Cast your mind back to 1993 for a moment. The internet was still in its infancy, the Mega Drive and SNES were wooing gamers, and the most up to date source for gaming news and reviews were the copious amount of magazines that filled row upon row of a newsagentâ€™s shelving.
Then along came Digitiser, a daily updated video game page hosted on Channel 4â€™s Teletext. Digitiser changed everything. Even when Windows 95 came along and kick-started the internet boom, it remained a valuable and unbiased source of gaming gossip, seeking out the odd rumour or exclusive here and there.
For those not familiar with Teletext, imagine surfing the internet on an Atari 2600 using your TV. Thatâ€™s what Teletext was like. A pixilated mess â€“ and God forbid you lived in an area with poor signal â€“ but incredibly popular as everybody with a then-modern TV was able to read it. Digitiser’s viewing figures were once estimated to be 1.5 million, way surpassing any magazine sales figures.
Paul Rose (Mr. Biffo) was the Digitiser mastermind and it really was a case of the right man for the right job â€“ Mr. Biffoâ€™s previous occupation was programming the pixilated graphics for football stadium scoreboards. As you can imagine, Mr. Biffo took to Teletext like a swan to water, often being referred to as a Teletext Jedi due to his ability to use Teletextâ€™s limited graphical abilities (for want of a better word) to their fullest.
Biffo was then joined by Tim Moore (Mr. Hairs) three years after the service launched. Violet Berlin â€“ of CITVâ€™s Bad Influence fame and industry legend Stuart Campbell â€“ would also provide thought-provoking features during the weekend.
An experienced journalist, however, Mr. Biffo was not. The early days of Digitiser were full of surfer speak with words like cool, awesome and radical used without the slightest hint of irony. It didnâ€™t take long for the Digitiser crew to find their forte, thankfully. That forte? Combing the latest gaming news with the most surreal, yet pleasing, sense of humour imaginable.
The letters page would contain a daily diary by The Man With A Long Chin, a fictional character whose escapades would usually involve starting a new job, and then being fired shortly after. â€œI have a new job as a window cleaner but accidentally slipped and broke a window. I then decided to smash all the windows in hope that the owner wouldnâ€™t notice. I would have gotten away with it too if the bathroom window wasnâ€™t frosted.â€ The Man (as his name was later shorten to) was later joined by The Manâ€™s Daddy â€“ a purveyor of jokes with nonsensical punchlines: â€œQuestion. Why did Superman wear his pants outside his trousers? Answer. Because he was a pervert.â€
A pixilated effigy of A-Teamâ€™s Mr. T would make a regular appearance on the letters page too offering advice and warning readers to â€œStay away from his binsâ€. A pair of rapping snakes also proved popular enough to gain interest from a cartoon channel, but sadly talks fell through. We cuss them bad.
In addition to readers’ responses to a weekly hot topic, weekends would often also feature fake transcripts of prank calls made to video game retailers by the ET-alike Phoning Honey. One of these entailed a customer looking for a cage to keep his console in fear that his child would smash it to bits.
Itâ€™s perhaps the news narrators that are the most well remembered. Insincere Dave would spout sarcasm (â€œThis movie tie-in is bound to be brilliant!!!â€) while Computer Boy mocked console owners and Zombie Dave would mutter jumbled up swear words. This character was a blatant way to creep a bit of sexual innuendo into what should be a family-friendly gaming source.
Indeed, Mr. Biffo was pretty much at war with the editors of Teletext from the moment these surreal characters appeared. The editors would routinely take jokes out quite simply because they didnâ€™t understand them or thought them to be pushing the boundaries of acceptability.
As such Mr. Biffo rattled more than a few cages during Digitiserâ€™s ten year life and managed to generate a few complaints. Amiga fans were also angered after the weekly Amiga chart was dropped due to being billed â€œa dying formatâ€ while Sonic 3 on Mega Drive received a 72% review score – with reason being that it was too easy to justify the Â£59.99 price tag – which likewise caused a bit of a fuss. Both Mean Machines magazine and the Official Nintendo Magazine were occasionally mocked too, mostly because of how biased they were. It must have been a painstaking four weeks for Mr. Biffo to wait for their responses.
In later years reviews became very cynical with unoriginal games severely frowned upon. Atariâ€™s Furious Karting on Xbox was mauled to pieces simply because it was felt there was no reason for it to exist. Unique and fun games were praised.
Teletextâ€™s main source of income was from holiday bookings and after the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre people lost faith in travelling by air. A loss of revenue was the perfect excuse for the heads of Teletext to reduce Digitiser to a three day a week affair. Not only this, but all the characters and jokes were to be removed.
Bin Laden effectively killed Digitiser.
Well, temporarily at least. Viewing figures dropped and after nine months of letters and e-mails from angry fans, Digitiser was finally reinstated to its former glory. A new senior editorial team, however, made Mr. Biffo feel quite unwelcome and after five months of Digitiser back to being the way fans wanted, he felt that it was time to move on. Shortly after a 10th-anniversary celebration, complete with a dedication written by author Alex Garland, it was announced that Digitiser was to cease to be and that a new gaming page â€“ Game Central â€“ would be taking over.
Rather than carrying on a career as a video game journalist Mr. Biffo turned to television and wrote scripts from the popular childrenâ€™s series My Parents Are Aliens as well as Eastenders and the failed Cross Roads reboot. One of Biffoâ€™s biggest claims to fame is managing to sneak the â€˜C wordâ€™ into Eastenders by getting Ian Beale to say the word ‘constable’ slowly.
2007 also saw Biffovison â€“ a spoof of a ’80s Saturday morning kidâ€™s show â€“ air on BBC Three as a pilot. The full episode is available on YouTube, but hereâ€™s a taster:
Those who managed to experience Digitiser should consider themselves lucky. Only a few snapshots remain online and with Textext soon to become a distant memory due to the analogue signal being turned off, there will never be anything like it ever again.
Excellent write-up, I always kept up with Digitiser when I got the chance, but at some points I was only able to get half the jokes as not all TV remotes had that all-important ‘reveal’ button. It’s quite funny that several of its characters (Insincere Dave and The Man’s Daddy) live on via fake Twitter accounts.
Its replacement, Game Central, did at least one thing right- they gave a glowing review to Global Defence Force on the PS2, to the point where they kept getting letters from people unable to find a copy of it.
The Game Central boys also had a soft spot for G1 Transformers, which is also good.
That’s excellent, however I’m almost certain that it was Den Watts who uttered the c-bomb when faced with “a pair of big constables” at his front door.
Super Page 58 still exists, also! http://www.btinternet.com/~moononastick/sp58/Index.html I’ve not checked out Moleman’s site, or whatever’s left of it in archive.org, in years, but SP58 has a lot of the good stuff inside its walls.
Also I note no mention of Bubblegun, which was Biffo’s other project towards the end of the Digi era, but never mind, love – it’s all over now, anyway ._.
Nice article :)
At least I didn’t put Dot Cotton, eh?
It truly was an inspiration, and, having been barely into my teens when it started airing, Digi very much went on to influence my sense of humour. Ten years at the top of its game – can you even say that about The Simpsons.
Thanks for mentioning SP58! Yes, no longer on the old Freeserve site (obvious reasons), but very much the genuine article linked above. I created that originally as a uni project and it grew beyond anything I expected – to the point where Biffo invited me along to his Teletext leaving do when Digi ended (write up: here http://bellston.livejournal.com/58332.html)
Wonderful times. Hope Biffo is doing well.
Linkuss cuss-me-do! Here’s one that works:
Great stuff, thanks for the memories. Digi was something truly special, hard to imagine anything like it now.
FWIW my favourite was always Le Chef. Pomp-du-dompt! :-)
I just spent ages trying to find a Digi site I knew of that had LOADS of screengrabs, etc, thought it would be a good addition to this tribute.
Then I came back here and realised that it was already linked in the final para of the main article.
I urge everyone to track down (and read) Mr Biffo’s book, ‘Confessions of a Chat Room Freak’.
It’s incredibly funny, and more than a little rude.
This site’s predecessor (Digiape.com) basically started off as something quite Digi-inspired.
I remember in my first job, at a games PR company, I phoned up Mr Biffo and offered him a bunch of games swag to run a competition on Digitiser. He did. For me that was the best coverage we got for that game, way above getting features in any other magazines or newspapers.
I never knew that, Adam. I do remember you working in PR though.
Amusingly, my name is mentioned on Wikipedia’s Digitiser page during the paragraph about how Biffo would mock people’s names on the letters page. I assume Biffo wrote it.
I remember what was supposed to be Stuart Campbell’s last Panel 4, which never made it to air for whatever reason.
A website I was involved with at the time got mentioned in it, for being amazing. It, like Digi and indeed Teletext is now nothing more than pixel-dust and memories, though. Good times.
I lost my virginity to a girl I met on a digitiser tribute forum.
Myself, Jake and two others ran a Digtiser tribute site. Well, it was a Yahoo Group.
Can’t have been the same one as only us four posted on it.
No, it wasn’t. Biffo used to post there
I read Digi for the whole of its life. Mr T. is still hilarious.
In 2000 I had a couple of Man Daddy style jokes printed on the letters page. It was when he was doing surreal sound-a-likes with the real thing printed in brackets afterwards.
The only one I remember is
What do you call a TV show about a depressed pile of tile fixative?
The tragic mound of grout (Magic Roundabout)
I was most gratified when Mr. Biffo wrote “Those are some good jokes” after my letter.
I used to write for the Oracle gaming pages before they lost the franchise at the end of 1992. If there is one thing I can say, is that Digitiser more than made up for the fact I’d lost my first job (and free games to go with it).
The only memory I have of the Oracle gaming page is a review of Tom & Jerry on the Master System. It might have been one of the last reviews as Digitiser started not long after I discovered it.
What was the name of the gaming page on Ceefax? That was beyond poor. They even somehow posted a “review” of Rare’s Kameo on the original Xbox.
The internet wasn’t in its infancy in 1993. The Internet has been around since the late 1960s. The World Wide Web was, however.
Captain Pedantic signing off!
Mr Biffo just emailed us RE: this article. Thanks muchly for your kind words Sir Biffo!
I’ve still got the zip file somewhere containing the whole site for the online version of digitizer that they did. Think it was around 2004 they experimented with a subscription based site that looked identical to teletext but in your browser. The site had a different name but everything else was identical.
Didn’t last long sadly, probably due to the lack of subs but what was there was gold.
THE REAL TURNER THE WORM BEING SICK.
hi there, was just wondering where you got these images of digitiser from, as im currently researching the Oracle and trying to find some images of park avenue, a soap opera that used to be on the oracle. if you have any leads that would be really helpful.
A good place to start would be here: http://www.teletext.org.uk/index.php
Comments are closed.