Ian Black laments the death of a small art form

SO / Farewell then / Beat Box / Probably / Just as well / My bottle of

perfume / Is almost / Empty.

Thus spoke Masha, the Erotic Poetess of Aberdeen, on December 31. She

was a long-term correspondent and was saying goodbye to a small,

ephemeral, but deeply cherished art form, to wit, Oracle Limited, the

ITV and Channel 4 Teletext service. I've always thought that calling an

oracle ''limited'' was hubris but it pains me to be proved right.

Those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad, it is said, and

if the electronic pages of Buzz or Beat Box in the past few days are

anything to go by then the gods are going to have to destroy an awful

lot of young people, because they are as mad as hell.

Heathcliff Mudhoney of The Twangs, Neath, says ''When I was one and

seven / My Beat Box went to Heaven / It left behind a terrible gap /

Which will be filled with awful crap.''

There are certain straws in the wind, or electrons on the cathode that

indicate that he might be right. Beat Box and Buzz were both sounding

boards for a very vocal and fairly large minority who regarded their

editors and their fellow correspondents as friends and co-conspirators

against the adult world. They had nicknames, passwords, and a language

of their own. You could write, phone, or fax messages over a standard

British Telecom line at standard BT charges and you could get away with

slightly naughty words.

Oracle have received over 10,000 letters in the last two weeks, almost

all of them supportive. They have no idea how many phone calls they get

as the tape is full after 150 per day and it has been full every day for

months. Hardest hit are the soap addicts. It was titled Park Avenue, was

Britain's only written soap, and finished on its 1445th episode (it did

six episodes a week) with the words, '' 'Well, bugger me', said

Cathall,'' putting an end to an almost four-year saga of exorcism, rape,

violence, love, and tenderness, which was just tongue in cheek enough to

keep the cynical interested and genuine enough to have created bereft


It is now, by the nature of the medium, gone forever. No re-runs, no

new fans, only old ones. One such is Mrs Janet Wharton of

Barrow-in-Furness. ''I'm going to miss it terribly,'' she said. ''I've

got right into Park Avenue. I hate the Government for doing this.''

George Robertson, MP for Hamilton, is another supporter. ''It is quick

and, very importantly, objective reporting,'' he said last week, ''and

as well as that I had a 75-word piece on it and my children thought I

was God.''

When the franchise, which runs for 10 years, was put up for grabs by

the Government, Teletext UK Limited, as they were then known, made a bid

higher than the entire turnover of Oracle. They have, according to Mr

Bean, marketing manager of Teletext (not a fan of Rowan Atkinson, I'll

be bound), already sold more than #9m worth of advertising, which is

more than the bid for the whole franchise.

You can now watch After Hours Adult Entertainment from 10.30pm till

the small hours, just in case you need advice from Karen K, the Sex

Agony Aunt, or want to read your Sex Horoscope, agree with the Rage

Page, do the Sex Quiz, or put your name on the Dating Index. They are

all costly 0891 numbers. Mr Bean says that all sex products advertised

will be ''tasteful''.

George Robertson's point on objectivity is that 45% of Teletext

Limited, as it is now titled, is owned by Associated Newspapers, also

owners of the Daily Mail. Ominously, the press release issued by

Teletext reads in part: ''It will probably want to establish a distinct

character of its own, to be no longer simply the anonymous fact-giver.''

Meanwhile, there seem to be no plans to develop a Beat Box / Buzz

analogue. My 15-year-old daughter, a furious ex-Oracle correspondent,

says the Teletext pop pages are ''garbage''. As for the rest, in the

last decade the word ''adult'' has been devalued into something with a

slick and sleazy feel. The road downmarket is a steep and slippery one

which doesn't seem to have an end. Goodbye Oracle and innocence; hello

Karen K.