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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

Review :: It would be fair to say that a lot of people still faithfully using Acorn and RISC OS kit to this day are a bit miffed that their favourite computer manufacturer eventually went the way of the Betamax format while giants like Microsoft continue to prosper; that Acorn was never given the chance to take its proper place in the world of computing, being at the forefront of user interface design and ease of use. I stopped using my Acorn RiscPC a couple of years ago and even I still wish things were different from time to time.

So to see a film on BBC4 that manages to dramatise the early, prosperous days of Acorn - otherwise best known for making a boring, beige school computer - is a nerdy thrill. That the film was quite good, in my opinion, is a happy relief. That Micro Men was clearly entertaining and watchable for the general non-geek population is fantastic.

Hermann Hauser was portrayed as a Tolkien-like elf who was more calculating than one of Sir Clive's pocket-sized number crunchers; a witty turtle-neck-wearing Mr Spock to Curry's Captain Kirk. My cliche detector was ready to hit 11 on the cringe scale when, after his speech about kings and pawns, Hauser declared a checkmate - albeit incorrectly, a smooth twist. Still, the writer just couldn't resist the tried-and-tested smashed photograph after Sir Clive and Curry parted company, but it's easily forgivable.

The Sinclair boss was a lot more sweary than I expected, and given his habit for lobbing telephones around offices he'd be a shoe-in for a modern day prime minister. While Hauser and Curry surrounded themselves with brilliant young computer scientists - and let them lead the direction of the design - Sir Clive seemed content with barking at continually confused-looking underlings. This culminated in the ginger-haired inventor fiddling with the rainbow-striped badge for his new Spectrum while a sweaty Roger Wilson slaved over a keyboard to get the BBC Micro prototype working. Hard graft and quality triumphed over arrogance and style, only for Curry to similarly get caught up in his own success. At least Curry didn't hold his customers in contempt, unlike Sir Clive, who seemed to care little for build quality - until it was rammed down his throat by an Acorn newspaper advertisement.

Ironic, since a charge levied against Acorn by its own fans is that it didn't advertise enough when it mattered.

Also, you think you know a fallen tech company, and then all it takes is months of research by the BBC to pull apart everything you held dear. Apparently, people at Acorn had sex. I know! How weird is that? They didn't spend all day looking at schematics and writing application notes. They were taking home drunk blondes in soft focus and downing champagne like fruit juice. As a child, a sweet naive boy, I loved playing on my Acorn A5000, A3020 and, later, a RiscPC. I grew up using computers with a green nut on the cases. That simple symbol reminds me of happy, innocent times. Yet now, thanks to Micro Men, whenever I'll recall or chance upon that Acorn logo, I'll be forever reminded of the shot in which Chris Curry's secretary suggestively sucks on a biro. I'm not even going to touch the Mensa scene with Sir Clive.

The programme was pitched as a light-hearted documentary whereas it managed to be hilarious in places: the unashamedly sensationalised yet entertaining moment before the BBC suits turned up to see Acorn's prototype. The mouth-breathing Spectrum User reporter quizzing Sir Clive on dodgy RAM packs. The Acorn engineers using multimeter probes to eat noodles while Hauser reaches into a component box for a fork. Sir Clive stalking Curry in a wobbly C5 and muttering a pithy putdown worthy of a Bond villain. In fact, pretty much everything said by Sir Clive, from the awkward cream analogies to this observation: "The BBC Micro looks like it was designed by a Belgian brick layer."

The pace of the drama petered out as the film drew to a close, even though the scenes were kept fairly short, leading to an anti-climatic feeling, and although this was distracting at first, it is pretty close to what happened to Acorn; like a summer sun gliding down behind thick clouds into a sunset, the golden years were over and, soberingly, Acorn needed to be rescued by Olivetti. Meanwhile the soundtrack did not disappoint, sweeping casually from pub jukebox pop to electronica by Kraftwerk, and the use of archive footage was smartly done.

There were so many neat touches. Sophie Wilson, who as Roger Wilson was one of the BBC Micro's designers, appears right at the end as the pub landlady calling time. A whiteboard behind Hermann Hauser shows off the specifications of the ARM chip; a 32-bit barrel shifter on a TV drama to make geeks giddy with excitement plus shots of genuine BBC Micro circuit diagrams. The old orange cube WH Smith logo, a brief appearance of Kevin Eldon as an IT journalist, and an angry young yet amusing Alan Sugar. Attention to detail is exactly what the trivia-collecting computer anoraks among the audience will pick up on and love.

One final thought: before the film was shown, the continuity announcer warned us there will be some strong language; I guess I was the only one who thought, 'Perl as well as 6502 assembler?'

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