Last night (8th October at the time of writing) BBC4 broadcast a drama based on the early years of the British home computer industry. Originally given the geeky and puntastic title of Syntax Era, the name was changed later on to the far more general public-friendly (and nowhere near as good) Micro Men. Described by the BBC as a “an affectionately comic look at the race to dominate the home-computer market in the ’80s”. The narrative focused on two key figures of the early ’80s PC industry – Clive Sinclair of Sinclair Research (played by Alexander Armstrong) and Chris Curry of Acorn (played by Martin Freeman).
I was unsure about Micro Men from the trailers the BBC put up on their website in advance of the broadcast last night. Martin Freeman looked fine as Chris Curry but Armstrong’s performance as Sinclair came-across from the short clips shown as being a bit too comic and caricaturish, like something from a sitcom rather than a lighthearted drama. Fortunately, within the first ten minutes of Micro Men this feeling subsided and Armstrong’s portrayal of Sinclair as a tempremental, aggressive and somewhat-buffoonish business bofffin – an angry ying to the more chilled-out yang of Freeman’s Curry – started to feel quite natural and most of my reservations were left at the wayside.
The story focussed on several different episodes in the rivalry between these two men, taking place over a period of years. The first was Sinclair and Curry setting-up rival computer-manufacturing businesses after working together in the late ’70s (the breaking-up of the state-supported Sinclair Radionics is shown near the start and precipitates the two men parting ways); the next was the race to gain the coveted BBC seal of approval and become the Beeb’s official “BBC Micro” (Acorn famously winning-out in the end, although there was a nice moment when Sinclair presumptuously placed a BBC logo on his mockup of the ZX Spectrum’s casing); the third was the scramble for the Christmas home computer market in 1982-83 and the fourth was both companies crashing spectacularly after failing to build on early success and releasing new products that failed to catch-on in the way their early models had.
And, I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed all of it. Knowing a bit about the background and presonalities involved helps but even without that, this was still a funny, engaging and sometimes moving piece of drama. There were some marvellous “face-off” scenes between Sinclair and Curry; notably a cafe confronation in which Sinclair attempts to emphasise his self-styled position in the pecking order by ordering Curry’s food before he arrives (“their oxtail soup is warming. And nutritious!”), and a fight in Cambridge Pub “The Baron of Beef” over an Acorn advert attacking Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum which a little research informs me actually took place. There were also plenty of in-jokes and period details: the infamous Sinclair “RAM-pack wobble” gets a mention, Acorn staff are shown desperately cobbling together their BBC Micro prototype mere days before men from the Beeb come to inspect it, the notorious C5 is practically a running-joke throughout the whole thing and Sinclair at one point, exasperated by his “hobbyist” home computer becoming a games’ machine complains “there’s even a game about me trying to get a knighthood!”. And speaking of games, that reminds me: there are also lots of namechecks and brief clips from classic 8-bit games from the period which should keep a lot of you lot happy. In spite of its faults (Armstrong’s makeup never looks quite convincing enough and some scenes – such as Sinclair taunting Curry from his C5 on the late-night streets of Cambridge – were a bit too silly) this was a superior piece of comic drama and a nostalgic look at a period when it must have felt that, as far as computers went, anything was possible.
Now, all we need is someone to commission a drama about the rise and fall of the British videogames industry in the same period…
(For those in the UK, Micro Men is doubtless still available on the BBC’s iPlayer service. I also hear that it’s likely to be repeated on BBC4 if watching things a bit fuzzily in a monitor doesn’t appeal)