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Micro Men: The story of the syntax era

The making of a retro-tech telly classic

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Monitor is an occasional column written at the crossroads where the arts, popular culture and technology intersect. Here we look back at the BBC TV movie Micro Men, a retro-tech fan favourite which tells the story of the rivalry between former colleagues Sir Clive Sinclair and Chris Curry, and how the two men kickstarted the British home computer boom of the early 1980s.

The show that became Micro Men - its working title was the punning "Syntax Era" - was conceived in 2008 by Producer Andrea Cornwell. She had already produced a number of short drama films and documentaries, among them The Yellow House, Cheap Rate Gravity and D.I.Y. Hard, and was naturally enough thinking about what might make a good subject for her next project. One of the ideas she had been pondering - after plundering Wikipedia for inspiration, chuckles the show’s director, Saul Metzstein - was the story of the British home computer boom of the early 1980s.

Micro Men

Clive Sinclair (Alexander Armstrong) and Chris Curry (Martin Freeman) ponder the future... down the pub

“I felt was a very interesting topic story which ultimately had a massive impact on all of us and how we interact with computers today,” Andrea tells The Register. “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 – Acorn’s Chris Curry and Sinclair Research’s Sir Clive Sinclair – 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 accompanying its computer literacy programme, and ultimately to be the one to define and dominate the ballooning home computing scene.

“The personal story is fascinating,” she says. These two men that had a master-protegé relationship and knew each other and then went on to establish very successful businesses in their own right.”

Micro Men

“Go and set up Science of Cambridge, but ignore the Watch Calculator, will you?”

This was no simple race for the finish line: both rivals, each driven by the personality of their founders, soon became obsessed with beating each other at their own game - Sinclair to elbow past Acorn in the "serious" computing part of the market, Acorn to muscle in on the Spectrum’s ownership of gaming.

And perhaps, Andrea suggests - and the film was to show - therein lay the root cause of the collapse the market underwent only a few years later.

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. Even more conveniently for someone pitching a TV movie, it was also a subject barely covered by existing documentaries, let alone dramatisations. More to the point, she thought, it would appeal particularly to the BBC, which through the mid-2000s won critical acclaim for a series of historical dramas set in Britain’s recent past, including Cambridge Spies, Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa! and The Long Walk to Finchley.

And, of course, the Corporation itself inadvertently triggered the main battle between Micro Men’s two central characters.

The Commodore connection

Andrea is no techie, but she has a small connection with the Acorn-Sinclair story. She was a schoolgirl back then, the daughter of a local teacher who, she says, often brought home BBC Micros to play with. She grew up in Cambridge, home of both Sinclair Research and Acorn - and a fair few other British microcomputer pioneers too. No one in her family was involved in the technology world, she admits, but she remembers the Cambridge Phenomenon being the talk of the town.

Director Saul Metzstein, on the other hand, was an eager participant in the computer boom. As a young lad growing up in Glasgow his first encounter with computer technology was an Atari VCS bought by his architect father to appease a nagging Saul and his brother. A pal had a Pet. Later Saul upgraded to a Vic-20 and, a few years later, a Commodore 64. “I totally remember that from my childhood. I was 13 in 1984, and it all came flooding back to me,” he says, before describing a trip down from Glasgow to visit The Commodore show held in London at the Novotel. He was on a team that got to the quarter finals of the Scottish Schools Computer Quiz.

“I immediately knew I wanted to make the programme,” he remembers. 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.” The juggernaut scene is one Micro Men’s most powerful, most telling scenes.

Micro Men

Outlining the Sinclair aesthetic

After spending some time doing preliminary research, Andrea 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 in to the script, which would then be judged by the BBC as to whether the show would go into production.

“Doing a project as an independent with the BBC is fairly straightforward in that you’re generally dealing with a single financier,” she says. “You are going to make the film for the budget they give you, and while there’s a little bit of wriggle room, there is normally a tariff for certain slots: You know a 90-minute drama on BBC Four will have a certain budget and you have to work out how you’ll make the film for that. And then it’s really just about finding talent that the BBC will get excited by.”

There was never any question about who ought to direct the story. Saul Metzstein and Cornwell had recently completed a short drama-documentary for Channel 4, Alive, and had worked in the past on a number of other short pieces. With Saul’s knowledge of the period and empathy with the subject, he was very keen to take it on.

“He absolutely remembered the period and was enthusiastic about the subject matter,” Andrea says. “He came from a background of independent film-making so had a very colourful, kaleidoscopic, visually driven style.”

Metzstein has found greater fame since Micro Men, as a one of the regular directors during Matt Smith’s time in Doctor Who: A Town Called Mercy, The Snowmen, The Crimson Horror and The Name of the Doctor are among his episodes. Most recently he took the helm on a couple of episodes of the BBC series The Musketeers, which co-stars the new Doctor, Peter Capaldi.

Micro Men

Hard at work in a former RAF base

When Andrea Cornwell approached him to write Micro Men, screenwriter Tony Saint had just completed The Long Walk to Finchley. Broadcast in June 2008, Saint’s show was widely praised for its apolitical, non-judgemental portrait of Margaret Thatcher in the years before she became Prime Minister. Saint’s script was more interested in exploring motivations and telling a story than playing to expectations based on what people knew of the politician Thatcher became. That was the tone Andrea knew she wanted for Micro Men.

It was a choice the BBC were keen on too, and though Saint is 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,” Andrea 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.

“We saw it as a Rudyard Kipling ‘Just So’ story: sort of, how the computer came to be.”

Two’s a crowd

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 more about it, the more it became more like a classical story, rather than less,” says Saul 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 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,” Saul adds. “I’m not sure we ever discussed it, it was just obviously a comedy. One of the reasons for that is, looking back, the technology is so comedic to our eyes now, so I don’t think you have really done anything very dramatic, anything like ‘My God! Now we’re on to 32-bit’. And it’s a classically British story, in a sense of it’s brilliant innovation followed by success followed by failure, and I think that has a poignancy.

“I hope there’s a degree of reverence too. I didn’t want to be sneering. I think if you’re just laughing at them, it’s not that interesting a drama either, because that’s just taking advantage of the fact that the past is primitive. I wanted viewers to feel for these guys.”

Jim Westwood

Nigel Searle (Derek Riddell), Clive Sinclair and engineering lieutenant Jim Westwood (Colin Michael Carmichael) consider the QL

One aspect of the production the creative team were unsure of was how much of the world outside of Acorn and Sinclair to include. An early draft of the script, says Saul, had a scene showing kids opening their Christmas presents and finding micros, but it was dropped because it didn’t fit into the main storyline. Instead, the computer fair and WH Smith scenes evolved to present a contemporary world and still feature the key characters.

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 – Nigel Searle, Sinclair Research’s managing director, was a notable exception; they couldn’t track him down – and many other of the people involved in Sinclair and Acorn in the early 1980s, including a fair few who didn’t ultimately appear in the final screenplay.

“We tried to meet as many of the real characters as we could, and we were pretty successful,” Andrea says. “Not only the ones who are depicted in the film: we met an awful lot of the other people, 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 licence was necessary. “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,” she adds after mentioning the sequence 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.

Micro Men

Hermann Hauser (Edward Baker-Duly) prepares to cut the cord

Steve Furber, now a professor of computer engineering at Manchester University but 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.”

Furber was played by actor Sam Philips in the show, who sported glasses and a tank top, both arising from mistaken identity: specifically a photo of the Acorn Atom held by all the key Acorn contemporaries - other than Steve Furber who hadn’t officially joined Acorn at that point. Philips’ look was thus inspired by David Johnson-Davies, though neither he nor Furber were bearded as Philips is in the show.

There is one Furber-lookalike in the programme, however: “All my family tell me Peter Davison looks remarkably like me,” Steve says.

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