Farewell, Ceefax: Remembering the days before Twitter and Stelling on a Saturday…
16:33 GMT, 23 October 2012
Back when birds were the only thing that tweeted and live football was weekly rather than daily, there was a Saturday afternoon ritual that seems primitive now but for years brought instant knowledge, joy and despair.
If it was 4.55pm, then thousands of thumbs up and down the land would be tapping out that familiar code on the remote control – 302.
And suddenly on the screen before you, in the most basic of pixelated forms, was everything you needed to know. The headlines, the scores and scorers, the tables, the vidiprinter – all in a computerised blend of white, blue and yellow letters.
The way it was: Ceefax was popular across the country but the BBC are terminating the text service
And with it – happiness, elation, annoyance and despair.
Football fans who lived through a time without social networking, Jeff Stelling and Premier League highlights before last orders may take a moment today to reflect that Ceefax, the great information source of their generation, is no more.
This week, the last analogue television signals will be shut down in Northern Ireland and the digital switchover completed, meaning the last handful of Ceefax users will have to go elsewhere for their updates.
Those of a younger age who want – and demand – news of goals as soon as the net ripples will struggle to comprehend that people would sit for two hours on a Saturday staring at a black screen with a few lines of text on it, periodically pressing the refresh button.
If you were interested in everything that was happening, you might watch the scores ‘in vision’ where a flickering black box and vidiprinter would be superimposed over the British Touring Cars from Snetterton or whatever Grandstand were showing.
The numbers for Ceefax sport (p300) – football (302), Premier League scores (316), Premier League table (324), cricket (340), rugby (370) – were as lodged in the memory as your PIN or mobile number might be today.
Ceefax was launched in September 1974, in a time well before rolling news channels and the internet when the only other option was to wait until twelve or six or nine for the next bulletin.
This source of instant headlines and score updates was revolutionary and by the eighties, millions of Britons had upgraded their television sets on order to receive it.
In the nineties, a third of the population checked it at least once a week but for many sports fans it would have been far more often. Many hours were wasted looking up how your team was getting on and then waiting for the pages to click round when you got there.
When England played Tests overseas, long before it was beamed live by Sky, you could follow the action in pain-staking over-by-over updates. Sometimes it would take a little too long to refresh – ‘What on earth has happened’ you’d implore, bashing the reload button. ‘Four, six, wicket Surely not another wicket, England!’
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And then it would come through your aerial and it would be a maiden over.
Grands Prix could be tracked in quarter-lap instalments, a constantly shifting list of names and sector times. There will be many people who’ll admit they spent two hours gazing at what was essentially alphabet soup.
The football pages brought their own delights. The scores and scorers were available league-by-league and the heart always beat a little quicker as the pages slowly cycled through and back to your side’s match. If there wasn’t a player’s name written in white underneath your opponent’s name, you’d breathe a sigh of relief.
I always admired the reporters who managed to mention every goal in a 4-4 thriller within the confines of four pixelated paragraphs and the sub-editors who squeezed multi-faceted and complicated stories into 20-character headlines. This was an extreme version of Twitter.
It provided great football anecdotes too – in 1997, Queens Park Rangers assistant manager Bruce Rioch found out about his sacking on Ceefax. ‘I am bitterly disappointed they didn’t have the courtesy to… phone me… before I read it on television,’ he said at the time.
Read all about it: Ceefax would break the latest sporting news throughout the day
Headlines: Bruce Rioch discovered he'd lost his job at QPR via Ceefax
Three years earlier, angry Wolves fans has besieged the club’s switchboard after a Ceefax April Fool’s Joke suggested manager Graham Taylor didn’t like the orange colour of the club’s kit and wanted to change it to white.
And in 2001, Roy Essandoh engrained himself in FA Cup legend when scoring the winner for third division Wycombe at Premier League Leicester – having answered the club’s appeal for players on the pages of Ceefax.
Unfortunately, Ceefax was never going to compete with modern ways of finding out what is happening in the world of sport – with breaking news in 140 characters, attractive Sky Sports News presenters and excitable Saturday afternoon correspondents reporting from the ground in high definition.
So the lines of text and crude blocks of colours have been consigned to the past like rattles and rosettes – but there will be plenty of sports fans out there today who will lament the passing of a faithful servant to sports news.