Product: Micro Men
Publisher: BBC
Compatibility: BBC B/B+/Master 128
Reviewed by: Dave E
Originally published in EUG #70

Micro Men, a film about Sir Clive, inventor of the Sinclair Spectrum, and Chris Curry, inventor of the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron, didn't immediately sound like it was going to have mass appeal. It cued, in my mind, memories of the BBC's 2008 documentary on The Making Of Elite, in which John Snow tried his best to make two students writing mnemonics about wire-frame universes sound interesting; my girlfriend was asleep after about three minutes!

Blink, and you'd miss Micro Men too - it was put out on BBC4 (which analogue TV sets do not even receive!) and there was hardly a trailblaze of publicity for it. I didn't catch it first time round, eventually tracking it down on the internet after reading some positive reviews of it on the Stairway To Hell forums. Yes, even I, a man who openly professes a love for everything 8-bit, wasn't mortified to find I had missed it! It was more a case of "I really must watch that sometime".

Within about three minutes however, I was totally transfixed. I don't really know how else to say it but Micro Men is excellent. I have showed it to a number of non-computer people and they also found it funny, interesting and even poignant. It is not a documentary but a full film, with plot, narrative, nostalgia, old video clips - and humour by the bucketload. If you are old enough to remember the era (Sadly I am not, having been just six when the age of the microcomputer was upon us) then it is bound to trigger a multitude of memories.

The plot centres on the early Eighties with Sir Clive Sinclair, played by a pompous and extremely eccentric Alexander Armstrong, at the head of his research company in its last days before insolvency. The portable televisions and digital watches he has created are not doing as well as could be expected. But Sir Clive's mind is on other things; namely, creating an electric car. One of Sir Clive's 'juniors' however, Chris Curry, played by Martin Freeman, can see the potential in home computer kits as a viable product for the man in the street. His attempts to persuade Sir Clive to abandon the car in favour of creating these kits however come to nothing. Whilst Chris leaves, forms Acorn Computers and, as we probably all know, goes on to create the BBC Micro and Electron machines, Sir Clive has a re-think and decides Chris was probably right - going on himself to develop the ZX80, ZX81, Sinclair Spectrum and Sinclair Quantum Leap.

Now, if all that sounds quite dry and boring to you then think again. The characterisation of both Sinclair and Curry is superb - Sir Clive chunders around his office, shouting obscentities, throwing telephones out of windows and, in one memorable scene, attempts to beat Curry to death with a rolled-up newspaper; Curry is a mild-mannered but determined businessman, less shrewd than he needs to be but in partnership with the comical Hermann Hauser, a force to be reckoned with.

Rather like all the best dramas, Micro Men's writer has managed to turn the events of the Early Eighties into something more than the events themselves. How accurate the actual scenes within it are are perhaps questionable. The race for the contract with the British Broadcasting Corporation, the boom and the bust, the prevalence of Jet Set Willy, the terrible greasy spoon cafes of old, salesmen of dubious computer experience flogging the products, WHSmith's old name badges, the complete dominance of tape-based games for the Sinclair Spectrum on the shelves - they are all in here. Watch out for an amazing video clip of the shelves of one newsagent as well, where different computing magazines fill four or five shelves; and an interview in which it is revealed that 600 separate home computer manufacturers are vying for users. Sheesh, no wonder there's so much antique equipment out there!

This is a film where everyone is going to have their own personal favourite scenes. Personally, I like the Sir Clive monologue/business preparation where, having digested the contents of Practical Computing Weekly he arrives to announce to his employees, "I quote 'Prices may fall to as low as five hundred pounds within the next five years...", lets this hang, screams "Poppycock!", throws the journal in the bin and announces his vision of a £99 computer, the ZX80.

Sir Clive cleans up on the home computer section, Curry wins the BBC contract and becomes an educational tour de force, catapulting both men to the heads of businesses worth millions. With this, according to Micro Men comes fast cars, girlies and champagne - but also a nagging resentment of the other man's market. Hence Sir Clive invents the Sinclair QL, to steal Acorn's educational stranglehold, and Curry creates the Electron, to muscle in on Sinclair's games-dominated patch. Instead of pushing forward in the markets they have gained, they attempt to take the other's, at the exact time the home computer bubble bursts.

Now one can read all of the history about this in many an article from the era but to see it brought to life is quite electrifying. In Micro Men, Britain undoubtedly leads the whole world in computer technology - people are even starting to experience computer addiction! - yet Curry and Sinclair's feud is centre-stage. It leaves you with a sense of profound sadness as to what might have been had they remained allies, ennunciated loud and clearly in Curry's line "You wouldn't listen to me when you should've done; now look at us! [If you'd listened] We could have been the British IBM!" Yet, at the same time, it is the drive to outsmart the other that is responsible for all of the major innovations - Acorn wins the BBC contract, so Sinclair brings forward his Spectrum release to "meet them head on!" Acorn loses all of its money in a stock-market crash, Sinclair squanders millions chasing the electric car... When the dust has settled, Britain is, like all of Europe, overtaken by the American giants Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard.

And there you have it. A ninety minutes IT-based rollercoaster of a film. I am not going to be so naive as to say that it will be enjoyed by everyone. Let's face it, if you've never heard of the BBC, Acorn or Spectrum then you're unlikely to be totally enthralled. However, Micro Men does have all the right ingredients for a period drama piece - money, power, two men at war (with humorous sidekicks in tow), unexpected events, boom, bust and a somewhat sad epilogue. A really nice touch is the credits at the end which describe in detail the legacy of Acorn and Sinclair's work, which lives on in mobile phone technology and the ARM processor.

I really rate this film and have purposely written this review so that there is loads more for you to discover if you have not already seen it. I would even go so far as to say it is a throwback to the days of old when the state broadcaster really did make thought-provoking drama, unfettered as to whether it would garner the viewing figures to compete against Simon Cowell's latest talent show incarnation. I struggle to find anything that I would change about it.