You could say teletext sort of gave us the internet before the internet was a thing. It gave us a clunky pre-cursor to online news, in a similar way to how Argos gave us a clunky pre-cursor to online shopping. The only tragedy is, while Argos has somehow managed to stay with us (I mean, that in itself is incredible), teletext is, for most, but a beautiful memory.
As a kid, I was able to very easily spend hours on teletext, especially during the school holidays when I had that extra bit of time to properly explore its oddest corners and binge on everything from the film reviews, to the problem pages (yes, people sent actual real-life problems to teletext) to Bamber Boozler’s fluoro dystopian quiz. But my default home was the football pages: 302 on BBC Ceefax, and 401 on ITV. 302. 401. 302 401. 302401. Those numbers are permanently etched into my brain like some mystical ancient rune, or the lyrics to Boom! Shake the Room.
I can measure out my formative years in memories of teletext. I remember my grandparents having teletext before we did (actually, my grandparents were also first to get a VCR and a microwave – thinking back, they were digital trailblazers). Whenever we visited them, I’d dash straight for the remote to read the football headlines and marvel at this magical futuristic source of knowledge. How did my grandad’s TV know that Blackburn were going to sign Alan Shearer or that Eric Cantona had kicked a Crystal Palace fan in the mouth?
Fast forward to my teenage years and, when our local team was away from home and we couldn’t get to the match, my friends and I would often hang out in the town centre. With no smartphones, how did we keep an eye on the football scores? Simple. We’d gawp at the window of Dixons, where they always had a lone TV switched to the latest scores, facing out onto the street to catch the attentions of passers-by.
At uni, I had American flatmates whose reaction to teletext was one of outright confusion. ‘WHY ARE YOU READING TV?” they’d shriek. Apparently, teletext wasn’t a thing in the US. Neither was Dixons. God knows how they spent their Saturday afternoons over there.
Upon graduating, something happened that I remain incredibly proud of. I got given my own weekly column. ON TELETEXT. I’m as surprised about it as you are. You’d think there would be some sort of vetting process for that sort of thing, but no. They just called me up one day and asked if I fancied submitting some copy for them each week. So I did. To provide a bit of context, I’d already been doing bits and pieces of football writing for various magazines and websites, so it wasn’t entirely out of left field… but, at the time, this felt like The Big One. I’d be seeing my words, up on TV… probably with pixels missing from crucial parts, but it still counts. It was a career-defining moment. Or at least it could have been, if they’d actually paid me any money for it.
Sure, teletext was infuriating. It somehow managed to simultaneously be both too slow and too fast (too slow if you were on page 2 of 20 and wanted to read page 1; too fast if you only made it halfway down page 1 before it flipped over to page 2 and you had to wait it out all over again). And if you were using a crap TV aerial you’d be denied key chunks of information from every page you attempted to read. But there was something intrinsically appealing about those boxy letters on that endless black background; the way every single pixel had to work for its place on that tiny 1990s screen; the way Bamber Boozler’s cold, dead eyes stared out at you as if pleading for help that never came. I still think about that a lot. I hope Bamber’s OK.