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BBC4's Micro Men: an interview and review

By Chris Williams. Published: 8th Oct 2009, 19:48:12 | Permalink | Printable

Ahead of tonight's Micro Men programme, which charts the rivalry between Sir Clive Sinclair and Acorn Computers in the early 1980s, drobe.co.uk spoke to the film's producer, Andrea Cornwell, to find out more about the show - and now you can read our review of the film

Click here to skip to a review of the programme

I don't think I'm being hysterical when I ask of you this simple question: how did we ever live without email or the web or text messaging? Just how did society survive day after day without computers? And when these machines finally arrived and later invaded our living rooms - awkwardly plugged into our TVs and tape players - what happened next?

In Britain, at least, it started an electronic revolution. At the very least it inspired teenagers to become today's software programmers who make our video games, email clients and digitally-animated films. During the first years of the 1980s, the business of computer making was competitive and dominance was hard fought, but the outcome put a microcomputer in every British classroom and introduced the population to a future of spreadsheets, laptops and Twitter.

The acorn team as portrayed in the BBC4 Micro Men filmMicro Men, a BBC4 film written by Tony Saint and to be shown tonight at 9pm, documents how the emergence of early home computers came about, specifically the rivalry between Sir Clive Sinclair and Chris Curry - the latter being a former Sinclair engineer who joined Hermann Hauser to form Acorn Computers. The tension between them rises as the BBC seeks a manufacturer to build a computer for the masses; in the end Acorn won that round, paving the way for the launch of the BBC Micro series of machines, but the programme's narrative extends beyond this skirmish. Adding weight to the proceedings are Alexander Armstrong, who stars as Sir Clive, and Martin Freeman, who plays Chris Curry.

The film starts off in 1978 and follows the history of the two companies until around 1985 when Olivetti stepped in to rescue Acorn. By that point, a top-secret project to create a new RISC processor had begun, which eventually led to the birth of the ARM architecture - the film goes as far as acknowledging the significance of this development: billions of ARM-powered chips have now found their way into our mobile phones, handheld gadgets, video games, digital cameras and televisions, computer networking kit and plenty more.

Andrea Cornwell, the producer of Micro Men, said the 80-minute programme was filmed after 14 months of research, which involved interviews with the key players of the era, including Hauser, Curry, Sir Clive, Acorn engineers Sophie Wilson and Prof Steve Furber, and 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. The film also includes archive footage, such as the moment Margaret Thatcher introduced the then Japanese prime minister to a Sinclair Spectrum.

Dramatising the nerdy business of electronic engineering is as tricky as it sounds, so the production instead focuses on the people involved and their stories - although there are some lively moments, such as Hauser deciding which wire to cut on a prototype board at the last minute just like a James Bond-styled hero would guess which cable to snip to defuse a bomb. The film was going to be called Syntax Era - a pun on the BASIC syntax error message - but was changed to Micro Men.

Speaking to drobe.co.uk a few hours before the film's first broadcast, Andrea said: "Although the film shows people working on computers that turn out to be very important, most people watching, who will be just happy with using email, won't understand hardware design. So we turn to the business-side of that period and the people involved.

"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 could't remember what it was like because these things are now so common place - technology has improved so much since then. So with this film we go back a step and see how we achieved this electronic revolution and celebrate 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 working 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."

She continued: "There's some lovely moments when the staff of Acorn are just getting together for the first time, and when Hermann is persuading them to make a prototype of a computer within five days to show to the BBC. There is a montage where the Acorn staff are putting together a prototype and initially we used some Star Trek music before our composer made the music for the film; it was like they were designing a spaceship.

"It was great fun being told many anecdotes and shaggy dog stories by people who worked for both companies, some of them conflicting so we would later scratch our heads as we pieced together the histories."

Although she wouldn't be drawn on who, out of Sinclair and Acorn, deserved to win the home computing battle, Andrea added: "I think they each had complementary products - the Acorn computer was more advanced but cost a lot more, for example. I had a BBC Micro as my father was a teacher and he would borrow his school's computer. The director [Saul Metzstein] was a Commodore owner, and a lot of the crew were computer enthusiasts at the time - many still have their Spectrums in the attic.

"Both Alexander [Armstrong] and Martin [Freeman] really responded well to the script; although they weren't enthusiasts at the time, the story resonated with them because they knew of Sir Clive, who had a high public profile, and technology is now all around us. Sometimes Alex couldn't remove himself from his iPhone.

"We've shown the film to a few people and we're anxiously waiting to see what everyone will make of it."

Click here for a review of the programme


Micro Men - watch again on the BBC iPlayer
Acorn Computers on Wikipedia and on drobe.co.uk
Also see: Electric Dreams: the 1980s

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