Digi-me-do! Remembering Teletext’s Digitiser

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 newsagent’s shelving.

Then along came Digitiser, a daily updated video game page hosted on Channel 4’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. That’s what Teletext was like. A pixilated mess – and God forbid you lived in an area with poor signal – 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 – Mr. Biffo’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 Teletext’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 – of CITV’s Bad Influence fame and industry legend Stuart Campbell – 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 didn’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. “I 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 wouldn’t notice. I would have gotten away with it too if the bathroom window wasn’t frosted.” The Man (as his name was later shorten to) was later joined by The Man’s Daddy – a purveyor of jokes with nonsensical punchlines: “Question. Why did Superman wear his pants outside his trousers? Answer. Because he was a pervert.”

A pixilated effigy of A-Team’s Mr. T would make a regular appearance on the letters page too offering advice and warning readers to “Stay away from his bins”. 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.

It’s perhaps the news narrators that are the most well remembered. Insincere Dave would spout sarcasm (“This movie tie-in is bound to be brilliant!!!”) 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 didn’t understand them or thought them to be pushing the boundaries of acceptability.

As such Mr. Biffo rattled more than a few cages during Digitiser’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 “a dying format” while Sonic 3 on Mega Drive received a 72% review score – with reason being that it was too easy to justify the £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. Atari’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.

Teletext’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 – Game Central – 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 children’s series My Parents Are Aliens as well as Eastenders and the failed Cross Roads reboot. One of Biffo’s biggest claims to fame is managing to sneak the ‘C word’ into Eastenders by getting Ian Beale to say the word ‘constable’ slowly.

2007 also saw Biffovison – a spoof of a ’80s Saturday morning kid’s show – air on BBC Three as a pilot. The full episode is available on YouTube, but here’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.

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