diamond geezer

 Tuesday, October 23, 2012

It's time to wave goodbye to Ceefax. You probably didn't realise it was still broadcasting, because it probably isn't round your way. But Ceefax lives on in the one corner of the country where analogue TV survives, which is Northern Ireland. And it lives on until just before midnight tonight, at which point the plug is pulled, the final digital switchover takes place and Ceefax is consigned to history.

You could have watched Ceefax yesterday, had you been awake early enough. BBC2 sometimes shows Pages From Ceefax in the slot before breakfast, complete with authentic testcard-style music, rather than simulcast the BBC News Channel with BBC1. Yesterday's highlights kicked in at 4:45am, a rolling programme of news, sport and weather, just like it has done for decades. But this was the very last Pages From Ceefax, because you can't have Pages from something which doesn't exist. Did you not tune in, or at least record it to replay over a bowl of Shreddies before work? Just me then?

The BBC's early morning continuity announcer gave the final Pages From Ceefax an appropriate sendoff. A rare appearance for the 1979 BBC2 logo was accompanied by a reminder to viewers of the significance of what was about to happen. We learned that Ceefax in Vision has been broadcast on the BBC since 1980, until today, and that this was "the end of an era". So "Enjoy for the very last time...", said the mellifluous voice, before a blue screen with a blocky yellow C E E F A X appeared. How exciting those graphics once were, and now how utterly superseded. The usual parade of pages rolled by for just over an hour, accompanied by a selection of those easy listening sax pieces that were such a part of testcard viewing in my youth. This was the full version of "Great Ocean Road", I understand, which aficionados can relive here if in need of melodious respite.

Ten minutes before oblivion an intermittent countdown (in red) appeared in the top left corner of the display. With four minutes remaining the music changed to a complete rendition of "Bart" by 70s US rock band Ruby - which you might have sat through while waiting for a schools programme in your youth. The final news page had the headline "BBC Journalist's Savile Warning", an unfortunate self-referential dig, and indeed a potential headline from 1972! The latest stock market indices followed, with the FTSE 100 at 5896.2, down 20.9. But it was the sports headlines which had the honour of being the very last page, led by "Ten-man Newcastle in Derby Draw". And then at 05:57/04 precisely (because Ceefax was brilliant at knowing the time, unlike any of its digital successors), fade to black. Actually make that blue, and a final widescreen montage specially created as a pixellated parting shot.

"And that was TV history," said the announcer. "Farewell and thank you Ceefax for the last 38 years."

I could invite you round to mine to watch the recording, but these days you can relive the whole thing via YouTube so there's no need. And that'll be one of the reasons Ceefax has died. It used to be the fastest way of finding out what had just happened in the outside world, and now the outside world's available everywhere all the time. In the 1970s you might have had to wait until tomorrow to find out who won a particular football match, whereas Ceefax allowed you to watch each goal update in real time. It was the UK's first widely available digital service, very much the precursor of that global newspaper you now keep in your pocket.

As well as nostalgia, Ceefax leaves behind its younger sibling, the BBC Red Button. This is essentially the same service, improved, yet somehow it isn't nearly as good. Red Button teletext hides in a world of interconnected one-way menus, accessible via a chain of coloured commands you might or more likely might not remember. Yes there are numbers for most of the pages but most people don't use these, choosing instead to weave their way through a series of branching indices. I used to know that the Top 40 was on page 197, whereas now I'm so uncertain where Friday's weather is I never choose to look. Indeed whereas Ceefax was slow but simple, the Red Button version's too complex, and anyway, the internet's better.

BBC Northern Ireland are throwing a farewell party for analogue television after News At Ten tonight. No doubt Ceefax will get a mention, if only in passing, before spluttering out in the early hours. We'll cope, indeed most of us already are, barely registering the departure of a service that was once a trusted friend. Ceefax's demise has been planned for the best part of a decade, with its disappearance tomorrow bang on schedule. I'm much more nervous about the next phase of digital switchover, the loss of FM radio, even though that particular doomsday's continually being delayed due to lack of consumer interest.

So farewell to blocky Mode 7 graphics, and the latest vegetable prices, and pages that rolled round only once every 30 seconds. It may have shone brightest in the 80s and 90s, but Ceefax brightened our lives for almost 40 years. We'll not miss it, because for most of us it already isn't there. But it was far more important to us than our grandchildren will ever imagine, could ever imagine. A pioneering service closes tonight.

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