TV review: Micro Men


----------------

As part of its Electric Revolution series, the UK’s BBC has shown a fact-based drama, Micro Men, looking at the early 80s period when Britain was arguably leading the world in home computing. The heart of the story was the personal rivalry between Clive Sinclair (Alexander Armstrong, pictured above right) and Chris Curry (Martin Freeman, pictured above left), whose Sinclair and Acorn companies led the battle to get a computer in every home.

The story begins with Curry failing to persuade electronics guru Sinclair that home computing is the way of the future (Sinclair being more interested in developing his infamous C5 electric car). Curry then breaks away with friend Hermann Hauser to form his own company, Acorn, which begins work on the Atom computer.

However, while Curry recruits a team of computer enthusiasts working to produce a high-quality machine, Sinclair changes his mind and decides to get to market first with the ZX80, with the main selling point being that it’s the first home computer to cost under £100 (roughly £458 or $726 in today’s money.) The drama’s central theme of quality vs quantity is best shown in scenes at a trade fair where Curry is boasting that his machine has double the memory of Sinclair’s – a mammoth 2k – while Sinclair confesses to a journalist that there is a significant issue with attaching a RAM expansion pack to the ZX80, but that it’s easily fixable with a piece of Blu-Tack.

The crescendo of the conflict comes when the BBC decides to produce an educational TV show about computing and license its name to a special machine for the product. With free national TV advertising and the potential for sales to every school in the country, the race to win the contract is hotly contested. Curry eventually wins through a wildly ambitious pitch, leaving his team to produce a working prototype of the BBC Micro in just four days.

However, while both men go on to success (Sinclair making millions from the ZX Spectrum), they both have a change of principles. Sinclair despises the way his machines become popular for gaming and puts his efforts into the upmarket QL, which fails to make a dent in the business market. Curry responds to the lack of games for the BBC Micro by producing a cheaper, slimmed down model, the Electron. In the end, he is left with tens of thousands of unsold models as the home computing “fad” passes, replaced by the CD player as the must-have gift.

As a drama, this was somewhat like revisiting the ZX80: awful, but entertainingly so. Given the genre, it had its strong points, notably in the use of archive news footage where Armstrong and Curry’s faces had been skillfully superimposed. That helped avoid a common problem with such docudramas where real footage appears and shows the disparity between the actors and the people they portray. However, other elements were clunky, most notable a ludicrously unbelievable scene in which Sinclair is driving his C5 down an empty road only to be overtaken by trucks belonging to Microsoft and HP. Talk about a clumsily unsubtle metaphor.

As a piece of history, the show was questionable. It came across as remarkably one-sided in favor of Curry, to the point of making you wonder if that was down to his side being more cooperative with the programme’s researchers. However, as a piece of nostalgia, the show is a solid hit.

Micro Men will be available to viewers in the UK via the BBC iPlayer service for another six days. It is possible it will appear later on the BBC America station, though this isn’t confirmed. In the meantime, non-UK readers may well find it isn’t torrentially difficult to get their hands on a copy. A UK based proxy could also be used to listen to the show with the BBC iPlayer.





16 Responses to TV review: Micro Men

  1. There haven’t been any announced plans for a release yet.

    At 80 minutes it might be a little short for a DVD. That said, the BBC could certainly have plenty of archive footage that would make good extras.

  2. There haven't been any announced plans for a release yet.

    At 80 minutes it might be a little short for a DVD. That said, the BBC could certainly have plenty of archive footage that would make good extras.

  3. I need to have a copy to keep only for me. Do you know if any of the streaming grabbers will work with the BBC iPlayer? I was 15 when the zx80 was launched and my first computer has been a vic20. I want to keep this movie in my personal collection. Thanks

  4. I need to have a copy to keep only for me. Do you know if any of the streaming grabbers will work with the BBC iPlayer? I was 15 when the zx80 was launched and my first computer has been a vic20. I want to keep this movie in my personal collection. Thanks

  5. “Some scenes have been invented” was shown right at the beginning.

    Slight understatement there. I understand that the vast majority of scenes were invented. If not invented, then vastly exaggerated.

    Clive Sinclair is shown in a very negative light, probably moreso than the reality. Of course Acorn alumni helped to make the programme…..

  6. "Some scenes have been invented" was shown right at the beginning.

    Slight understatement there. I understand that the vast majority of scenes were invented. If not invented, then vastly exaggerated.

    Clive Sinclair is shown in a very negative light, probably moreso than the reality. Of course Acorn alumni helped to make the programme…..

  7. One point – surely the final scene with Sinclair on his C5 isn’t meant to be taken literally? There wouldn’t have been Microsoft lorries then, it was merely a fun way to end the show.

  8. One point – surely the final scene with Sinclair on his C5 isn't meant to be taken literally? There wouldn't have been Microsoft lorries then, it was merely a fun way to end the show.

  9. Brilliant piece of nostalgia. I had a BBC and although I still own it, I totally identify with Curry when he was in the conputer store and to his disappointment realises that there were hardly any games that were being sold for it in the high street. I actually enjoyed the scene with the HP and Microsoft lorries passing him by with jean micheal Jarres Oxygene playing in the background

  10. Brilliant piece of nostalgia. I had a BBC and although I still own it, I totally identify with Curry when he was in the conputer store and to his disappointment realises that there were hardly any games that were being sold for it in the high street. I actually enjoyed the scene with the HP and Microsoft lorries passing him by with jean micheal Jarres Oxygene playing in the background

  11. I was one of the first kids to start school with one of these BBC Micros and remember them fondly! I absolutely loved this show and thought attention to detail was really good. As for inventing scenes- I’m sure the underlying message was true in most cases.

    It’s fascinating to see how two brilliant application engineers lost their game by spending too much time trying to beat the others. I love that Acorn was driven really by its engineers and the apps / marketers trusted them completely. Without it, ARM wouldn’t exist, neither would a lot of Digital TV boxes or mobile phones!

    I’m really hoping they bring this out on Blu-Ray with lots of extras (/geek mode off)

  12. I was one of the first kids to start school with one of these BBC Micros and remember them fondly! I absolutely loved this show and thought attention to detail was really good. As for inventing scenes- I'm sure the underlying message was true in most cases.

    It's fascinating to see how two brilliant application engineers lost their game by spending too much time trying to beat the others. I love that Acorn was driven really by its engineers and the apps / marketers trusted them completely. Without it, ARM wouldn't exist, neither would a lot of Digital TV boxes or mobile phones!

    I'm really hoping they bring this out on Blu-Ray with lots of extras (/geek mode off)