The history of Pages from Ceefax

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.

New prominence for Ceefax in the daytime schedule

On Monday 28th February 1983 at 6am, Ceefax AM was born, replacing pulse and bar/Test Card F, in the lead-up to the Breakfast Time programme at 6.30am. Perhaps an indication that Ceefax In-Vision might soon play a more prominent role in the schedules. It should be noted that the Radio Times didn’t include Ceefax AM in its listings initially but it did appear from Monday 21st March 1983.

With TV sets becoming more reliable and members of the trade now having test signal generators available to them, the days of the trade test transmission were numbered. The BBC was also keen to promote its teletext service and BBC editorial teams wanted to make better use of the dead airtime.

From 2nd May 1983, daytime trade test transmissions were replaced by Ceefax In-Vision. The test card was now largely restricted to brief early morning slots, shortly after transmitters came back on air following the overnight shutdown. The first Ceefax In-Vision slot on 2nd May was on BBC Two, 11.25am – 2.20pm. As this was a Bank Holiday, BBC One had a full daytime schedule. The new, regular Ceefax In-Vision service on BBC One (excluding Ceefax AM) launched the following day: 9am – 9.30am.

Radio Times did not publicise the daytime Ceefax transmissions (with the exception of Ceefax AM) until January 1984. The magazine referenced the teletext broadcasts as Pages from Ceefax.

1983 – 1986 was perhaps the heyday for Pages from Ceefax. Significant portions of the BBC One and BBC Two daytime schedule was filled by Ceefax and music. The launch of the new daytime schedule on BBC One meant the end of the road for daytime teletext pages on that channel (other than Ceefax AM). The final daytime Pages from Ceefax went out on BBC One on Friday 24th October 1986, 10.50am – 1pm. Pages from Ceefax maintained a presence in the BBC Two daytime schedule until the early 1990s – although durations had markedly diminished by the late-1980s.

In the early years, the in-vision teletext transmissions consisted of 20 or so pages selected from the Ceefax service – typically news, sport, travel, weather, TV/radio listings and a recipe. The different categories of content were introduced using link pages, which allowed Ceefax staff to demonstrate their teletext art skills. We’ve tried to include as many link pages as possible in this article. The BBC TV programme listings links page wins the award for the most tweaks/adjustments over the years.

VIDEO LINK: Ceefax In-Vision (BBC One, 2nd November 1982).

VIDEO LINK: Ceefax In-Vision (BBC Two, 2nd November 1982).

Next, some of the front page and closing page designs used in the early years. Although the red design was popular between 1980 and 1983 (it was normally red for BBC Two, and blue for BBC One), the design dated 17th September was in use longer than some might think: an early version of this page was recovered from a 1980 recording. This format was in use (albeit from November 1983 with a new Ceefax logo) until November 1989. The design dated 16th June is not believed to have been used very often.

VIDEO LINK: Ceefax In-Vision (BBC One, 16th/23rd June 1983).

VIDEO LINK: Ceefax In-Vision (BBC Two, 17th September 1983).

VIDEO LINK: Ceefax In-Vision (BBC Two, 22nd September 1983).

In the early years, when an in-vision broadcast started, a front page was inserted live by the Ceefax team. Likewise, a closing page would be inserted at the end of the transmission. However, BBC Presentation also often cut to/from Ceefax without the use of a front/closing page. Slide versions of these pages were created c. 1984, providing a much more flexible means of joining/exiting Ceefax transmissions.

In November 1983, Ceefax was relaunched. The pages were given a new look. Many of these graphics are regarded as iconic, and are those which people of a certain age most associate with Ceefax.

VIDEO LINK: Ceefax In-Vision (BBC Two, 19th December 1983).

The pages featured during the in-vision broadcasts were transmitted in sequence – each page typically remained on screen for around 30 seconds. The viewer had no control over the display of these pages – in the same way that they had no control over the display of a group of sub-pages within any Ceefax page.

The in-vision pages were transmitted as a conventional page within the main Ceefax service – page 198 on BBC One and page 298 on BBC Two.

VIDEO LINK: Pages from Ceefax (BBC One, 27th August 1985).

Until 1986, many of the BBC’s Ceefax in-vision broadcasts ran off hardware built in-house, using the standard Mullard chip set. Here we see the 1980 – 1986 generator in its final months in use.

By this stage, the page cycle in the header row was struggling, regularly jumping to pages 200 and 888, and sometimes freezing, resulting in the page cycle, date and time being blanked out (see image 2 below). It’s unclear if this was a problem with the Ceefax transmission system or an issue specific to the in-vision generator.

VIDEO LINK: Pages from Ceefax (BBC Two, 27th March 1986).

In 1985, BBC Micros were deployed to produce some of the Ceefax in-vision slots on both channels; the old generators were phased out completely during 1986. Here we see the BBC Micro kit in action for Ceefax AM in 1988:

VIDEO LINK: Ceefax AM (BBC One, 19th January 1988).

VIDEO LINK: Ceefax AM (BBC One, 18th August 1988).

Specially-written software running on a BBC Micro allowed engineers to alter the header (row 0) data: from 1985 to 1987, headers reading ‘BBC1 In Vision’ and ‘DAYTIME on TWO’ were a common sight; the date would be displayed in cyan; the clock retained its standard yellow colouring. The standard Ceefax header was also in use during this period.

VIDEO LINK: Pages from Ceefax (BBC Two, 24th December 1985).

Incidentally, Presentation staff produced the special Daytime on Two in-vision pages that filled the gaps between schools programmes on BBC Two from September 1983 until December 1987. These pages carried schedules and support information for the schools/colleges programming. This group of pages was transmitted on page 297 of BBC Two Ceefax – and should not be confused with the more conventional suite of in-vision pages broadcast on BBC Two, which also used the special ‘DAYTIME on 2’/’DAYTIME on TWO’ header between 1985 and 1987.

VIDEO LINK: Pages from Ceefax (BBC Two, 5th February 1985).

From 1988, the header row reverted back to the standard Ceefax row 0 display, permanently. Later that year, the BBC began experimental level 2 in-vision broadcasts (first TX: 18th August 1988). Although a level 2 in-vision generator was commissioned, only one page was broadcast with level 2 attributes. However, the BBC Micro-generated in-vision facility co-existed with the level 2 kit until 1994, when the latter took over completely.

Here we see the level 2 generator in action for Ceefax AM in early 1989:

VIDEO LINK: Ceefax AM (BBC One, 2nd January 1989).

Change is on the way

During the summer of 1989, the initial signs of preparations for a Ceefax relaunch materialised. Some sections were discontinued. In November 1989, Ceefax was relaunched as a ‘hard news’ service, with expanded news, finance, sport and weather/travel sections. Telesoftware, fun and games, Telecred and consumer news were among the casualties – though content from these sections rarely made it on to the ‘in-vision’ service.

Visually, the new look pages were a lot less colourful/interesting than before. Many teletext enthusiasts regard this era as a low point for Ceefax. The group of pages made available for Pages from Ceefax was also quite limited: it was now a selection of news pages, and one weather page. Due to the lack of variety, there was no longer any need for link pages. The in-vision sequences had lost a lot of the personality they once had.

The Ceefax AM branding for the early morning BBC One transmission also ceased at this point.

VIDEO LINK: Pages from Ceefax (BBC Two, 15th March 1990).

By the early 1990s, in-vision teletext was becoming a rarer sight on BBC TV. Since 27th October 1986, Ceefax pages were confined to 6am – 6.50am (weekdays), and from 16th November 1986, 6am – 6,30am (weekdays) on BBC One. Fifteen minute bursts of Pages from Ceefax (unbilled) were introduced on Saturdays and Sundays (both channels) c. 1990.

Ceefax regularly appeared prior to the start of schools programmes (weekdays) on BBC Two until 1990. Beyond that, Pages from Ceefax would appear prior to the first programme of the day on BBC Two. If the first programme was an OU production, Ceefax was not transmitted prior to that programme. Instead, if there was a gap between the final OU programme and the next BBC Two programme, Ceefax would fill most of that void.

On 16th November 1992, Ceefax was relaunched again. Editorially, nothing much had changed, but the pages had a new look. Although a little more colourful, it was still quite bland. Each page also now had a border running down the left and right – a feature which seemed to serve little purpose other than to restrict the already quite limited amount of space available for editorial.

VIDEO LINK: Pages from Ceefax (BBC Two, 27th December 1992).

VIDEO LINK: Pages from Ceefax (BBC Two, 16th December 1993).

The same page designs again, this time on the level 2 generator:

VIDEO LINK: Pages from Ceefax (BBC One, 22nd December 1993).

At the start of 1993, with the launch of Business Breakfast, from 6am on BBC One (weekdays), Ceefax lost its billed spot in the Radio Times. However, 15 minutes of Pages from Ceefax was still broadcast from 5.45am.

By 1994, the graphical border down the left and right of the pages had been removed. And, many years after other broadcasters began experimenting with level 2 features, the BBC decided to enhance the Pages from Ceefax sequences with level 2 capabilities. Link pages were also reintroduced. The first page shown below is from a brief trial of level 2 graphics in 1988.

VIDEO LINK: Pages from Ceefax (BBC One, 26th June 1994).

VIDEO LINK: Pages from Ceefax (BBC Two, 19th December 1995).

VIDEO LINK: Pages from Ceefax (BBC One, 22nd December 1995).

Level 2 teletext never really took off. The level 2 in-vision generator was also problematic – the pages often appeared with rows and other elements missing. In March 1996, Pages from Ceefax reverted back to the standard level 1 format, albeit, still using the level 2 generator.

On 9th October 1995, BBC Two launched a new overnight education strand – The Learning Zone. These programmes filled the overnight hours for much of the week, with the exception of the early hours of Saturday and Sunday. Tuesday to Friday, The Learning Zone kicked off at 12.30am. On Mondays, it had a 2am start – and there was usually a gap between the last BBC Two programme and the first programme from The Learning Zone. This gap was filled with Pages from Ceefax and music.

VIDEO LINK: Pages from Ceefax prior to The Learning Zone (BBC Two, 26th November 1995).

In November 1996, Ceefax was relaunched, with a new look, and a number of new feature sections. But alas, the in-vision sequence would largely stick with its emphasis on news. Other than news pages, Pages from Ceefax also included finance, sport and travel headline pages, as well as a weather forecast. A far cry from the variety of content on offer in the 1980s. The in-vision page also moved to page 152. Oddly, the header row was now hidden on Pages from Ceefax. It wouldn’t reappear until 1999.

Early on Sunday 16th November 1997, prior to Match of the Day at 7.30am, the final regular BBC One Pages from Ceefax was broadcast. Overnight BBC One/BBC News 24 simulcasts began at 1am on Monday 17th November 1997. Ceefax pages did make the odd unbilled appearance on BBC One beyond that, as part of overnight engineering tests (such as the annual RBS tests). BBC One Scotland also used Pages from Ceefax as a late-night filler, if it had a timeshifted schedule, and was waiting to rejoin BBC One Network.

And little did we know, but the page designs seen here would remain largely unchanged until the closure of Ceefax in 2012.

VIDEO LINK: Pages from Ceefax (BBC Two, 13th July 1998).

In early 1998, when BBC Two wasn’t showing The Learning Zone, it ceased the practice of shutting down its transmitters overnight. Instead, Test Card F and tone was radiated. By December, Pages from Ceefax and tone was filling the overnight gap between programmes. Around 15 minutes or so prior to the first programme of the day, tone would give way to music. At some point in 2000 (date TBC), the Ceefax pages were accompanied by music throughout the night.

By the early 2000s, the level 2 generator was on its way out. Over the next few years, a few different generators would be utilised. This was the first new one to appear – complete with flashing cyan fastext link:

VIDEO LINK: Pages from Ceefax (BBC Two, 17th June 2002).

By 2004, the irritating fastext row was banished – and the generator with it. Another new generator made its debut.

VIDEO LINK: Pages from Ceefax (BBC Two, 5th June 2004).

By 2005, another new generator had been commissioned. This would be the final teletext in-vision generator to be used by the BBC. Here it is in action in April 2012:

VIDEO LINK: Pages from Ceefax (BBC Two, 8th April 2012).

The end of the road

And so, with the end almost upon us, the second last night of Pages from Ceefax:

VIDEO LINK: Pages from Ceefax (BBC Two, 21st October 2012).

With the final UK region switching off their analogue transmitters (Northern Ireland), Ceefax would breathe its last. And so, in the early hours of 22nd October 2012, BBC Two broadcast the final Pages from Ceefax.

The page number (top left) was displayed in red for this broadcast. The reason would become clear later. With 10 minutes of the broadcast remaining, the page number changed to ‘010’. It was again updated at 5, 3, 1 and 0 minutes remaining. The final minutes were accompanied by the popular trade test and schools interval track, BART by Ruby (a vinyl copy was discovered in the Presentation dept in 2005, and was occasionally played out with Ceefax since then).

A special farewell slide was shown at the end of the broadcast.

VIDEO LINK: Pages from Ceefax (BBC Two, 22nd October 2012).

RELATED WEBSITES/RESOURCES:

Teletext Viewer

The Teletext Archaeologist

The Teletext Museum (MB21)

TV Whirl – BBC Ceefax

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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