to back her father when his job as England manager hung in the balance
  • Early in his TV career, Gary Lineker said viewers would have been better off watching the first half of a Wimbledon match on Ceefax
  • In 1994, a newsflash was briefly broadcast on Ceefax during a rehearsal saying the Queen Mother had died. The BBC apologised to her.

The BBC then appointed veteran journalist Colin McIntyre, its former UN correspondent and chief publicity officer, as the first editor of a news and information service which was broadcast using the same method.

It was called Ceefax, simply because viewers would be able to quickly "see the facts" of any story of the day.

McIntyre initially updated 24 news pages on his own, feeding punch tape into machines, before recruiting Ceefax's first eight journalists.

Initially the service was a minority interest, with just a handful of Ceefax-capable TVs in the UK, but it slowly started to gain popularity and the engineering team that developed the service was honoured with a Queen's Award for innovation.

But the real impetus for viewers came when BBC Television decided to use a selection of Ceefax pages, accompanied by music, before the start of programming each day. Initially called Ceefax AM and Ceefax In Vision, the Pages From Ceefax "programme" continued for 30 years, being broadcast overnight on BBC Two until this week.

As viewers got a small taste of what Ceefax had to offer, millions of Britons during the 1980s invested in new teletext-enabled TV sets which gave them access to the full Ceefax service, which by now included recipe details for dishes prepared on BBC cookery shows, share prices, music reviews and an annual advent calendar.

Its audience peaked in the 1990s when it had 20 million viewers who checked the service at least once a week. Since the launch of the National Lottery in 1994, dozens of jackpot winners have revealed that they first learned their life had been changed when they checked their numbers on Ceefax.

The BBC's Points of View programme looks back at Ceefax's 38 years on air

But the launch of the UK's TV digital signal, and the announcement that the analogue TV signal would disappear in a staged switch-off over five years, meant a slow withdrawal of Ceefax, ending with the final broadcast in Northern Ireland.

BBC Northern Ireland and UTV screened a simulcast reviewing the era of analogue TV, and then Dame Mary Peters - 1972 Olympic gold medallist in the pentathlon - pressed the button to change the television landscape.

The hour-long special programme, The Magic Box, was hosted by Eamonn Holmes.

The show was billed as a nostalgic celebration of "the best of Northern Ireland television over the past 60 years".

Speaking as he closed the simulcast programme, Mr Holmes thanked viewers for watching and said: "Here's to the next 60 years."

At the very start

The early days of the service proved anything but hi-tech.

Ceefax journalists would monitor incoming wire copy and when a story was to be updated they would type at one of two production terminals and create a Ceefax page.

Then, they had to produce a punched tape - approximately a yard long - and take it down two flights of stairs to the Central Apparatus Room, load it into a tape reader and watch as it was read into an anonymous metal box called a core store which actually transmitted the pages.

A walk back up to the sixth floor followed and if, at that point, it was discovered that a spelling mistake had been made, the journalist had to go through the whole process again.

It ensured close attention to detail when writing!

Dame Mary described the role of switching off the last analogue transmitter, at Divis Mountain in Belfast, as "a great privilege".

Viewers who checked Ceefax during the evening saw a special graphics countdown on page 100.

And weather presenters on the BBC during the day paid their own tribute by incorporating Ceefax's Lego block-style maps into their forecasts.

Ceefax's commitment to getting information to viewers as quickly and clearly as possible has been marked by the lifetime achievement award from the Plain English Campaign, the pressure group that calls for the use of concise and clear language in all public communication.

Founder Chrissie Maher said: "Ceefax helped everyday people with everyday words and I will be giving it a Chrissie Maher Award for its 30 years of commitment to using plain English. It was my first port of call."

She added: "It helped the public keep in touch with world affairs and everyday information with its crystal-clear communications. I will miss its clarity."

Steve Herrmann, editor of the BBC News website, said in response: "Throughout its distinguished years of service to audiences, Ceefax has always aimed to provide news which is clear, concise and simply expressed.

"It is an honour for us to receive this lifetime achievement award, and it stands as a tribute to all the journalists who have worked on the service over the years, and the care they have taken in writing every story."

Ceefax journalists in 1981 and 2012 The technology has changed over the years and Ceefax is now produced at New Broadcasting House

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said: "Ceefax revolutionised the way in which the public accessed information. Its peak audience of 20 million viewers is testament to the regard in which it was held - its cessation a reminder of how quickly technology is now progressing."

Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader and shadow culture secretary, said: "Ceefax is a great national institution, and it's sad to bid goodbye to a service which gave so many access to news, sport, TV listings and much else besides.

"But with the end of one era comes the start of another as the digital switchover is completed - people can access more channels, and interactive services which are the successors of Ceefax."

Highlights of final pages from Ceefax


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  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    Ceefax sparked my interest in data communications back in the eighties. The ability to fit so much information into such a small bandwidth was fascinating. The shared technology of Prestel running at 1200/75 baud was state of the art. At that speed in would take hours just to download this page.

    Technology aside my favourite waste of time was watching cricket on 341.

    RIP Ceefax.

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    I still miss ceefax - the digital text replacement is rubbish. Often out of date and quite often gibberish. No replacement for the marvellous in-vision facility either - you could keep an eye on the cricket score while still watching a program - great. Progress isn't always for the better and red button text surely the proof of this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    Ceefax was great. I miss it. Mind, I miss analogue TV and vinyl records too. When I were a lad...

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    I remember buying a ceefax adapter for my BBC computer and downloading data for programs, long before the Internet!

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    For that there's the red button and News 24.
    No, I like having no ad breaks and don't want our world-renowned broadcaster sold out for commercial profit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    I can assure you CAN record CEEFAX. The higher standard Super-VHS system recorded the teletext signal almost perfectly. It is also possible to move the head switching point specifically to record it on a standard VHS recorder (nerds only!) Indeed there must be some historic CEEFAX and ORACLE (Optional Reception of Announcements by Coded Line Electronics) waiting to be found in garages and attics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    20 Minutes ago
    Why was it in Ceefax that the page you wanted was ALWAYS just the one which scrolled

    ...and there was I thinking that it was just me - oh, the frustration - still, in it's day it was a marvel - teletype graphics - so 'futuristic' at the time. Happy days!

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    Ceefax was great, perfect for following the football scores on a Saturday afternoon. Much faster than the clunky and difficult to navigate red button. As for the internet, it never delivers the promised speeds (up to), websites update the content more quickly than ISPs provide updated rural connections, so you are always left hanging. Progress, Bah.

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    Ceefax (and dare I say it, Teletext) introduced me to commenting on issues in the public sphere. Needless to say I moved on to commenting online, BBC boards especially, but yes, I DO feel sad to think that it's gone forever. I really enjoyed some of the bizarre rants on page 145....looks like some of them have set up house here!

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    I can claim to have suggested using the # character to indicate music or sung content. I still have the letter from the Editor, CEEFAX thanking me for the suggestion. I had a very early demonstration CEEFAX reciever that had a seperate tuner for the CEEFAX "channel".

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    A friend of mine once won a £5 bet which said he couldn't capture Ceefax on VHS tape - He collected the money but he cheated by recording from BBC2 which showed rolling pages when the channel had no prorgamming but was not actually shut down - vast swathes of the day and night back then.Shame on him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    I know it was great 20 or even 10 years ago, but I can't understand why everyone is so sentimental about it. I'm glad the BBC are saving money by abolishing technological dinosaurs with much better alternatives in the 21st century, such as the Internet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    Did it have Bamboozle though? Nope.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    I still miss the in-vision cricket scores. The wife could still watch her soaps and I could keep track of the cricket all at the same time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    I thought went 2 years ago :/

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    I remember once "watching" Europe win the Ryder cup on Ceefax. Gripping stuff.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    re comment 84 iii, "it was ugly and a chore to use"!!!
    Yes, if Ceefax was introduced now then your comment makes sense, but it wasn't, and for the millions of people who have used it since the 70's to check weather, travel delays and most importantly page 303 on a saturday afternoon ceefax was incredibly usefull and advanced for its time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    I recall visiting our local independent radio station several years ago. When we got to the newsroom the 'news team' turned out to be a chap watching ceefax and jotting down items for the next radio news bulletin

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    I remember as a child turning the tv on when i'd get up before everyone else in the house and the only thing to watch at that time was the Ceefax pages. I'll always remember them fondly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    Ceefax was brilliant: it was the Internet made out of Lego! I shall now have to write a folk song lamenting its passing. . .


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