Sinclair User: BBC’s Micro Men

By Kieron Gillen on October 12th, 2009 at 11:31 am.


Only watching just this now, and finding it a lot of fun. Micro Men is a broadly comic semi-fictionalized drama about the early 80s computer war between Sir Clive Sinclair and Ex-employee Chris Curry (i.e. Acorn Electron, BBC). Alexander Armstrong’s portrait of Sir Clive is agreeably arrogantly monstrous. It’s still on iPlayer if you want to go watch. It’s a bit of a shame that it’s both technically awkward and probably illegal to watch iPlayer outside the UK, because the whole early 80s British computer boom is such a part of RPS’ gaming history – and influencing a lot of the wider gaming world in what it allowed – that I think it’d be interesting to the colonials. Trailer follows…

Hey! 29 minutes into the full thing, there’s totally a new games journalist. We are all like that. Anyone else watched it?

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56 Comments »

  1. BobB says:

    I think you meant to say Chris Curry founded Acorn not Electron (Electron was the computer not the company), or maybe I’ve misunderstood.

    Either way thanks, definitely going to watch this when I get home.

  2. Baboonanza says:

    Watched this when it was on. Highly enjoyable, even my gf liked it. IMO it starts off a bit iffy and takes a little while to find it’s feet but the last half is absolutely splendid!

    Alexander Armstrong’s Sinclair is very strange. Initally not very believable, but this improves as the character gets more depth. One of my favourite lines is his decription of Alan Sugar as a jumped up barrow boy :)

  3. Darkelp says:

    Hey I sent you an email about this! haha.

    I loved his view on Jet Set Willy, that got a lot of laughs from me.

    It was really interesting to see that it actually was people sat in a room just making computers in the beginning.
    Shame they they didn’t join forces, I truly believe they could of taken on the American companies!

    But yes, everyone should watch this, its brilliant.

    • Buckermann says:

      I tried to watch it, but it seems it’s only for UK residents.

    • Darkelp says:

      I’m sure you could find it on some more, ahem, dubious sites.
      Or maybe the BBC will realise it doesn’t hurt to allow anyone in the world to watch their programs.

      On the same subject I think today or tomorrow is when they are doing a program on the man who created silicon, that should be interesting.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Splendid Jet Set Willy joke.

      BUT THERE ARE NO LINEAR LEVELS IN JET SET WILLY!

      KG

    • MacBeth says:

      I have to say, the Jet Set Willy/getting to level 8 line made me question the accuracy of the whole thing. If it was really written by people who ‘were there’ and knew the intimate details, wouldn’t they have picked up on that? I was actually half-expecting a gag about how it was impossible to complete Jet Set Willy due to the gamebreaking bugs – that would have been contextually relevant as well…

  4. Jason says:

    really enjoyed this was really pulling for both guys all the way through knowing how it all pans out

  5. Andrew Dunn says:

    That’s a weird trailer – doesn’t get across any of the energy and liveliness that the actual programme has.

    Micro Men is excellent, a very affectionate look at the British computer industry in the 1980s and with a surprising amount of truth behind even its most unbelievable portrayals, it seems (such as Acorn’s last minute fixing of the BBC Micro prototype). Very funny in places, too. Recommended.

  6. Centy says:

    I loved it. It was like a British version of Pirates of Silicon Bay

  7. Justin Keverne says:

    I much prefered the original title.

  8. OoiTY says:

    I’m upset. I’m outside the UK and even Dubious Places On The Internet seem to lack this particular title.

  9. Schmung says:

    Really enjoyed this. Loved the bit where you see him getting ready to do the run up for the infamous ads. Brings back fond memories of playing games on the BBC MIcro in primary school.

  10. Kieron Gillen says:

    Just finished it now. Splendid final image.

    KG

    • Darkelp says:

      If you are referring to the part with him on the Sinclair C5 with the lorries passing him by, then I totally agree. It perfectly captured the fact that the American companies took the lead in the computer revolution.

  11. Premium User Badge

    Chaz says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed it, and have watched it twice. I suspect it probably appeals much more to those of us who grew up as children with computers like the ZX81, Vic 20, BBC Micro, Dragon 32 etc. My dad brought my brother and I a BBC Model B, probably secretly hoping we’d turn into programming geniuses and earn a fortune, but all we did was play games on it. Some great synth music in that program too, from the likes of Vangelis and Jean Micheal Jarre.

  12. Alexander Norris says:

    Is it worth picking this up if my first console was a Master System, I was raised outside the UK and I didn’t touch a computer until 2001? Because the home computer boom isn’t something I was remotely aware of at the time.

    • Andrew Dunn says:

      It’s definitely worth picking up. As a child of 1987 I only really experienced the early 80s boom second-hand, with BBC Micros getting discoloured with age in my primary school, and nostalgic references to the ZX Spectrum. I found this programme fascinating.

  13. BooleanBob says:

    Syntax Era is a pretty damn good in-joke too, for anyone who ever wrestled with the the Micro’s command-line interface. Break break break break break.

  14. tigershuffle says:

    Saw the trailers……….and promptly forgot to record on V+. Will watch it soon as I can on Iplayer.

    Fond memories……….. I saved my paper-round money up to by Spectrum 48k………and then had to grovel round my folks for a £25?? tape recorder.
    *goes all misty eyed*
    Ah good old Sinclair User, all those ace programs manually typed in for ages. Pity my mum threw out my old copies of Crash!

    Still cant believe we aint all travelling around in C5s…….. that was the future!
    until garlic bread came along ;)

  15. Premium User Badge

    James G says:

    Ahh no I missed this, and I doubt iPlayer will co-operate with my 3G dongle. Fortunately I’m am at the end of a ‘month’ and still have a fair chunk of bandwidth left though, so it may be worth a try. (I really am useless at remembering when stuff I want to watch is on.)

  16. leederkrenon says:

    the zx spectrum is the best computer ever, spawned the most clever game designs and the best games writing (your sinclair). a uniquely british thing, i tip my hat to the mighty sir clive.

  17. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    I see there’s still some Imperialist tendencies in the British. But you never ruled mainland Europe. And you never shall, not even fictitiously! *mutters*

  18. RagingLion says:

    It also has been sitting in my iPlayer queue waiting for to find a chance to watch. Might post my thoughts when I finally do. Don’t know a lot about this part of history.

  19. terry says:

    Was going to put this on youtube later on, for those interested – great show and not a little revealing about what a cottage industry computing then was. Makes me teary eyed for games sold by mail order in plastic bags with photocopied manuals (some with hand-fixed typos) and blokes with dazzling jumpers extolling the virtues of the mighty Microdrive.

  20. IcyBee says:

    It’s on BBC4 again tonight at 22:00.

  21. Ginger Yellow says:

    Seemed weird to have a show in large part about the incredible rise of the BBC Micro without even mentioning Elite.

    • Premium User Badge

      Vandelay says:

      I think there was a poster of it in the background of one of the scenes, but there is no explicit mention of it.

      Thanks very much Kieron for the heads up on this. Great little drama, whether you have interest in the topic or not. A really interesting story of rivalry with some great characters. I think that this could potentially have a wide audience if advertised correctly. Unfortunately, I imagine many would over look this due to the topic. It reminded me a bit of the, also excellent, The Damned United.

  22. phil says:

    It was a wonderful portrait of Clive Sinclair’s relationship with Tim from the office, though the Mensa groupies did stretch credulity a little.

  23. Tintop says:

    It’s repeated on BBC4 tonight @ 10pm. Will catch it then ;)

  24. Premium User Badge

    Stense says:

    I missed it when it was on, but look forward to getting a chance to watch it on iPlayer when I find the time.

    Tenuous link time:

    Theres a very interesting documentary from the 80′s on videosift about two 80′s games makers that some of you may find interesting too.

  25. Premium User Badge

    oceanclub says:

    Haven’t watch it yet… didn’t Clive acquire the nickname “Slugger” for punching someone in a pub (Sugar?).

    P.

  26. LewieP says:

    The cream banter was excellent.

  27. Woges says:

    @oceanclub that incident is in the show.

    I watched this and Gameswipe on my newly discovered PS3 Iplayer, both amusing if you’ve been into games from the beginning.

  28. Bobsy says:

    My family’s first computer was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, but it’s telling that the one I remember using more was the BBC Micro my dad would bring home from the school he worked at. There were two games compilation disks, and me and my brother would spend ages with them. I barely remember any of the actual games, but Repton was there. The Spectrum fizzled out, like all of them eventually did.

  29. Sinnerman says:

    I can’t be the only person who still thinks of him as Uncle Clive but this did a good job of showing him as a believable business type person.

    Imagine if they had made the QL as the affordable British Amiga that was compatible with Spectrum games. How different everything could have been…

  30. Premium User Badge

    oceanclub says:

    The size of the Spectrum had an extra benefit; back in the 1980s, VAT in Ireland was ludicrous and you’d expect to pay easily double the UK price for electronic goods. My auntie was able to bring one back for me in an over-sized handbag.

    My portable TV was also bought in the UK – Newry, Northern Ireland – on one of the many coach shopping trips to the North run from Dublin. Cue an Irish soldier getting on at the border to “check” the coach, full of people “hiding” portable TVs on their laps by covering them with a coat (think of the scene in ‘Life of Brian’ where Roman soldiers search the house).

    P.

  31. Magnus says:

    I saw this last week, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

    The first computer I used was a BBC Acorn (primary school), before my dad brought home a rather nifty (for the time) Amstrad PPC512.

    At times both educational and entertaining, it could also have been termed “The rise and fall of British microcomputing”.

    I find myself almost ashamed of our government and general media position on hardware and software development in this country. You never hear of the success of that particular portion of British industry, only the spurious “reporting” about the negative side of gaming.

  32. JonFitt says:

    I must get this from somewhere. I’m outside the UK now so the mean old iPlayer won’t work for me.

  33. CdrJameson says:

    Thoroughly splendid.

    Slightly carry-on in places, and with a somewhat over-simplified explanation for why it all went wrong (A crash in the home computer market rather diminishes the hubris, as well as being inaccurate from my recollection).

    Regret allowing my other half to escape watching it with me, as it was genuinely funny.

  34. We Fly Spitfires says:

    I saw quite a bit of it the other night and I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. Kinda funny to see the news segments about how the personal computer will never take off etc or people won’t want to use it for games :)

  35. Al Ewing says:

    A terrific bit of telly – I was a BBC Micro kid myself, so this all brings back some fond memories. Very poignant final image. I’d advise anyone who liked this to pick up a copy of Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford.

  36. Fred Wyropiquet says:

    The best/worst joke was at the end where Acorn was sold cheap to the Italians who didn’t know they were getting a whole chunk of world-beating technology until they had bought it: ARM (RISC) processors and the 32-bit Archimedes computers together with the RISC operating system and built-in BBC Basic + Assembler language. Both hardware and OS continue today and the ARM processors are those most used throughout the world.

    And hardly anyone notices …

  37. CdrJameson says:

    Just watched again with other half.

    On Clive Sinclair:
    “He’s like a ginger Darth Vader.”

  38. Kadayi says:

    Loved the fact that they had a Ruckus in the Pub. ;)

  39. GCU Speak Softly says:

    Was I the only person who wanted a game of Atic Atac after watching it appear on screen?

  40. Pod says:

    Steve Furber was one of my Uni professors.
    Whoop.

  41. Pod says:

    Steve Furber was one of my University professors.
    WHOOP.

  42. Premium User Badge

    James G says:

    Caught it last night, and found it strangely sad. There was a dramatic irony underlying the whole thing for one, knowing that the expansion would ultimately end in failure. As a result, even the begining, was overshadowed by what was to come.

    But on top of all this was a sadness in the passing of the pioneer (something that Sinclair himself commented on in one of the closing scenes) the death of the UK computing hardware industry, and also, more personally, the end of my childhood. The latter sounds a bit silly, what with half the events occurring before I was even born, but the Spectrum, and to a lesser extent the BBC, are intimately connected to my early years.

    I also can’t help but connect the death of the Spectrum with a homogenisation of the global gaming industry. However, I’m having a bit of trouble working out exactly what I mean by this, and why I think it is a bad thing (and also, why I think things are on the up.) It is probably a topic best discussed when I’ve been able to better dissect it out from my own personal experiences, and worked out whether it is British development per se. or the flexibility of the smaller developer, which I miss most.

  43. Jayt says:

    fuck region locking, fuck it right off

  44. Timbo says:

    Fantastic program that reminded me of the “good old days”, I just love the eccentric manner of Sir Sinclair, i have even had a go in one of his ‘electric cars’ haha but i fondly remember my I.T lessons in school on the BBC computers, few how things have changed.

    Its a shame people outside the us can’t see this program its worth it

  45. Gary says:

    As someone who aged 13 started programming using a ZX81 and a few years later used the Beeb at school this was superb entertainment, probably more from a nostalgia point of view than anything else.

    For me the most striking thing of that time was the innovation, these guys were really pushing the boundaries, exploring and delivering things that had simply not been done before. Forward to now and look back over the last 15 years and what do we have? The same basic Intel chip but faster, graphics cards that are faster with more memory, better soundcards, better monitors but these are just improvements on what already exists. Nothing has been innovative or new and thats a real shame.

  46. Robin Bradbeer says:

    This programme is 50% travesty of history. As someone invoved with both Clive and Chris since they were at St Ives, and who also was on the committee that formulated the BBC Micro spec. it was good fun but not at all accurate. When will someone write the REAL story – which was far more interesting than this fiction…………….