Teletext News is dead. It’s not as momentous as Michael Jackson’s passing, but it has still struck a very minor chord in me. There’s no screaming hysteria, someone might write one book or something, but it’s no big deal to most. However, the ripples will be felt – I liken it to losing an old aunt that you didn’t see very often or like very much. She may have smelt of piss and her biscuits were always stale – but she was old, rooted in the past, and there was also a whiff of nostalgia.
I may sound like I sit at home all day playing Bamboozle and tripping out on squares of cyan, and although I do spend a lot of my time in a sedentary manner, staring at screens, this is not because I was filling the gap between Jeremy Kyle and Trisha.
No, I used to work for Teletext. People often wonder where stuff like Teletext comes from. It’s like a Jessica Fletcher murder mystery – stuff just happens and no-one knows how. How does it update? Who picks the stories? Who designed it? And more importantly, who the hell hasn’t redesigned it? I often sit and ponder such thoughts. It was however, more romantic when I didn’t know.
Teletext is one of these strange anomalies – a faceless service that hasn’t evolved in decades. It rolls on 24 hours a day, providing such a wide range of information, from holidays to horoscopes. Yet the question I always was asked when I worked there was one that resonated… ‘Who actually reads it?’ And it is a good question, one that I unfailingly faltered at, stammering like a 16-year-old Gareth Gates at an open mic night.
I read it. I knew it inside out. But I had to. And even then it wasn’t that great. Because the national news provided on Teletext came straight from news agency the Press Association (who was my employer), it was actually of a fairly decent quality. The regional news however was done by PA regional reporters who had better things to do than write three pars about recycling schemes in Cumbria.
The shift work was dull and the work repetitive. But you could never complain that it wasn’t a challenge. As a sub-editor, headlines are the crown jewels of production. It’s your chance to be a bit creative, show some flair, maybe even slip in a nifty pun without your editor noticing. Teletext made sure that this was an almost impossible task. For each three par story, you had to write three headlines – one for the digital copy, one for the main headline and one for the index page. Each headline on each story had to be a set length, give or take one letter. On the index page things were even tougher – you had to write every headline to 35 characters. You heard me. Every headline, to the letter. And 35 isn’t very many.
It’s been said by many people, most a lot wiser and wrinklier than myself, that Teletext is the best training possible for a fledgling sub. The equivalent of the Colosseum for a young and hairless Russell Crowe. It makes you good without you knowing, hones your legal skills and makes you really, really anal about unnecessary words.But for every unnecessary word that you cut out, you end up using the most stupid of words to replace them.
Never have I uttered the following words more times than I did at my time there, fitting massively big ideas into 35-character headlines: bid… probe.. rap.
Even better, these headlines: ‘Man held over supermarket theft’; ‘Woman killed in collision with tree’. They may not be 35 letters, but to this effect. They honestly were the most awful headlines imagineable – all because Titan (the program used to work Teletext) was so inflexible and dated that it didn’t allow for anything else. We tried, honestly we did, but the feeling always prevailed – who reads it anyway?
I guess now, nobody will.
I am sad about it – not least for the people who will probably be unemployed as a result. The digital age has snuck up on us fast. Only two decades ago we were happy with neon news and pages that took 60 seconds to refresh. Now we want everything fast and don’t want to have to miss vital moments of Eastenders to do so.
Working on Teletext gave me a rare insight into its strange and incestuous world. I marvelled at the Christmas Advent Calendar which revealed the most ridiculously bad pictures and the holidays that were cheaper than a meal at Wetherspoons.
In some other guise, I am sure the service will go on – I hear the web version and Holidays bit will soldier on. Yet it will be with a heavy heart that I pick up my remote to look at the Teletext TV guide only to see the button resting there, redundant and remniscient.
The future is bright, it may well be orange, but for unfortunately for Teletext, it’s not cyan, yellow, black and white anymore.