Friday, 9 October 2009

Micro Men

Friday, 9 October 2009
A few thoughts on the latest docu-drama from BBC Four, this one focusing on the machinations behind the British home-computing boom of the 1980s, spearheaded by inventor Clive Sinclair (Alexander Armstrong), who found himself under pressure from a rival company borne of ex-employee Chris Curry (Martin Freeman). The two men clash in their desire to win a lucrative contract to manufacture a BBC-branded computer, that the corporation plan to install in every school as part of a trailblazing Computer Literacy Project...

Micro Men (formerly Syntax Era) was an affectionate and interesting look at the decade that took computers out of the workplace and into people's homes; a period when Britain practically led the world in this "personal computer" enterprise, until Japanese and American corporations inevitably steamrollered the competition. For anyone who grew up in the '80s, there was obvious nostalgia value from the bad fashions, electro pop-music and bulky technology on display. It was an almost comical reminder of how antiquated and frustrating computing was in its infancy, yet also how peculiarly charming and quirky this era was for British consumers and geeky enthusiasts.

Like many feature-length dramas of this ilk, Micro Men wasn't entirely successful. It sometimes felt like someone was scripting scenes based on paragraphs from Sinclair and Curry's Wikipedia entries, or merely scripting facts gleamed from a tatty library book. Characters sometimes spoke their thoughts aloud for the sake of an awkward shortcut through the narrative, and there were plenty of clich├ęs -- like Curry celebrating Acorn's multi-million pound success with bubbly and babes in the back of a limo.

The performances were engaging and fun, particularly as Armstrong played Sinclair as a slightly bizarre parody; an egghead with staccato speech, wearing an unconvincing bald-cap and neat ginger beard. I suspect it was a disservice to a more complex man turning him into a silly megalomaniac, but it was nevertheless an enjoyable caricature. Freeman had the easier task (as most people don't have a preconception of what Curry is like, even those who know who he was), so he was able to apply his default setting of affable nice-guy. All that was missing were some quizzical stares through the fourth wall, a la The Office.

While it didn't quite warrant 90-minutes of dramatic material, it certainly wasn't as boring as you expected given the dry subject-matter, although I doubt anyone without some appreciation for the ZX Spectrum and Jet Set Willy would really be all that impressed. But, being realistic, I doubt anyone outside of a thin demographic would be watching a BBC4 biopic focusing on Sinclair Research and Acorn Computers' corporate tussles anyway. For those compelled to watch, Micro Men was a stroll down memory lane with some intriguing facts thrown in; such as how defunct Acorn's subsidiary ARM Holdings now dominate the global mobile phone and PDA microprocessor market.

Overall, Micro Men's combination of character-based drama and archive footage, resulted in a television show of niche appeal and mixed success, but it stoked some affection for the era and cultivated a regret that these British pioneers' couldn't quite compete with upstarts like Microsoft (hilariously symbolized by Sinclair being overtaken on his ill-fated C5 "automatic personalized car" by lorries emblazoned with Microsoft and HP logos.) If only Sinclair and Curry's acrimonious split hadn’t happened, might Cambridge have become today's Silicon Valley? It's a fun "what if?" to ponder, and Micro Men was likewise a fun insight into the quirky battle of wits going on behind our fledgling love affair with pixels, sprites, bits n' bytes.


8 October 2009
BBC Four, 9pm

written by: Tony Saint directed by: Saul Metzstein starring: Alexander Armstrong (Clive Sinclair), Martin Freeman (Chris Curry), Edward Baker-Duly (Hermann Hauser), Sam Phillips (Steve Furber), Stefan Butler (Roger Wilson), Colin Carmichael (Jim Westwood), Derek Ridell (Nigel Searle), Rhona Croker (Valerie), Anne Beth Hayes (Cynthia), Nicola Harrison (Ann Sinclair)