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.