To the unitiated or the under 26’s, it’s hard to explain exactly what Teletext was, but if you picture in your mind’s eye a kind of terrible internet from the 1970s that appeared on your television when you sat on the remote, didn’t really work and sold you package holidays, you’re 90% of the way there.
It was what’s known as a “television information retrieval service” and it was created in the United Kingdom in the early 1970s as a means of sending pages of text and simple geometric shapes to TVs, initially as a way of showing simple text-based content like news, weather and TV schedules, but as the technology (barely, at a snail’s pace compared to the technology around it) advanced, various games and interactive bits and pieces appeared, making Teletext a last resort entertainment destination for anyone who had exhausted the four available channels and wasn’t prepared to go outside or pick up a book.
After adoption in the UK the system became international as the “European Teletext standards” and as the World System Teletext (WST), it trundled along as a semi-uselful information source until it was eventually usurped by the internet and digital TV, and turned off when the analogue signal was turned off in 2012.
As is often the case with dying or dead media, there now exists a community of artists that base their work around celebrating and/or modifying the format. In fact, there’s an annual Teletext Art Prize. This year Dan Farrimond, a chief exponent of the genre, won the competition. We spoke to Dan about Teletext and his work around it.
What power does Teletext hold for you? Why use its format as a medium?
There’s a healthy dose of typically British irony to revisiting a medium that’s considered ‘dead’ by most in the UK. We must credit mainland Europe for its revival in a form you mightn’t have expected – as a method of artistic expression. It isn’t just the novelty of revisiting ‘primitive’ media, though that’s a big draw and the primary reason the International Teletext Art Festival (yep, it does indeed exist!) has been so popular.
I will admit that FixC, organisers of the Teletext Art Fest, are responsible for getting me hooked on teletext art. But in a way, it was a latent addiction waiting to resurface, since there was a time I used teletext numerous times a day. My ‘hold page’ button became worn out because I believed toggling it on and off would make the cricket scores load faster… but it never did. And England never did get any better at batting, at least not until the late-late teletext era.
As an artistic medium, it is defined by its limitations. I don’t mind that, since all art is bound by restrictions of some sort, be they imposed by the medium or the artists themselves. With me, it’s something of a paradox - since teletext art is so restrictive, you can’t ever strive for perfection, and that gives me freedom to experiment. There is no pressure to be photo perfect, or even pixel perfect.
How do you create the images?
The art is created in genuine teletext software freely available on the internet. The teletext specification sets out a grid of 24 rows by 40 columns and provides two modes – text and graphics. For the latter, each space or ‘character’ on the grid holds a total of six pixels, making for an overall canvas 72 pixels high by 80 pixels wide.
There are also high tech medium-specific effects such as double height or flashing text/graphics, triggered by special ‘control characters’ which use up one precious square on the grid. Believe it or not, there is some variability in the process, which differs depending on the piece itself. You can choose to import a photograph and clean it up in the program, which can produce some effective pop art style imagery. Alternatively, you can start from scratch and use the software as a pixel art editor, or go a bit crazy and make everything glitchy with the odd strategically-placed control character. It’s fine – teletext was never totally free of funky graphical anomalies caused by poor reception!
Personally, I like to use a mixture of text and graphics simultaneously since to me, the two are equally important. It’s there in the name – ‘tele’ is an Ancient Atarian term for primitive graphics, while ‘text’ probably means ‘vaguely letter-like forms’. I’m not sure as I have yet to fact check that, but in any case, the two go together like the 80s and mullets.
Do you know how they created the images for the original Teletext stuff?
I wouldn’t know from experience, but I can’t think it would have been quite as easy as it is now when teletext was launched in 1974! I expect that as the technology developed, complex more graphics became increasingly commonplace – there were even drawing tablets and camera systems to scan images. I imagine that’s how they reproduced the art on Channel 4 Teletext’s Frame-It, which magically converted kids’ drawings to teletext form.
Entries to that section were always credited, but commercial teletext artists weren’t often named. An exception to this rule was Paul Rose, who created a lot of wonderful art for the fondly remembered Digitiser service as well as teletext cartoon Turner the Worm. He graduated from designing scoreboard animations for Wembley Stadium to creating edgy, often risqué graphics for the mighty telly techs in the 1990s.
You could probably recreate the technology the likes of Mr Rose had at their disposal using a modern scanner, or draw directly onto the canvas using a tablet PC… but the traditional keyboard input is still available if you prefer to use it!
Do you think Teletext was ever given the respect it deserved from the viewing public?
There was a time when teletext was viewed as cutting edge technology, but as the circle of life dictates, there comes a point when the young pretender becomes the new master. People may laugh at the seemingly primitive teletext now, but the fact it is still utilised to this day alongside the more ‘progressive’ internet speaks volumes.
To me, teletext always will be cutting edge. Modern inventions may be faster and more convenient, but they aren’t futuristic. I won’t say they’re free of character, but they’re far too polished. Teletext is sci-fi, and therefore supposed to be a bit rubbish – therein lies its simplistic charm. Well, I say ‘simplistic’, but as a medium it is far more complex than we give it credit for, especially for a 1970s invention.
However, I think there is still a certain respect for teletext’s role pre-internet. Which is a good job, because when the web-pocalypse inevitably comes, we will have no choice to fire up the old TV masts and embrace analogue technologies such as teletext once again.
What semi-formed, nice-idea-poorly-executed bit of technology do you feel has taken its place now?
I feel you’re trying to lead me with this one, but I will not take the bait! Besides, I can’t think what on earth you’re referring to…
For better or worse, the services provided by teletext are now more distributed and specialised. I still use text updates to get my latest cricket scores, and now it is my mouse pointer that has worn out from constant refreshes of my browser! But I’m told you can also use things like social media, news aggregators and individual website RSS feeds to get a lengthened version of what teletext once provided. Basically it’s like Ceefax expanded three billionfold and bloated with salty reconstituted meat and pictures of cats wrestling dogs. That would never have worked on teletext. Maybe - I’m not sure anyone ever thought to try it.
Ah right, you might have been thinking of ‘interactive television’! You know, what you get when you hit the red button on a BBC channel now, teletext’s forgotten son. It had the potential for so much more – multiple video and audio streams, video scoreboards, takeaway restaurant menus… but the internet is keeping that one in check. Besides, it’s more difficult to build subscription models now all the Viewdata services are gone...
But I still use BBC Red Button during the boring bits of Family Guy to make sure the game kicks off at 3.00pm on Saturday and I don’t turn up to an empty football stadium. It’s even glitchier than its predecessor and woefully underpopulated, but does its job. Just about.
Watch out for that web-pocalypse, though, because teletext will rise again. We’re already preparing for such an eventuality by launching a web teletext service called Teletext40. People are welcome to submit art, Frame-It style, and emulate the great Paul Rose by creating their own designs and editorial sections!
Thanks for talking to us Dan!
Check out more of Dan's work here.