The history of Pages from Ceefax (part 1/3)

First published in 2008. Last updated: 17th March 2020.

The world’s first teletext service, BBC Ceefax (“See Facts”), was launched on 23rd September 1974. The technology was developed out of a desire to create a subtitling solution for deaf viewers. The BBC first announced their plans in October 1972. Two years of testing would follow.

Around the same time, the Independent Broadcasting Authority had been developing their own teletext system – ORACLE (Optional (or Optical, according to some sources) Reception of Announcements by Coded Line Electronics). The two systems were incompatible initially. However, after discussions between the BBC and the IBA, a single standard was agreed in 1974. A further, enhanced specification was published in 1976: additional features included coloured backgrounds and double height text.

The teletext signal was transmitted as part of the normal TV picture – but out of sight of most viewers, in a section called the VBI (Vertical Blanking Interval). The teletext data transmitted here was decoded by special equipment in the TV receiver. Teletext data was displayed to the viewer as “pages”, where a page consists of 24 rows of 40 characters.

In the early years, very few suitably equipped TV sets were commercially available and they were expensive – a luxury that most UK households could not afford. Take-up of the new service was slow in the 1970s.

In March 1980, the BBC began showing a selection of Ceefax pages in-vision, replacing some trade test transmissions. By 1982 – and following government promotional campaigns – the number of teletext households passed the one million mark.

In May 1983, in a further promotional drive for Ceefax and to make better use of channel downtime, the BBC replaced all daytime trade test transmissions with Ceefax In-Vision (later known as Pages from Ceefax). By 1983, another half-a-million households were on board and Ceefax was now transmitting 600 pages of information across BBC One and BBC Two – a far cry from the initial service of 30 pages.

Teletext’s popularity in the UK continued to increase during the remainder of the 1980s and into the 1990s.

In-vision teletext is born

Until the 1980s, large portions of BBC TV’s daytime hours were given over to the test card.

In 1980, the BBC began an experimental Ceefax In-Vision service. Gaps in the schedule which previously would have been occupied by trade test transmission (i.e., the test card), were now being filled by a selection of teletext pages. These ‘in-vision’ broadcasts – offering a digest of news, sport, travel and TV listings – were largely restricted to short, early morning slots, with the test card continuing to play the more prominent role during gaps in the programme schedule.

The first experimental Ceefax In-Vision broadcast is thought to have taken place on Wednesday 12th March 1980, 8.30am – 9am, on BBC One. On BBC Two, Ceefax In-Vision is believed to have debuted at 4.20pm on Thursday 13th March 1980, in a gap between racing coverage and an Open University programme.

Initially, the in-vision broadcasts were sporadic on BBC Two. However, by August, Ceefax seemed to have settled into a pattern of 10am – 10.28am and 3.30pm – 4pm on weekdays.

Below, the earliest known surviving recording of Ceefax In-Vision, from 27th March 1980. In spite of the page cycle displaying BBC Two page numbers, this in-vision transmission is in fact on BBC One. Another supporting piece of evidence for this being BBC One is the accompanying music – from the Trolley Song tape: this was a BBC One trade test tape.

VIDEO LINK: Ceefax In-Vision (27th March 1980).

The teletext generator hadn’t quite been perfected yet. In the header row, the page selection (far left), has a lowercase ‘p’ (this would soon become an uppercase ‘P’) and the page number can be seen changing randomly. The page cycle often freezes on ‘299’. Was page 299 the original ‘in-vision’ page on Ceefax? Some of the page heading graphics exhibit an odd hold graphics error. These glitches were corrected within weeks.

And a question: in these early years of Ceefax in-vision, did BBC One and BBC Two share the same teletext generator?

Teletext enthusiast Jason Robertson uses special software to decode teletext pages from VHS recordings. Not an easy process, since VHS drops a considerable amount of the original picture resolution, thus corrupting the original teletext signal. Among the many batches of pages Jason managed to recover from off-air recordings is this collection of in-vision pages from BBC Two Ceefax, from 9th December 1980:

VIDEO LINK: Ceefax In-Vision (Reconstruction) (BBC Two, 9th December 1980).

RELATED ARTICLE: Teletext Recoveries.

During the period from March 1980 to September 1983, it’s difficult to be specific about the scheduling of in-vision teletext broadcasts. To an extent, it was quite ad hoc, and that perhaps explains why the Radio Times generally ignored Ceefax transmissions during these years.

An example of the ad hoc nature of the Ceefax transmissions is this dedicated page reporting on a shuttle launch, from 1981. This was also a deviation from the usual selection of news, sport, travel, weather and programme listings pages.

VIDEO LINK: Ceefax In-Vision (BBC One, 10th April 1981).

That said, we know that regular in-vision transmissions took place between 8.30am and 9am (weekdays) on BBC One (though by 1982 the 9am finish time had been extended until just before the first programme of the day). Over on BBC Two, Ceefax pages were often transmitted between 10am and 10.30am (weekdays).

If there were no programmes for two hours or more on BBC Two, the transmitters were switched off. Daytime transmitter shutdowns were first introduced in January 1975 as part of cost-cutting measures. Such shutdowns were much less common on BBC One.

We believe this practice of switching off the transmitters during daytime hours ceased (weekdays) in September 1983, a week before the launch of Daytime on 2 (the new home for programmes for schools and colleges). Transmitters continued to be switched off between the end of OU transmissions and the first BBC Two programme of the day at weekends until November 1983.

Video evidence of a 1984 daytime closedown recently surfaced. This was definitely not standard practice in 1984, and even Radio Times had billed Pages from Ceefax in this slot. So, not sure what was going on here.

VIDEO LINK: rare post-1983 BBC Two daytime closedown (BBC Two, 16th March 1984).

It was not uncommon for there to be no programmes on BBC Two between the morning edition of Play School and early evening. For a period from November 1981 until April 1982, BBC Two experimented with an afternoon schedule, beginning at 3.55pm. There were various other exceptions to these lengthy closedowns: party conferences; educational programming (typically on Mondays and Tuesdays, October to April); sports coverage – usually horse racing, cricket, tennis or snooker.

During the summer months of 1982, the weekday BBC Two in-vision service moved to 9.35am. Service Information had moved to 10.15am (rather than 10.30am) and Play School was now shown at 10.30am (it’s long-standing start time had been 11am).

And in the summer of 1983, the first BBC Two teletext in-vision service of the day took place between 10am and 10.28am. Play School followed at 10.30am, and it was back to Ceefax at 10.55am. If there were no programmes prior to 2pm, transmitters were switched off at 11.30am. And assuming no programmes until c. 5.10pm, transmitters would be fired up again at 3.30pm, radiating Ceefax In-Vision. If programmes resumed at some point from 2pm onwards, Ceefax pages would appear 30 minutes prior to the start of the programme.

A scan through the programme listings for these years shows many variations in schedule patterns. There were frequent deviations from the Ceefax transmission slots described above. But, if nothing else, they provide us with a guide to the potential duration and positioning in the schedule during this period.

Although the Radio Times provides no insight into the scheduling of teletext in-vision broadcasts in the early years, Ceefax’s own TV listings pages sometimes provided some guidance. But, even Ceefax didn’t always list in-vision transmission times – and where it did, it wasn’t always accurate.

VIDEO LINK: Ceefax In-Vision (BBC Two, 6th June 1983).

In the above Ceefax In-Vision broadcast from 6th June 1983, you’ll notice that the Monday BBC Two programme listing shows Ceefax In-Vision at 10.40am, and the next programme at 5.10pm, giving the impression that teletext pages were shown for six-and-a-half hours.

In reality, BBC Two transmitters were switched off at 11.30am. Transmissions began again at 3.30pm, with Ceefax In-Vision.

On the page showing Tuesday’s programmes for BBC Two (7th June 1983), there’s no Ceefax broadcast listed in the same slot. However, Tuesday followed the same pattern as the day before: Ceefax pages at 10.40am, transmitter shutdown at 11.30am, and back on air with Ceefax at 3.30pm.

VIDEO LINK: Ceefax AM and Ceefax In-Vision (BBC One, 13th July 1983).

In this VHS recording of a morning Ceefax AM and Ceefax In-Vision broadcast on BBC One from Wednesday 13th July 1983, we can see what supposedly happened on BBC Two that day:

8.10am Ceefax In-Vision
10.05am Gharbar
10.30am Play School
10.55am Ceefax In-Vision
12.30am – 1.20pm Open University
4.40pm Ceefax In-Vision
5.10pm An Office Career
5.40pm SOS Coast Guard
6pm The Great Egg Race

However, it’s believed that Ceefax In-Vision actually appeared at 8.30am. Transmitters were switched off shortly after the lunchtime OU broadcast. Ceefax In-Vision appeared again from 3.30pm.

It’s worth noting that where BBC Two had no afternoon programmes, the 3.30pm – c. 5.10pm Ceefax transmission was sometimes interrupted in many parts of the country by Test Card G, for the afternoon ‘programme transfer’ (more on that in a future article). At c. 4.40pm, Ceefax In-Vision would resume.

Continue to Part 2 >>>

Acknowledgements

RESEARCH:

With thanks to Andrew Nairn, and the various YouTube channels that we sourced material from: CeefaxGuy; Jez C; KillianM2; Manny Whippet; Martin Potter; Musicfromceefax; Neil Miles; Put the Telly On; Sid N; Treffynnon19; VHS Video Vault.

FEATURE IMAGE:

PICTURED: early Ceefax In-Vision front page (March 1980). SUPPLIED BY: The TV Room (based on footage from YouTube Channel - Put the Telly On). COPYRIGHT: BBC.

Posted by The Clean Feed Team

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