Thursday, 20 April 2017

Communication is Paramount: Remembering Mailbox

I see you.

Blinking at me with your two green eyes. Not a trace of blue in there, the part that makes me see you're alive, that connects us. The world is closed off and neither of us can explain why. All I'm left with is your final message, left while I slept, found in the recesses of my phone.

"You may be experiencing issues with your Virgin broadband. An engineer is working on the problem."

I sigh, this is third time in a week its completely died and with a resigned smile I think I'd be better off going back to carrier pigeon. Or maybe semaphore. No wait, I should just go back to using the message boards on Ceefax. Like most men in their thirties, the memory of Ceefax and other Teletext services instantly produces a warm, nostalgic glow in that bit of the brain that responds to old Beano annuals, cassingles and when everyone on television and radio was a dangerous sex offender. If I could get online, I'd probably be looking at the many hundreds of blogs devoted to a love of all things blocky and textual. The bit of pleasure eked out of a Bamboozle quiz, Top 40 chart or the real Turner The Worm being sick when there was nothing on the box but you still wanted to sit there gazing at it anyway.

The sheer existence of Teletext services, just lying there underneath your telly waiting to entertain you, was like the future and the past all happening at once. For me there was a thrill in checking to see if a station had their own text service, especially in the mid 90s satellite era. Most of these were just TV listings and maybe the odd advert but Paramount Channel was always a little different.

Its launch in November 1995 brought to UK screens what a cynic might see as little more than old American sitcoms and drama series Sky One didn't want. Even with an open mind, looking at old Paramount (no Comedy, that would come later) Channel schedules made you wonder who it was aimed at with everything from old episodes of Saturday Night Live, quirky animations like Dr Katz, Ren and Stimpy and The Critic to old stand-up (London Underground, Paramount City) and even a daily slick American celebripackage in the form of "Entertainment Tonight".

It was quirky and while I had no real interest in the drama stuff, it was a godsend for a hungry teenage lad wanting to learn about TV and comedy in particular. I've little idea what those early ratings were like but the later shift to an all comedy line-up proved what was working best and eventually the channel budget would allow for new wraparound segments for the evening programmes with the most famous of these probably being "Mash And Peas",  Lucas and Walliams' painfully funny parodies of various TV tropes (although I always had a soft spot for the admittedly laddish but pleasingly shambolic "Dom 'N' Kirk's Night O'Plenty", a live slot presented by Dominik Diamond and Kirk Ewing with various guests and terrible games.) Being live it was one of the first opportunities viewers had to interact with the channel but hidden just under the signal and waiting for people to hit the "TEXT" button was another place to join in. Page 720: Paramount Mailbox.

Acting much like a message board on an early website, people could ring an answering machine or if they were one of these new cyber whizzers, e-mail in with questions or opinions on recent programmes. Granted, terrestrial services like Ceefax and Oracle had been doing this for years but it was a rarity on a satellite station. And whilst I'd never dream of contacting some big telly behemoth with better things to concentrate on, Paramount felt smaller and more personal. People left messages saying what they did or didn’t like and it felt like they were actually being listened to. On more than one occasion I can recall a programme being suggested as worth picking up being bought in by the station as the mailbox "Ed" (For the majority, a chap called Ant Purvis) passed on the information. There'd also be more general chat about current TV programmes, plus news on stuff happening in American media back when we were perfectly used to waiting six months to see the 'latest' episode of a US series that was already onto its next season.

I became a regular caller under the completely ill-fitting nickname "Doc Vegas" (a reference to a recent video for my favourite band of the time Terrorvision's "Perserverance") though I rarely had anything much to say, it was a huge thrill to see my (fake) name up there on the screen less than 24 hours later. Indeed the daily nature of the service was what made it so much of a community for me, long before the internet made it a bit obsolete, as the same people would write and develop a rapport with the people at Paramount's side. It also felt two way as we'd many a time be able to answer questions they couldn't find the answer to with one long running thread devoted to tracking down a song Ed had half heard and not caught the name of, a situation that reminded me of Phillip Schofield's brief obsession with Petula Clark's "Downtown".

I have absolutely no memory of this at all. 
Elsewhere on Paramount Text there'd be other quirky stuff, such as a repeat run for ORACLE's old text daily soap opera "Park Avenue" (Repeats! On Teletext! Just think about that for a second!), a parody games section called "Hard Drive" which infuriated those not in on the joke, a Shakespearean insult machine (one of those put three words together things now everywhere on Facebook) and some Mailbox regulars got their own "columns" in a section called "48 Hours" which developed from episode guides for American sci-fi shows that hadn’t aired in the UK to something more akin to a blog. I worked incredibly hard on one to send in through the summer of 1996 but ultimately bottled sending it. Dont ask, its long lost.

Unlike the oft-eulogised "Digitiser", my days with the Paramount Mailbox are the ultimate "if you were there" memory of mine and I've yet to meet in person anyone else who used the service. Eventually I stopped using it because of the most arcane reasons - we moved house and the new place had bloody awful Teletext reception on Paramount - but it always holds a special place in my heart for allowing me to start a course towards the pop culture nostalgic gumphus you're reading now. PText would stay in active service until 2004 when it joined the internet it had been largely usurped for (Some has gone, some remains at with the channel itself becoming Comedy Central UK in 2009. Or "The Thing What Has Friends On It" as its more commonly known.

God knows what the Mastermind reference was about...
Looking at some of those old messages I left via the archives on New Mailbox, I don't understand a lot of what that shy fifteen year old kid is yammering about (Apparently once I just played a keyboard demo down the phone) but I do recognise the desire to be heard and interact with people from a safe distance long before I had the opportunity to get on the internet. And maybe one day if this modem ever works again I might get on there again to post this.

Press REVEAL for a punchline.

1 comment:

  1. You have met someone from PText. I was "Firestarter, Wellingborough".

    Also, I met half of the team behind it, as I had a job interview there in 1996 to be a writer/designer for the teletext service. When I say "half the team", I mean the one who wasn't Ant Purvis - Ant's boss, Eddie McKendrick, former publisher of Crash. (Adding to this ZX Spectrum nostalgia, the station was situated in the former HQ of Your Sinclair.)

    Eddie let me stay around for a few hours, I got to visit every room in there, so it meant seeing everything in the operations of Nickelodeon UK and the Paramount Comedy Channel, from the tape archive, the Blues Clues studio to the battered computer box that churned out the teletext (it was actually the one used for Oracle, where Eddie used to work).