It’s quite apt that Micro Men, a comedy drama about the rivalry between two of England’s most important computer industry moguls, should be produced and screened by the BBC. After all, it was the BBC itself that helped to kick-start the UK home computer revolution with its Computer Literacy Project, and this event forms the pivotal turning point of Micro Men‘s tale of the rise and fall of Sinclair and Acorn.
The tale begins in 1978 with Clive Sinclair (Alexander Armstrong) struggling to exercise his own creative urges due to a stifling loss of control of his company, Sinclair Radionics after a government bail out. In an effort to rid himself of his shackles, he confides in Chris Curry (Martin Freeman) and starts up a shell company that Clive plans to take over once his current predicament is dissolved.
The problem with this plan is Sinclair’s increasingly eccentric obsession with his electric car project (the Sinclair C5, of course), whilst Curry is determined to plough on with his own idea – a home computer kit, an idea Sinclair quickly scoffs at. It’s not long before the two disagree, and the two boffins go their own way.
Clive forms Sinclair Research, not wishing to be left out of a potentially lucrative market (as well as wanting to stick it to his former colleague) and Curry heads up rival firm Acorn.
Sinclair’s company is, of course, a slick operation, with industry experts and well furnished premises, whilst Curry instead recruits college students and sets up his premises in a small, less than suitable office, a fact that will be appreciated by anyone involved in the industry back then, or indeed anyone with knowledge of the era.
Whilst today’s computer manufacturers work in pristine, specially constructed facilities where no one would even consider sparking up a cigarette, this wasn’t the case in the late 70s and early 80s, and this is depicted here for all to see. Even whilst working away on a prototype computer, Curry’s creative team smoke, drink and even eat in the cramped office space, and it’s all accurate and humorous stuff, especially the impromptu use of technical tools as chopsticks.
The two companies eventually launch their first machines, with Sinclair first off the bat with the ZX80, and Curry hot on his heels with the Acorn Atom. The rivalry heats up as Sinclair, keen to capitalise on his market position, launches the ZX81, forcing his team to complete the project in a ridiculously short time – a theme that runs throughout Micro Men, as both Sinclair and Curry push their staff to achieve impossible deadlines.
This is emphasised to great effect in Curry’s greatest achievement – winning the BBC’s contract to manufacture a computer for use in its literacy project, a project that the team had to complete in a mere four days.
The crux of the story, Acorn used this as a springboard to success. Riding on the back of the BBC deal, Acorn became a huge success, whilst Sinclair, not to be outdone, also reaped the rewards of the growing computer industry, even if it became known as a computer for games, thanks to the success of the Sinclair Spectrum, something Sinclair wasn’t all too keen on.
Micro Men then takes us through the highs, and inevitable lows of the two companies’ lives, all the way to the computer market collapse, and the arrival of a certain Mr Sugar and Amstrad, as well as some small, unheard of names like Apple and Microsoft…
As a dramatisation of the real events of the 80s, Micro Men succeeds in capturing the whole feel of the early UK computer market. The cleverly used footage from real news stories and TV shows, along with reproductions of actual events, is handled excellently.
Armstrong’s portrayal of Clive Sinclair as a tyrannical, yet brilliant inventor is spot on, and Freeman’s far more down-to-earth outing as Curry helps to deliver the confrontational head-banging between the two clashing personalities.
What we have here, though, is not simply an affectionate portrayal of the computing giants, but also an intriguing and accurate look into the growth of the now enormous industry, an industry that the UK helped to launch. The small-scale start-ups and backbreaking deadlines are all very British, and Micro Men captures the struggles that both men had to endure to make it big.
It also manages to show just how ‘quaint’ the British public found all of this computer nonsense, and it’s amusing to see just how unprepared the world was for the inevitable computer revolution. Even Curry’s own banker, played by none other than Peter Davidson, refers to computers as “very science fiction”, and he’s the one funnelling large amounts of cash into the venture!
Special mention should also go to the soundtrack, which is brilliantly done in an 8-bit tone throughout, and fits in perfectly.
I only wish that the story wasn’t as condensed as it was. Events were moved through very, very quickly, and I feel the overall story could have easily made for a two-parter, at least. This is a shame, and there is a definite sense of a deadline almost as crushing as the ones faced by the boffins in the program, and I suspect there’s plenty of unused script sitting on the cutting room floor.
Despite this, though, I found Micro Men to be a great trip down memory lane. As someone who grew up during the 80s rise and fall of these two much loved companies, it’s great to see events unfold once more.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go and find some wire clippers as my Chinese takeaway has just arrived…