Sunday, 11 October 2009

It Takes 6502 To Tango [Review: Micro Men]

Many of my childhood memories were written in Basic IV so for me the BBC's drama Micro Men, broadcast on Thursday, brought on some tears of nostalgia with a heavily dramatised version of the story of the microcomputer and it's inventors. If you're reading this before 15th October 2009 you might still be able to catch this one-off on iPlayer.

Alexander Armstrong has a ball as shouting, swearing, bullying, telephone-hurling, electric-car-obsessed Clive Sinclair. Martin Freeman plays mild-mannered former employee Chris Curry who left Sinclair to form rival company Acorn. The two men went head to head in a race to develop cheap home computers - leading to the brief success of the ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro.

This is a great production, from the Matrix-styled titles to the 80s period detail. Characters are all exaggerated to comic effect - in addition to Curry and Sinclair there's uber-geek Roger Wilson and the Austrian wine-heir Hermann Hauser who gives up his family heirdom to start up Acorn - "Have you tasted Austrian wine?" "If you had, you would understand why." This is melodrama unfettered by any hint of subtlety but with plenty of nice touches such as Curry's team working around the clock to complete the BBC prototype, eating their takeaways with pliers and soldering irons. Sinclair's C5 gradually takes shape in the background and is used to good effect in the highly symbolic ending sequences.

A weaker link is the attempt to "sex up" the drama: while the high-spirited office parties fit in well, scenes such as the trio of girls hitting on Sinclair at MENSA, or Curry in the back seat of a limo with two blondes - and looking completely at home - don't quite ring true.

The script tries to give the impression that these two men literally lived parallel lives and this is often both comic and tragic - for instance Sinclair's disgust at being indirectly responsible for "Jet Set F**king Willy" is mirrored by Curry's despair at finding only one Acornsoft game in his local shop.

Both companies made the wrong decisions following the Spectrum and BBC. Acorn struggled on for a few more years after being bought out, developing the RISC-based Archimedes which was a respectable machine but couldn't stop the mighty onslaught of the PC. (The ARM chip, developed for the Archimedes, is another story and remains the basis of many mobile phones.)

At least according to this version of history, the point is that almost every decision Curry and Sinclair made was in response to the other - despite being rivals, it was the relationship between the two that led to both the rise and the fall of the microcomputer. Hilarious and also compelling viewing, and cleverly done.

No comments: