Digitiser was a games magazine in the 1990s, but not like any other. A new edition was issued daily, for starters. Oh, and it never came out on paper. It was issued as digital data through the airwaves from land-based television transmitters, ending up on your TV screen if you ‘dialled’ certain page numbers using the teletext function on ITV or Channel 4.
Also, Digitiser was extremely leftfield. Many computer magazines had a surreal tinge to them, but nothing on this scale. Bizarre references to swans and snakes would crop up in serious news items. “Incomprehensible” quote “marks” would be dropped in “at” random, giving the reader some “concern” about whether sarcasm was being “used” or “not”.
By rights, Digitiser shouldn’t have succeeded, but it did. You had to be on your toes when reading it, anything could be savage satire, actual serious games content or a baffling joke from the Man’s Daddy. Created by comedy writer and graphic designer Paul Rose, the games magazine got him into trouble on more than one occasion. That it endures with a loyal cult following long after its final airing, is testament to how cherished it is amongst 1990s gamers.
I spent a lot of my childhood in poverty, making do without what my miserly father would term ‘luxuries’. We didn’t have a colour television or a fridge until the mid-1980s. That I even got a computer in 1987 was nothing short of a miracle.
As I play that mournful Hovis music we had to make do with whatever ITV flung out as a ‘network premiere’ because we had no VCR until 1991. That was our only way of catching up on big blockbuster movies.
Teletext? Beyond the dreams of avarice, that! Alright, we’d catch up on it here and there on relatives’ and friends’ sets. It’s usually termed by nostalgists as a ‘prototype internet’, the way you could access breaking news and sports results by typing in a page number. However it was purely a one-way medium, so no chance of leaving foul-mouthed comments.
Our family rapidly caught up with the rest of the world in the Nineties. After the VCR, a satellite dish, then we eventually got a pretty massive television, replete with NICAM stereo and teletext!
Actually, all of that underlined the importance of not being an early adopter. The VCR could do long play and stereo sound, looking a lot sleeker compared to the chunky toploader models from the 1980s. The satellite box had a built-in decoder and could cope with more than 16 channels. Oh, and the new telly’s teletext function came with Fastext, which could cache four pages simultaneously.
I’ve been waffling on about the acquisitions that snowballed in our household, but what about Digitiser then? Well, I got used to using teletext to a point where I watched more of that than actual programmes at one stage.
Before getting teletext access at home, I had stumbled across Digitiser at a friend’s place that I was housesitting, shortly after the magazine launched in 1993. I have to say, I wasn’t immediately impressed.
I was still tinkering on with my 128K ZX Spectrum +2 at this point, long after the vast majority of folk had passed their 8-bit micros on to younger siblings or just jumble sales or landfill. It seemed everyone else had a Sega Mega Drive, a Super Nintendo or a Commodore Amiga.
Unsurprisingly, that’s what Digitiser catered for. There’d be fleeting references to Speccy games in an occasional retrogaming page like my treasured computer belonged in a museum (like it does now).
I would eventually transition over to the Amiga 1200 by the end of the year (the fact it could reasonably emulate the Spectrum was a huge factor), but little did I know that platform’s market was dying out. Digitiser was already onto this, and would ritually take potshots at Commodore’s fading fortunes.
Naturally, I still wasn’t exactly enamoured with Digitiser, holding an anti-Amiga stance. The other thing was the rather bizarre surreal humour. Despite being a fan of Monty Python and a lot of leftfield comedy, it took me a while to latch onto what was going on in this mad corner of teletext.
I suppose it’s like when Vic Reeves’s Big Night Out first aired and a lot of the cool kids at school raved about it and uttered all its catchphrases. I gave it a try and sat there stony-faced, waiting for all the daft characters to be explained to me, which wasn’t forthcoming.
When I caught it on a repeat airing, suddenly everything just slotted into place. A similar thing happened with my perception of Digitiser, I just embraced the daftness of it all. The swans, the cussing snakes, Insincere Dave, Fat Sow and many others, these were in-jokes that drew you in each day.
Come to think of it, the culture was not all that different from printed games magazines with a cult readership. Digitiser could do whatever it wanted and it often did, right into its dying moment.
The main man behind Digitiser, Paul ‘Mr Biffo’ Rose, has been running the Digitiser2000 website since 2014 and managed to get enough crowdfunding to turn his acerbic take on gaming into a kind of television series. It’s something I touch on in my video.
Part of that crowdfunder promised a live episode shot in a theatre for those who had paid for a certain tier. Digitiser Live was the result, taking place at Harrow Arts Centre in July 2019, with a lot of the regular cast of the YouTube series, as well as a few guests known for crossing over with comedy and gaming.
I had taken an old battered household camcorder with me to Harrow, certainly not my best bit of video equipment, but it could easily fit in my hand and it has a ginormous battery so it can film for hours. I’d bought on the cusp of High Definition becoming a thing, just as tape-based recording was on the way out. It’s served me very well.
The idea was to film a few bits of the show, stick ’em out as a montage of clips after a brief introduction from me. It didn’t exactly fit into the ‘review’ format of my other videos, so I applied the term ‘meatspace’ for any videos I do at an event.
Despite the actual show being scheduled for the evening, many turned up in the early afternoon. There’s such a hardcore devotion that fans hired an annex of the venue to put on a kind of ‘mini-festival’. Chunky Fringe held panels which focused on Digitiser, teletext recovery and the bizarre Mr Biffo’s Found Footage series. If that wasn’t your cup of tea, the other end of the room showcased home-made teletext services and computer games.
Of course, you could also mooch around the car park with other like-minded fans in the July heat, drinking cold beer from the local Morrison’s supermarket. While this situation was something like how you in your mid-teens would spend your Friday nights in your provincial hometown when you’re not old enough for pubs, it did have the bonus that every few minutes, someone from the live show would turn up and chat to us.
Let’s face it, loads of us there were in our thirties to fifties, reliving our youth by sitting around drinking cans of beer (thank you Weekend Lollygagger) and putting names to faces. It was the first time I’d met retrogamers like GigerPunk, and MrPSB. One guy who knew me off a Usenet group back in 1997 approached me, recognising me off the time I ended up on MTV.
You may have heard that there was one attendee who was very imposing on people, and made quite a nuisance of himself. Unfortunately, he ended up in a lot of my footage, as his aim was to proliferate himself into everything regardless of his actual talent. Fortunately, I have the editing skills that has eliminated this charmless attention-seeking nanowit from my video, and the Digitiser team announced he would never be welcome to any future event. That’s all I have to say about that, so, moving on…
The Digitiser Live show was entertainingly shambolic, overrunning by at least 40 minutes and involving a lot of clean-up. Mr Biffo always said he wanted to do a ‘retrogaming Tiswas’, so I’d say he’s achieved that. I don’t think anybody walked out of that thinking they were short-changed. It was everything we wanted, and more.
Naturally, for the newbies, I had to prefix my camcorder footage with a rather long shot-at-home pre-amble about what Digitiser was and how it could end up on television screens, for anyone who wasn’t up to scratch with what teletext is. As I’m a television historian with a critically acclaimed documentary under my wing, that was no problem for me, but I do wonder who could sit through all of that.
Unsurprisingly, a second show was scheduled for the following year, 2020! What could go wrong, eh? 2020, a great shining vision of… oh, yeah, there was that thing wasn’t there? See y’all with the same tickets, in 2021. Hopefully.