This store requires javascript to be enabled for some features to work correctly.

Ancient Oracle

Nick Catley on a time when staring at a screen of text was a good way to spend a Saturday afternoon


The days before teletext were deeply unsatisfactory or at least they were if you weren’t at the ground watching Watford on a Saturday afternoon (and I usually wasn’t, for various reasons, the initial one being that I was less than seven years old). You had a few choices. You could listen to the radio, which might or might not keep you up to date with what was going on at Vicarage Road, Gay Meadow, or wherever Watford happened to be that afternoon. You could watch Grandstand (or, apparently, World of Sport we weren’t an ITV household, and while I’ve grown to understand references to Kendo Nagasaki and Giant Haystacks, it’s all retrospectively learned nostalgia) and hope that the updates shown occasionally along the bottom of the screen over the racing from Uttoxeter or Widnes v Wigan in the rugby league Challenge Cup would include Watford sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t but you could never be certain of what the score was. It was all rather inadequate.

Even worse, if you arrived home part-way through the afternoon’s matches and we often did, as we were looking to move away from the area, and therefore house-hunting, the search and subsequent relocation being the next reason I often wasn’t watching Watford on a Saturday afternoon there was no way of finding out the score, except perhaps phoning someone who had been watching TV all afternoon, but most of the people we knew who were interested were at the ground, and therefore uncontactable in pre-mobile days.

Teletext changed all this. It had a pretty limited heyday relatively rare in most homes until the eighties, its days were numbered when the internet started gaining a foothold and making it look cumbersome around 15 years later and it’s now largely remembered as a bit of a quaint relic. However, it was genuinely revolutionary, particularly for sports fans. Its introduction was the very first time you could get up-to-the-minute information when it suited you, rather than when the radio chose to read it out or the TV bothered to show it, without the temporal limitations of newspaper deadlines. It’s difficult to emphasise just how much of an advance this was, particularly to a football-obsessed pre-teen (who later showed remarkable range and creativity by evolving into a football-obsessed teen).

Financial decisions tended to be sensible and event-driven in our house, rather than taken on a whim. After getting married, my parents decided to delay having children so they could afford central heating. I don’t doubt my brother remains grateful to be a couple of years younger than he might be otherwise. When he was born, they thought they wouldn’t be getting out much, so could justify the expense of a newfangled colour TV. Much later, our first video recorder was obtained so we could tape matches in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, in the dead of our night. And the additional 44 pence per week rental cost of a teletext TV was deemed worthwhile when Watford won promotion to the First Division in 1982.

Yes, watching football on teletext was nothing like the real thing, as Gary Lineker once implied. But for the first time, some of the tension of being there was conveyed to the living room. If you used the ‘update’ feature, a notification would flash on the screen when a goal had been scored – I can still hear the excitement and trepidation of the cry of ‘141!’ when the number appeared on the top right of the TV to show that the information on the page had changed. Later, the scores were spread across multiple pages, making this impossible, but leading to mounting tension waiting for the screen to flip from ‘2/3’ to the ‘3/3’ where the Hornets would reside if they were at home.

A few teletext moments spring immediately to mind. I remember coming in from watching my brother’s school team play football (I know they drew 3-3, yet can’t remember something I thought of to include in this article around two minutes ago, a state of memory with which I imagine many reading this may be sadly familiar) to switch on Ceefax (BBC’s version of teletext, quicker and more comprehensive than ITV’s Oracle) and find Watford were already 4-0 up against Sunderland, prompting my mum and my brother to do a little dance across the living room. It got better and better, of course. I also remember a particularly tense episode of Inspector Morse being interrupted by the realisation that a particularly tense FA Cup tie (against Newcastle in 1989) was finally coming to the end of its 450-minute running time, as the words ‘Roeder (og) 113’ appeared underneath Watford’s name on one of our regular checks. Football thus became even more entwined with our family life than it already was, which was very.

Teletext betrayed me once, however, showing us taking a 2-0 lead through Willie Falconer at Ipswich in September 1990, in a season that was already clearly going to be a relegation battle. I was confused and a little agitated when the score went back to 1-0 a few minutes later – a technical glitch? Shortly after that, details of Brian Gayle’s equaliser appeared, and I realised our second wasn’t coming back. It later turned out that Falconer’s goal had been disallowed for offside but somehow mistakenly reported. Thus was I introduced to the emotion of having an apparently confirmed goal taken away – somehow a much more deflating feeling than that of conceding one – which I thankfully didn’t experience again until the introduction of VAR.

I don’t miss teletext – all its functions are performed far better by a phone. If I miss anything associated with it, it’s being a kid – and that only very rarely. But it marked a step-change in the experience of football fans unable to be at the match, and deserves to be remembered as much more than a nostalgic anomaly for that reason alone.