Shiny Shelf


Micro Men

By Mark Clapham on 09 October 2009

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Someone much smarter than me (no heckling at the back) once pointed out the gap in knowledge that a lot of us have regarding the major events that occurred before our birth and through our early childhood, events we are too young to understand, and too recent to be taught to us at school.

As such, I found BBC4’s ‘Micro Men’ fascinating, not because it reminded me of my own childhood (I was two at the time the drama starts, but oddly enough as an infant in Yorkshire I spent disappointingly little time in the offices of Cambridge technology firms), but because it put so much of the technology of the time into a context I’d never understood. While ZX Spectrums, BBC Micros and even the odd Acorn Electron occupied classrooms and friend’s bedrooms during my schoolyears, I never actually knew much about their origins.

Well now I do. ‘Micro Men’ (renamed from the wittier ‘Syntax Era’, and with an ambitious self-comparison to ‘Mad Men’) follows the path of the early 80s home computer boom through the schism between Sir Clive Sinclair and his ex-employee and rival Chris Curry. Curry is the more technical of the two, an evangelist for computers in the home and an enthusiast for the quality of his products. Sinclair on the other hand is focussed on design and marketing, initially rejecting the market potential of computers but producing sleeker, cheaper computers when he does.

This story is the story of all tech booms, from tiny offices and last minute all-nighters, through the peak of vast office complexes and fat bottom lines, through to the eventual slump of unsold stock and eventual takeovers. It’s in the portrayal of this rise and fall, starting in the very late 70s and ending in 1985, that ‘Micro Men’ excels: there’s a real sense of fleeting, exhilirating success as Curry, Sinclair and the unseen legions of other computer and software manufacturers who occupied the boom pioneered a whole new industry that expanded wildly before its eventual, inevitable contraction.

The period of the home micro boom is an odd little space in the early 80s, that bridged the gap between the fall of Atari’s early home consoles, and the rise of affordable home PCs and the return of the games console in the late 80s. For a few short years, domestic computers were neither dedicated games machines nor particularly functional devices, but experimental toys that expected you to do a little bit of coding, albeit in BASIC, to do anything. Neither fish nor fowl, neither pure fun or usefully functional, those 8-bit computers tried to be a bit of both, but mainly sold on the sheer novelty of computing in the home, the buzz of new tech.

‘Micro Men’ shows Sinclair and Curry building businesses and machines that appealed to different sides of the phenomenon: Curry’s Acorn wins the bid to build the BBC Micro, making a fortune getting solidly educational machines into schools across the country, while Sinclair’s Spectrum captures the home leisure market and is, to Sir Clive’s ire, mainly known for games. These paths cross at the point of attempted transition and failure: the Acorn Electron makes a bid for the lower spec, higher fun market and fails, while the Sinclair QL is a disastrous attempt to drag the brand up-market and invade the office.

The film is not without its faults – while Alexander Armstrong’s portrayal of Sir Clive isn’t quite the all-out comedy turn he’s been accused of, he does make Sinclair such a brittle, histrionic character that it’s hard to see why anyone followed him at all, while some of the laughs stray a bit close to easy retro for comfort – but it does capture the spirit and excitement of the time, and is both sharply, fondly written and well played by Armstrong, Martin Freeman (as Curry) and an excellent supporting cast. The use of original, chiptune music is inspired, as is the casting of early 80s SF icons – Doctor Who! Vila! – in minor roles, giving the whole production an odd sheen of childlike excitement.

That consumers tired of these early computers, and that they were superceded by more ruthlessly functional machines with streamlined operating systems, is neither surprising nor particularly sad. However it’s hard not to be nostalgic for a period that pushed computer programming into homes and schools across the country, creating a climate without which we wouldn’t have the technology and software industries we have today.

In its portrayal of geeks and entrepreneurs creating a revolution in people’s living rooms, ‘Micro Men’ is an oddly domestic frontier story, a very British pioneer yarn. It’s kind of inspiring, in it’s own way, and is just another example of why BBC4 is such a vital, creative part of British TV right now.


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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named markclapham.com.




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