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10 things you didn't know about Ceefax

23 September 09 14:39 GMT

Ceefax, the world's first teletext service, is gradually being switched off around the country as the digital switchover takes hold. To mark its 35th birthday, Ceefax journalist Ian Westbrook has compiled 10 little-known facts from its history.

Thirty-five years isn't bad going for something which started life as an afterthought (more of which, below). But that's the milestone being passed by Ceefax on Wednesday.

Since its launch in 1974, the BBC's teletext service has, for millions of people, become the first port of call for football results, breaking news and international flight arrival times.

These days, thanks to the proliferation of the internet, there's nothing novel about the idea of "on-demand" news - news you can access when you want. And while Ceefax is being gradually phased out, along with the analogue TV signal, BBC viewers who have made the switch to digital are getting their on-screen text via the Red Button services.

While Ceefax still commands a loyal audience of millions, it has just three years until it is completely switched off. Time then, to take stock with 10 ways Ceefax changed the world.

1. Ceefax wasn't actually meant to be. The technology was developed by BBC engineers who were trying to find ways of providing subtitles on TV programmes for the deaf, rather than produce a news service. They found that a normal television picture of 625 lines has "spare" lines at the top of the picture that could be used to transmit words or numbers.

When it went live, 35 years ago, just one journalist produced the 24 pages of news. He worked regular office hours so the service was not updated in the evenings or at weekends.

2. Glenn Hoddle's daughter used Ceefax to lobby for her father as his job as manager of the England football team hung in the balance. Hoddle was in hot water in 1999 following a row over comments he had made about disabled people.

Fearing the worst for her dad, the then 13-year-old Zara Hoddle contacted Ceefax to lend him some public support.

"I am Zara Hoddle and I would just like to say that I am very supportive of disabled people, so is my dad, but this is the most pathetic reason for someone to have maybe lost their job and to have so much hassle over. If you would just take the time to listen to what his explanation is then maybe you would understand this a bit more."

But the heartfelt plea failed and Hoddle was fired.

3. On the subject of sackings in the football world, in November 1997 QPR assistant manager Bruce Rioch first heard about his dismissal from the team by reading about it on Ceefax.

"I was at home watching the Louise Woodward case on television when I turned on Ceefax and read that I had been sacked," he said. "I am bitterly disappointed they didn't have the courtesy to... phone me... before I read it on television."

4. Night-owls without a Ceefax-enabled television could still enjoy a peek at the service during BBC Two's overnight transmission of Pages from Ceefax, as the stories ticked over with an often-jaunty musical accompaniment.

New joiners to the Ceefax department were sometimes baffled by requests from the public for the "Songs from Ceefax" - with some viewers believing that it was the job of the news editor to pick the track to accompany a particular story.

5. Video on the web... what's the big deal? Ceefax was there first, in the 1980s, when it experimented with some revolutionary coverage of the annual University Boat Race between Cambridge and Oxford. A journalist decided to construct a page showing the route of the course using the graphics usually used for building the weather maps.

Two dots represented the boats and they were moved across the screen to track the crews once the race got under way. What is not recorded is how many people decided to watch this instead of the actual live race coverage on TV at the same time.

6. Back to football, and in March 2001 a third-tier club reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup thanks to Ceefax's hitherto unexploited role as a sort of recruitment agency.

Wycombe Wanderers faced the prospect of taking on Leicester City in the quarter-finals without a recognised frontman following an injury crisis. However, they issued a press release to Ceefax detailing their plight and asking for any interested strikers to join them.

When the agent of Roy Essandoh saw the story, he contacted the club and shortly afterwards the player found himself among the Wycombe substitutes at Filbert Street. With 20 minutes to go and the score at 1-1, Essandoh was let onto the pitch and responded by heading a dramatic winner to take the club into the last four.

7. Ceefax has had its fair share of celebrity callers. John Cleese once wrote to politely complain that the latest Somerset cricket scores were not up to date. Others to have phoned the main newsroom include Princess Diana's mother Frances Shand Kydd and the former president of the National Union of Mineworkers Arthur Scargill.

8. Also on the celebrity front, the service has reportedly featured in rock stars' on-tour riders. Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers was once said to have led his band out of a hotel as there was no Ceefax on the TV in their room. Canadian songstress Avril Lavigne also, apparently, insisted on "Ceefax and Bovril" being supplied in her hotel room during a British tour.

Radio One's Dominic Byrne and Carrie Davies were often teased by breakfast show host Chris Moyles about taking their news and sport headlines straight from Ceefax. There was even a jingle created along these lines three years ago.

9. Football again. A Ceefax April Fool's Day story in 1994 caused mayhem at Wolverhampton Wanderers' Molineux home. The club's switchboard was flooded with calls from angry fans after the story claimed manager Graham Taylor was changing the club's strip to white from their traditional gold. Taylor had previously managed England, who had missed out on qualification for the World Cup after losing to the orange-clad Netherlands team.

The item claimed Taylor reportedly said he felt Wolves' shirt colour was too close to the Dutch strip and he "did not like orange".

10. In 1994, a newsflash was erroneously broadcast on Ceefax during a rehearsal saying that the Queen Mother had died. The message was only on screen for 30 seconds but that was enough time for it to be spotted and the BBC apologised to her.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

My dad loves the music on Ceefax. He even used to record it on a little tape recorder, so he could listen to it in his car.
Alan Stringer, Milton Keynes

My dad always used to get home from work and lie on his side on the floor in front of the telly and read the headlines on Ceefax before doing anything else. I always used to think he was rather odd. The cat loved it though, and used to clamber all over him. Think he just gets his headlines here nowadays.
Emily, Edinburgh

Fifteen years ago, when I first started using the world wide web, I thought it was remarkably similar to the way Ceefax was structured - the way each page is labelled with the four coloured buttons that provided direct links to other pages. My thanks to Ceefax engineers for their foresight.

My mum was a Ceefax addict - after her day as a full-time teacher and mother to four, very often her only opportunity to catch up with what was going on in the world was by Ceefax. Even after her retirement and all of her children leaving home, she was still more likely to catch up with the news on Ceefax than by watching TV - and she read just about every page that was published - letters, jokes, competitions - everything. She died last year, but my abiding memory of her will always be sitting in her chair, late at night, flicking through the Ceefax pages.
Judith Ormston, London

Have always loved Ceefax and in ad breaks on shows would flick back to the BBC just to see any news, mainly football. Always hoped I would time it right, as nothing more frustrating than it rolling over and having to wait for the page you want to come back.
Alexander Maitland, Leicester, England

When I was younger, I "watched" all 38 of my team's Premiership matches in the 97/98 season on Ceefax. Page 316, I believe, would allow you to watch what was on the Beeb and also keep you up-to-date with the latest score. Who needed Sky when you had Ceefax and Match of the Day.
Simon, Leicester, UK

I have fond memories of reading page 302 for football headlines, always tuning in to see if Man Utd had signed a new player when I was growing up. The main headline always stood out as it was big and bold, unlike on BBCi which also takes longer to load. Ceefax is just a great quick way to get info for cinemas/plane times and news headlines. It will be sorely missed by me.
Paul Balcombe, Northampton


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