The Fifty Eighth Annual Academy Salute To Seventy Six Million Years Of The BBC Part 3: Ceefax

Erm… hang on a second… just getting to page 198… almost there… right! Welcome, one and all, to the third part of our celebration of the visual ephemera that the BBC used to put out whenever they didn’t have any actual programmes to show. We’ve already witnessed the evolution of the Test Card, and its subsequent Genghis Khan-style sweep across the broadcasting map, and today it’s the turn of recently-retired BBC teletext service Ceefax. Apparently deriving its name from a corruption of ‘See’ and ‘Facts’ (two words which were barely applicable to the malfunction-prone service), Ceefax was launched in 1974 with a whopping thirty pages of content. That’s nearly as much as

One of the initial thirty pages was, as you’ll be far from surprised to hear, the index. And as you can see above, even in this early incarnation it wasn’t really that different to how the index page looked right up to the end. Including this here is a bit like putting a not-noticeably-different-to-the-finished-version demo on a 2CD Deluxe Edition Remaster. If we were to start chronicling microscopic changes in page layout over the years, it would soon descend into the depths of ‘in 1981 but only in regions able to pick up the East Midlands transmitter every third Sunday the upper line of the blue portion at the top of the page was moved six millimetres to the left but then they had to move it back again due to the ‘politically correct brigade : (' and it is not something which is a rule and one which doesn’t have to be complied with thank you’ territory.

So instead, we’re going to be concentrating on what can best be described as the ‘splash pages’ – in other words, those that introduced specific sections with viewer-bamboozling attempts at rendering illustrative images ‘in’ Ceefax. After all, despite what a million wacky parodies would have you believe, they tend to be what everyone remembers about Ceefax (though technically what everyone ‘remembers’ about Ceefax is 4-T the blue dog thing, except that was actually on 4-Tel and so will not be appearing here under any circumstances). Anyway, before moving on to said viewer-bamboozling renditions, it’s worth pointing out that this particular archive index page includes links to Test Card ‘A’ and Test Card ‘B’. Well, if you were going to replicate those tedious assemblages of lines and grey in anything

Arguably the most famous and well-remembered of these, apart from the Ceefaxised Dalek that plugged subtitles for early eighties Doctor Who, was this frequently-glimpsed introduction to the weather pages, heralded by a blocky rendition of one of those medieval pictures of the sun that Minnie Driver appears to have based her entire face on. Sadly, albeit with a pleasing note of optimism, they didn’t see fit to vary the image depending on climatic conditions.

If there was one thing that Ceefax ‘art’ was ideally suited to, it was ‘sport’ in the days when all individual sporting pursuits were bracketed together into one big on-the-bus-or-off-the-bus schoolbag-inspiring generic conceptual gambit. Hence the Ceefax designers wasted no time in bookending their equally generic sport pages with aesthetically-challenging collages featuring a four-sided cricket bat, the world’s smallest FA Cup, and what experts believe to be an elongated multicoloured fly swat. Similar honours would be performed for Wimbledon each year by this giant marble next to one of the Play School windows, helpfully rendered in green and white so you knew it was ‘tennis’.

Meanwhile, the television pages deployed a cunning variant on the ‘window’ gambit, placing it subtly next to a TV that appears to be being used to play High Noon on the ZX Spectrum. Which is admittedly a rather niche-targeted joke, but you’ll be wanting those same high precision sharp-shootin’ skills when the other player blows a hole in the cactus.

Travel news, on the other hand, had to make do with this static image taken from the unreleased post-Knight Lore ‘isometric’ remake of legendary ZX Spectrum game Horace Goes Skiing. Another joke that will be entirely lost on anyone who never owned a ZX Spectrum, and would also be lost on anyone who did own a ZX Spectrum but never played Horace Goes Skiing or indeed one of the ‘isometric’ games, except for the fact that science has proven the existence of such people to be a statistical impossibility. And that’s yet another one-sentence joke aimed at a small subsector of readers stretched way beyond the point where it was actually funny. If only they’d used Pssst! or Ah Diddums for something…

…though they did use Valhalla. Hey, non-ZX Spectrum owners, come back!!

Hang on a minute… Parky? What’s he doing here?! Don’t start adjusting your set just yet – unfortunately, despite extensive research, it’s proved impossible to locate any footage from Buzzfax, the bizarre and unsurprisingly short-lived 1981 experiment which saw Saturday morning children’s television introduced ‘by’ Ceefax, complete with blockified artistic impressions of The Monkees, The Banana Splits and Battle Of The Planets, and the ‘voice’ of Ceefax provided by the ‘voice’ of Jig Off Of Jigsaw, so Mr. Parkinson has generously agreed to appear as an illustration in its place. Anyway, that’s the last we’ll be seeing of him.

Even in the days before you could broadcast your inability to spell or use grammar or punctuation correctly to the world via text messages and Twitter, Ceefax was a keen pioneer of techno-interactivity, using nothing more sophisticated than stamps, envelopes and letterboxes. Take, for example, this pretty impressively-rendered request for festive missives. There’s a halfway decent ‘frost’ effect on the windows and everything. The only drawback is that it seems to be suggesting that viewers should trudge through several inches of snow all the way to the BBC’s Ceefax headquarters in Wood Lane, in order to post their Christmas jokes in a postbox, which will then be delivered to, erm, the BBC’s Ceefax headquarters in Wood Lane. “Knock Knock”“Who’s there?”“Jean-Paul Sartre”

…and as if to further the illogicality, what we ended up with was a viewer-submitted ‘joke’ hinging entirely on the ridiculous conceit that a snowman really does – as Roy Wood suggested – ‘bring the snow’, and that having done so will then pursue the rather suicidal option of relaxing in a nice warm bed. Bet The O-Men from Jigsaw wished they’d thought of that one…

What’s that? Another incredibly specific reference point that’s alienating a large percentage of readers? Well, yes, but at least that one wasn’t about the ZX Spectrum. Time to sign off then, with the aid of that gigantically-tongued cat which invariably appeared at the end of Pages From Ceefax, that random selection of slightly soft-focus pages that so often appeared before proper television ‘started’. And did not, under any circumstances, have any music playing behind it ever. Anyway, hope you’ve enjoyed this similarly random selection of similarly slightly soft-focus Pages From Ceefax, and we’ll see you next time for the noble art of pretending to ‘shoot’ some dots…

If you've enjoyed this article, you can find lots more about stuff you just don't see on television any more in Not On Your Telly, which is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.