Micro Men - the birth of the British computer age
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Comedy drama Micro Men told the story of the race for home computer supremacy in the UK in the 1980s, broadcast as part of BBC4’s Electric Revolution season in 2009
It’s the story of wild ambition, technological revolution, global success, jealousy, revenge, crushing failure and ultimate reconciliation that shaped the British games industry. Ultimately, however, Micro Men is an affectionate account of the rivalry between Clive Sinclair and ex-employee Chris Curry’s Acorn as they – in one instance, literally - slug it out to secure a lucrative BBC contract to supply computers to schools, going on to clash in an ultimately destructive arms race which, the film suggested, was caused in large part by Sinclair and Curry’s obsessive rivalry.
The show that became Micro Men - its working title was ‘Syntax Era’ - was conceived in 2008 by producer Andrea Cornwell for the BBC. “The working title was something we loved, but perhaps rightly the BBC felt it was too much of an in-joke for a wider audience. However, that’s the title I still use whenever I think of the film.” One of the ideas she had been pondering, after plundering Wikipedia for inspiration, was the story of the British home computer boom of the early 1980s.
“I felt it was a very interesting topic story which ultimately had a massive impact on all of us and how we interact with computers today,” Cornwell explained. “The human story behind the technology had an almost Shakespearean quality, and I really wanted to bring this to life in a nostalgic but also a fun way - to make it a celebration of the period.”
The saga of Sinclair Research’s head-to-head rivalry with Acorn Computers is central to the history of the British personal computer industry. But it’s not just a business and a technology story. Its momentum sprang from a very personal conflict between two former friends turned enemies which added zest to the spats between two business opponents.
They competed with each other to bring the first and the best products to market, then to win the favour of the BBC, which wanted a partner to design and build a microcomputer to accompany its computer literacy programme, and ultimately to be the one to define and dominate the ballooning home computing scene.
“The personal story is fascinating,” Cornwell says. “These two men had a master-protégé relationship and knew each other and then went on to establish very successful businesses in their own right.
“There is something inherently funny as well as tragic about the storyline. I loved the nostalgia of the era. I remember seeing an old advert stating, ‘What would you do with a home computer?’ and that was one of the starting points. The idea that home computers were seen as a craze that had its time in much the same way as the Rubik’s Cube … it’s extraordinary to look back on now when our lives are entirely dominated by computers and the online world. There was then the obviously dramatic structure of Chris Curry starting his career working with Clive and then breaking away to set up a rival firm. As a filmmaker, it’s very common that you find a fascinating subject matter, but you don’t end up having a three-act structure - often you find a story might fade out without having any natural point of conclusion for all the characters. This one felt unique in that there were brilliant personalities that really illuminated this age, and you could follow as a classic ‘Rise and Fall’ type story. Of course, both companies and individuals went on to many more successes - ARM being probably the most notable, but I think we knew that we had a real moment in time that we could bring to life.”
So, a mine of drama then, but also of comedy, to be found in the once advanced, now low-tech products of the period and in the personalities of the story’s central characters, Clive Sinclair in particular.
Director Saul Metzstein recalled, “I immediately knew I wanted to make the programme.” Before he’d even seen a script, he had in mind a closing sequence showing Clive Sinclair on a C5 with Jean Michel Jarre playing in the background. Everything else worked back from that.
After spending some time doing preliminary research, Cornwell worked up a five-page treatment describing the story, which she took to BBC Four. “It met with an almost immediate, encouraging response,” she recalls, and she was commissioned to take the project to the next stage: to put together a package of director, leading actors and a writer. With a writer on board, pre-production research work would be collated and fed into the script, which would then be judged by the BBC as to whether the show would go into production.
When Cornwell approached Tony Saint to write Micro Men, whilst he was no computer buff himself, the story appealed to him and he had a sufficient window in his schedule to get it done. “For him it was all about this interesting cultural movement,” Cornwell recalls. “You’re looking at a pivotal point in history. There’s not a person in the country today that doesn’t have home computing in their lives in some way. It is absolutely looking at the birth of something that is universal, and I think he liked that.”
And it got better the more the producer, director and writer researched it. “What was unusual about this story is that as you read more about it, the more it became like a classical story, rather than less,” says Metzstein. “Usually when you research something real, there’s always some disappointment at the end of the story, but actually this is a classic: it’s two guys who were friends and brought each other down. The story got better and better the more you looked into it.”
But it’s not a dry tale of business competition. “Both of us very early on realised we’d have to do it as a sort of comedy,” Metzstein adds. “I’m not sure we ever discussed it; it was just obviously a comedy. And it’s a classically British story, in a sense of its brilliant innovation followed by success followed by failure, and I think that has a poignancy.”
Central to the telling the tale would be the experiences of the people who had participated in the events the film would depict. Cornwell, Metzstein and Saint met and interviewed all the key participants over a 14-month period of research, which involved interviews including Hauser, Curry, Sir Clive, Acorn engineers Sophie Wilson and Professor Steve Furber, and the late Allen Boothroyd, who designed cases for Acorn’s computers. The team also got hold of magazines and books published around the time home computers exploded into the mainstream to flesh out the details around the charming anecdotes retold by former Acorn and Sinclair employees. Nigel Searle, Sinclair Research’s managing director, was a notable exception; they couldn’t track him down.
“We tried to meet as many of the real characters as we could, and we were pretty successful,” Cornwell says. “Not only the ones who are depicted in the film: we met an awful lot of the other people, and most of them were very generous with their time. So, the script was entirely based on real stories and real anecdotes. It was all verbatim - we didn’t make up any of these stories.”
Of course, some dramatic license was necessary. Cornwell remembers, “You’re trying to fit real life into a dramatic structure. As we all know, real life doesn’t always follow a perfect three-act structure, so you always end up with certain challenges if you’re looking at true stories.” Tony Saint agreed, commenting, “We took a few liberties unquestionably, and there’s some dramatic license there, but the fundamentals of it, I think, are true to the spirit of the story and the spirit of the times.”
One of the most notable ‘did that really happen?’ sequences was where Acorn co-founder Hermann Hauser cuts an umbilical cord-like wire to bring the BBC Micro prototype to life seconds before Chris Curry enters the lab with the BBC’s representatives.
Steve Furber, who was there on the day, is happy with a considerable contraction of the sequence of events of that Friday morning. “In reality I think it leapt into life about three hours before the BBC arrived rather than three minutes afterwards, but the minor points don’t matter,” he says. “Whether or not I had a beard or wore glasses is minor compared with managing to extract an interesting storyline out of it all.
“The fact that the final thing that got the prototype to work, on the morning, was Hermann’s idea to cut this wire - which I think was just connecting the Earth from the development system to the card; I don’t think it was a clock - the fact that Hermann, who had really no idea what was going on, made the final suggestion that made it work is one of the ironies of the story which I always find entertaining. He’ll never forget it either.”
The casting for the show was key and Saint recalls how that came about. “When you do a show like this, you hire a casting director and various options are put up there. At the time, casting Martin Freeman [as Chris Curry], he must have been between jobs, turned out to be quite a coup to have him in the film, bearing in mind what he’s gone on to do since. Alexander Armstrong [as Clive Sinclair] was the casting director’s idea. I was always a huge fan of Armstrong and Miller and Armstrong is like a lot of great sketch duos; they’re very good actors; they have to be because they have to inhabit a lot of different roles. Armstrong has that wonderful comic timing which is a joy to write for. He pulled it off really well and I think obviously, we cast him for the comic potential. Obviously, with Clive Sinclair – I think I won’t go to hell for saying this – there’s a certain degree of pomposity there I think that you want to exploit, and I think he did a very good job of that. There are a couple of particular scenes where he’s gloriously funny, I think. The scene where he comes past Chris Curry on his C5 in the middle of the night always makes me laugh.”
“We were all a bit in love with computers in the early ‘80s and that’s what Clive tapped into,” said Alexander Armstrong, who underwent four hours of make-up every morning to assume the role of Sinclair. “The notion that a computer was something you could have in your own home was something very exciting to all of us.”
Martin Freeman, who admitted the digital revolution largely passed him by, declared, “I’m not interested in computers at all. I do [have one], under duress, but I didn’t think they’d take off! I honest to God didn’t. But this isn’t about computers, it’s about these two men and the relationship between them and their hopes and dreams shattered on the way.
“I came away with an admiration. It’s so easy and compulsory to laugh when you see [Sinclair] being interviewed because he is a bizarre figure, it’s fair to say. I don’t know whether he was a genius, but he was pretty close to it on both an inventing and marketing level. He kick-started a lot of stuff.”
“[Clive]’s biggest weakness was he didn’t recognise he wasn’t a boffin,” added Armstrong. “His genius was marketing. He got a bit carried away and thought he could walk on water. Rightly or wrongly, he’s remembered principally for the disaster of the C5, which has completely overshadowed his relevance in the advance of computers.”
Armstrong had to learn to drive a C5, Sinclair’s doomed electric car, for the film. “I have to say, that’s the biggest pile of... I am second to no-one in my admiration for Clive, and I do mean that. [But] It would be hard to conceive a less well thought through piece of kit.”
Some of the other most dramatic moments in the piece are played exactly as they happened. In one scene Curry and Acorn co-founder, Hermann Hauser, meet with a bank manager in Cambridge to secure a vital loan. The bank manager asks them which college they attended and Hauser, nimbly, points out of the window and says, ‘that one’. The loan is granted.
“That is verbatim Hermann Hauser telling that story,” said Cornwell. She continued, “It’s always a difficult balance as you do always need to simplify stories in order to fit a dramatic structure, but I think for something like this you do have a responsibility to the individuals as well as the audience to keep as close to the facts as you can. I think nearly everything in the film is from a first-hand account. However we did find that reminiscences, particularly around the winning of the BBC Micro contract, did vary fairly widely between individuals. It’s portraying events sometime in the past and of course everyone remembers it slightly differently. Of course, we did add details that never happened - I’m not sure they ever ate Chinese takeaway with pliers, although I wouldn’t put it past them!”
Later, with the rivalry between the two firms at its most intense, Curry publishes a newspaper ad questioning the reliability of Sinclair’s Spectrum computers. Sinclair explodes, storms to the Baron of Beef pub in Cambridge - the pair’s local – and assaults Curry, ridiculously, with a rolled-up newspaper.
“The fight at the end was absolutely real,” insisted Metzstein. "Clive’s dialogue, ‘You f***ing buggering s*** bucket’ was a word-for-word quote. We suspect people who are into computers might go onto the Internet and complain about things that weren’t quite right!”
Cornwell said Sinclair’s ‘temper’ was ‘very well documented’, adding, “He’s very open to admitting that’s one of his character traits.” In one early scene, Sinclair, in a rage, throws a telephone through a window in his office. Cornwell revealed the awkwardness of watching the film through with him. “I had to sit next to him. It must be a weird process. But he laughed [at the phone incident].”
As the businesses collapsed and US rivals began to dominate the market – captured wonderfully in a motorway sequence featuring Sinclair in his C5 – the feuding pair reconciled. “I suppose you could see it [as a love story],” Armstrong conceded. “I think it’s very touching the scene at the end when they come back together again.”
And Cornwell reminded us that Curry and Sinclair have remained in touch to the present day. “They’re not friends as they were in the beginning; when you speak to them there is a bit of regret between them” she said.
Micro Men was well received and became a real cult classic, which came unexpected to writer Saint, “I suppose overall I’m surprised. I always figured that it would appeal very strongly to a coterie of tech fiends, if that’s the right word, but also, I remember thinking at the time that this is a real hostage to fortune, because these people really know what they’re talking about and I haven’t got a clue, so if we make mistakes here, they’re going to let us know about it. Which has definitely been the case! But all power to their elbow, I think it’s great and I think it’s great to have been involved in something that has struck such a chord with so many people. It doesn’t often happen actually, the greatest thing of this business and the most terrible thing about it is the same thing, which is, you’ve spent two years working on a show in some cases, and then it goes out and it’s forgotten about the next day because there’s something else coming along that’s on at nine o’clock the following night. Whereas this thing has just had a life of its own and outlived its very modest beginnings and its very modest genesis into something that’s made a lot of people happy. And hopefully in some cases if it’s turned people on to the world of retro tech, then that’s incredibly satisfying to think of.”
Whilst making the film, the team got to meet many of the people they were featuring, Cornwell remembers, “We met a lot of the individuals involved, including Clive, Chris, Steve Furber and Hermann Hauser. We managed to sneak in quite a few of the original teams as cameos too, including Sophie Wilson from Acorn and Jim Westwood from Sinclair. I’ve only recently watched the reunion online from Chris, Steve and Hermann where they watch the film and provide a running commentary which is extraordinarily moving and funny to see as a filmmaker. They have all been so brilliantly good-spirited about what I’m sure is a very peculiar experience of seeing themselves recreated on screen.”
The film captured the sense of the era exceptionally accurately; Cornwell collaborated with key industry figures today in order to capture the essence, explaining “A hugely important part of our team was The Centre for Computing History and its founder Jason Fitzpatrick. They lent us models of a lot of the early home computers and recreated some of the prototypes as well as cajoling them into working for the cameras. Jason also appears in a scene in the film, so he was very much part of the project. We knew that a lot of our audience would have an extremely keen eye for the details, so it was massively important for us to get the technology as right as possible.
“Outside of the computers themselves, we had great fun with the design and costume elements - it’s a great age visually to bring to life. There is quite a lot of television archive in the film as well. Initially I started doing archive research with the director Saul Metzstein as part of the story process, but so much of it was so brilliant we wanted to include it. We also decided quite early on that we were going to make full use of the BBC’s music licence. Unlike on films, where you have to individually clear every single music track at huge expense, you are fortunate when working with the BBC to benefit from the blanket clearances they have in place, hence we crammed the soundtrack with classics of the era.”
And the film has a wonderful humour underpinning its narrative, Cornwell reflects on the importance, including the memorable moment of ‘Jet Set effing Willy’, “It was always intended to be humorous, but hopefully with real affection and respect for the achievements of both companies. Our writer Tony Saint came up with that line, and it’s always been a favourite. We did think it’s important that we recognised the humour and banter we saw in the real individuals as well as a tongue in cheek look at our attitudes to computing, given how much it has revolutionised since then.”
And of course, the reaction to such lines and the film overall has turned the film in to a cult classic, which delights Cornwell, “It’s great to hear that it’s regarded as a cult classic! You always hope that you will produce something that people respond to, but it was fantastic that it was so loved. I remember watching the film go out on its first transmission and following on Twitter (which in itself was a fairly new phenomenon) with viewers quoting lines and spotting the details we had planted. The film came about as I was initially doing some research into an anthology of films to do with early home computing, including the Atari story and some of the colourful characters around Commodore and Amiga. The rivalry between Sinclair and Acorn was the British story in the series. There was talk of Hollywood tackling the Atari story: I believe Leonardo DiCaprio’s company were developing it around the same time, so we only ever got round to doing the one in the end. Perhaps I should dust off the rest of the anthology…”
To conclude, Cornwell reflects on the importance of the era. “When I started looking into making this film, I looked at the job I do now and wondered how I could have ever managed it without a computer, without email and without a mobile phone. I just couldn’t remember what it was like because these things are now so commonplace - technology has improved so much since then. So, with this film we went back a step and saw how we’d achieved this electronic revolution and celebrated this period of history that changed the world.
“This era was built on the unique British quality of being a nation of inventors and this story epitomises that. It’s an important British success before the likes of Microsoft and Apple when the UK led the world in this industry. These were people who worked on making very sophisticated stuff in the 1980s that was so important for the future. Acorn went from being a staff team to a company of hundreds of people.”
Interviews by Tony Smith, Johnny Minkley, MG and Chris Williams