back to article Micro Men: The story of the syntax era

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 …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Sure you did this a few years ago.

    Still, brilliant telly.

    Anyone whom has not seen this, i suggest you do...

    1. AMBxx Silver badge

      Re: Sure you did this a few years ago.

      Does the waxwork Sir Clive get pushed around on wheels? Very odd looking bloke.

  2. DrStrangeLug

    Loved it but

    The one thing this show didnt mention was the long term effect on the end users and the population at large.

    I think the biggest achievement to come out of the British home computer boom of the 80's is the number of developers this country currently has. I can think of entire development teams that wouldn't exists if you wiped the ZX Spectrum out of history.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Loved it but

      You can say that about any early machine. If it hadn't been the spectrum something else would have been around.

      If anything, what made some early machines less popular was they were a bit amateur and poorly engineered. Even the dominant Spectrum and C64 weren't without their problems.

      Oric 1 for instance wouldn't power up correctly if you plugged in the PSU with it attached to the computer, it's CRC check in the tape loading code didn't work either.

    2. Robin

      Re: Loved it but

      Hear hear!

      I can still remember the 9-year old me, trying out all the keywords in the BBC Basic manual that came with the machine and then hacking around with other games with the result that they no longer worked. And thus my career was established.

    3. Michael Strorm Silver badge

      Anti-Sinclair stitch-up?

      The major problem I had with it was the portrayal of Clive Sinclair.

      The programme was (IIRC) essentially billed as a comedy-drama, but that wasn't evenly spread. Most of the "comedy" aspects related to Alexander Amstrong's portrayal of Sinclair. This bordered on an outright *comic* character portrayal- which would have been at home in an Armstrong and Miller sketch- whereas Chris Curry was portrayed in an essentially straight dramatic (and dignified) fashion. Which, of course, made "Sinclair" look even sillier, to a point bordering on character assassination.

      Now, regardless of whether Sinclair was/is a d**k or not (and not everything I've heard about him has been flattering), I don't honestly believe that he was as comically foaming-at-the-mouth as that. I didn't expect him to be portrayed as a saint if he wasn't- the problem was that portraying him in a totally different manner to everyone else didn't give him a fair crack at the whip.

      Maybe this was a deliberate decision, maybe it reflected Armstrong's lack of straight acting skill (and ludicrous bald wig). Regardless of the cause, it was still a major shortcoming- not just in terms of fairness, but in terms of jarring contrast of the programme's tone.

      1. Mage Silver badge

        Re: Anti-Sinclair stitch-up?

        Having followed Sinclair's products from 1960s radios and amplifiers and rebadged reject semiconductors, extreme hype and dubious marketing (the only advert banned from Wireless World), seen grief of people assembling black watch, the calculators, ZX80, ZX81, Spectrum, QL, the Micro TV etc, C5 car, I think Sinclair is a comic character.

        Some good ideas, but everything too cost reduced and bad Production Engineering and non-existent QA (replace the ones returned was the QA scheme).

        The Spectrum was maybe the best product as long as you only connected TV & cassette deck and avoided the expansion connector. Mind you I've had many cheap calculators with better keyboards.

      2. Snake Plissken

        Re: Anti-Sinclair stitch-up?

        The program was made with the assistance of the people involved - I believe around the time of its first broadcast, Sir Clive was asked about one of the ludicrous situations he was involved in and he said "Yes, that happened. Come to think of it, they probably toned it down a bit."

        1. Michael Strorm Silver badge

          Re: Anti-Sinclair stitch-up?

          Oh, I believe most of the events happened (allowing for the dramatic "compression" of events, which I can understand and accept provided it still broadly reflects the spirit of what actually happened). It was the difference in the very comic way Sinclair was portrayed versus the relatively straight portrayal of almost everyone else (especially Chris Curry) that I felt was unreasonable and gave the programme as a whole a somewhat inconsistent tone.

          Still, if Sinclair saw the final product and didn't object to it, I guess he's entitled to his opinion if anyone is!

          The only other minor quibble I had was- although the programme wasn't *meant* to be about the market as a whole, but the dynamic and conflict between Sinclair and Acorn/Curry- someone who didn't already know much about the early-80s computer market might be forgiven for thinking Sinclair and Acorn were the only major players. Still, that's a minor issue and it's open to question whether it was the programme-makers' responsibility.

          I do appreciate the fact that they did got the major events and facts correct, which isn't something one would always expect(!)

  3. the spectacularly refined chap

    Oddly enough it was Furber's depiction I found the least convincing although I suspect that simply because I know him from when I was at Uni. In the film he had a bit of the stereotypical reserved geek quality about his portrayal and while admittedly this was 15 years later I never found him like that at all. On the contrary, he's probably one of the most naturally gregarious people I've ever met.

    You could ask him a question at the end of a lecture and it was almost as if you were his new best friend. He'd start by asking you a question or two to clarify precisely what you were thinking, think about it for a second and then point out what the error was, suggest systems that did what you suggested, or speculate as to the outcome of following that direction. You always got the impression that he was enjoying the conversation. Not like most lecturers who respond with an unstated but readily apparent "It this, its obvious, stop wasting my time with your undergrad stuff and let me get on with my research".

  4. Anonymous Coward

    What a thoughtful Valentine's pressie for a child of the 80s!

    Splendidly written & genuinely informative - it's this sort of relevant-but-left-field article that keeps me reading El Reg! I now have a burning urge to go torrent/tube it as there is bugger-all chance it will ever get shown here (music rights alone would scotch that)

    (not so much the reheated press releases devoid of any real critique - but obviously a piece like this takes a lot more time and effort so mustn't be [too] greedy)

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How I envy the pioneering era of UK computing 30 years ago, as I sit in front of a Chinese computer running a mass produced American OS.

    Amstrad swept up with their bulk sales to retailers, no masses of inventory, ended up buying the last of Sinclair.

  6. Toxteth O'Gravy

    Thank you, El Reg

    I love this show but knew almost nothing about its production. Thanks for actually going out and talking to people and finding out. I shall watch this again tonight.

    PS. Sinclair on his electric invalid carriage being overtaken by HP, Dell, Microsoft et al at the end is a scene of pure genius.

    PPS. Only criticism for me is the knowing lines in the script, eg.

    Hermann Hauser: “We all want to go with the 6502 processor.”

    Nick Toop: “Of course. It’s the only choice.”

    Roger/Sophie Wilson: “For the moment...”

    1. deshepherd

      Re: Thank you, El Reg

      PPS. Only criticism for me is the knowing lines in the script, eg.

      Hermann Hauser: “We all want to go with the 6502 processor.”

      Nick Toop: “Of course. It’s the only choice.”

      Roger/Sophie Wilson: “For the moment...”

      ,,, well, they were looking at 68000 around that time as a "co-processor" hanging off the tube interface

  7. Code Monkey

    My career, mediocre as it is, is another that began in the 80s with a Spectrum. As such I never knew Sir Clive but his protrayal seemed a wee bit OTT.

    Granted our industry is filled with ... highly-strung people but OTT all the same.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      The punch up in the pub is quoted verbatim. He really did take it that personally!

      1. Code Monkey
        Thumb Up

        Ha! Splendid!

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Getting the year wrong

    Wouldn't worry about getting the year wrong. El Reg managed it in the Amstrad article a few days back, with constant references to 1983 when they meant 1984.

    I love the little nods and cameos in Micro Men. Sophie Wilson behind the bar, the Sinclair guy in WH Smiths.

    Sadly I don't think its out on DVD otherwise I'd buy a copy as I'd love to own it.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Getting the year wrong

      BBC will probably show it again at some point - perhaps if an eagle-eyed reader spots it in the TV listings, they'll tip off The Reg so we can all have a heads-up?

      If the BBC do show it again, there are of course ways and means of keeping it, from using modified firmware on your PVR to using that piece of software that has 'iplayer' in its name (in essence no different to recording the show onto VHS or DVD, legal technicalities aside)

      1. SVV

        Watch it here

        Brilliant film, have watched it quite a few times, and very easy to 'get' for those of us who are technically inclined Brits who started off inspired by this first era of home computing, if you understand what I mean.

  9. deshepherd

    First the Corporation, then the Government: Kenneth Baker backs the Acorn BBC Micro

    They did the "official launch" scene completely wrong as the demo software did a lot more than continuously print "hello, I am a BBC micro" ... I spent 6 months between Oxbridge exams and going to Oxford at Acorn and one thing I did was to hack together a series of programs into a demo loop - think I inadvertently irritated the BBC by adding an acorn logo to some of the displays! Also, to be fully accurate they could have shown that at the launch the "micro" was an empty box with a keyboard connected to a cable that went through the table to the wire wrap protoype board that was the only "BBC micro" in existence ... and even that wasn't complete as it relied on switching memory access between the "BBC micro" and an Acorn System 3 to load programs! They then started taking orders at this stage ... and as BBC demanded that inital production run was limited to something like 10k units with not further production until all those had been sold (BBC thought they might be left with loads of unsold stock) then the massive initial orders caused serious backlog issues (RaspberryPi managed to repeat the BBCmicro experience here!) so loads of disgruntled people kept phoning the phone number that had appeared on all the old Acorn publicity .... sadly all the sales/marketing/management people had moved to new offices leaving this phone in the room where I was - got very used to saying "you have to talk to the BBC - they are handling all the order we can't do anything about it"!

  10. JimmyPage Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    A brief - and significant time

    When the UK astounded the world by being trailblazers in IT education.

    Being nerdy, I used to read a few US computing mags (Byte anyone) and they were printing articles about how the UK was running away with computer skills by teaching it in schools, while the US education system was woefully underprepared.

    One of Thatchers less trumpted legacies.

    1. . 3

      Re: A brief - and significant time

      Genuinely interested to hear which of Thatcher's policies you think had any bearing on the home computer phenomenon. Perhaps the general unshackling of private enterprise encouraged it along, but I think the seeds were rooted much further back in the legacies of gigantic military R&D budgets and totally state funded further education, both of which have tailed off subsequently.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: A brief - and significant time

      "One of Thatchers less trumpted legacies."

      Hardly. The NEB was created by the previous Labour government. They, along with the BBC of course, largely kept the wonderful entrepreneurs and their fantastic ecosystem going which included the large electronics magazine base throughout the late 70's early 80's.

      If anything Thatcher killed off the British home micro revolution because their early 80's austerity drive meant that British micros had to be ridiculously low spec and cheap compared with US home computers.

      The only Thatcher legacy was the successful 'commoditisation' of the PC by Sugar which, while nice, was not a new paradigm.

      1. davefb

        Re: A brief - and significant time

        Forget the micros'. The main stupidity of the 'sell at all costs' was surely Inmos?

        ( Villa was in it ? Oh blimey, my nerd rating drops for not noticing him... )

    3. Mage Silver badge

      Re: A brief - and significant time

      The IT education was largely by accident. They should have bought each Teacher a computer to take home and trained the teachers first. Certainly 1980 to 1983 was a disaster in the schools. I had a company in that era with contracts to maintain Apple II, BBC Micro, Research Machines etc.

      The destruction of Inmos by Thatcher was almost a criminal act. The purchaser was clueless.

      1. Ottman001

        Re: A brief - and significant time

        "Certainly 1980 to 1983 was a disaster in the schools."

        I'm not sure if you think something positive happened to IT teaching in 1984 but my experience suggests not. I remember seeing a BBC micro in every classroom at primary school (86 ~ 93). It bugs me now that significant money had been spent on them but we weren't allowed near to them. In the whole time I was there, I don't think I ever saw one switched on. Some had double disk drives, most had printers and a few even had hard drives. Oh, how I wanted a shoebox sized external hard drive of my own.

  11. This post has been deleted by its author

  12. Snake Plissken

    Superb film

    Quite clearly the BBC at its best, covering a subject warts and all but not mockingly so. It could quite easily have been a knowingly sniggering approach, but the love for the subject matter shone through.

    Armstrong as Sinclair was brilliant and Freeman was a good contrast, playing, as always, Martin Freeman. The end with the C5 and the trucks was a bit heavy handed on the symbolism though.

    Still remember a couple of the lines. Curry boasting about the huge order from WH Smiths "Got it in writing, have you?" and Sinclair taking a bite out of the awful food at the 80s Little Chef and covering the fact that he wouldn't eat the rest of it with a "Mmm. Very filling".

    If there is a DVD release, I'd be first in the queue.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Superb film

      There is a DVD available but it took me a while to get one direct from the production company.

      Here is a photo of the disc with a few RARE items! :-)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Superb film

        I sincerely hope you have the correct player for /that/ disc. :) How did you come by it? I have only ever seen one in real life, at the OU probably around 1986 or so.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Superb film

          I have two full working BBC Domesday Players + BBC Master AIV's to go with along with a full set of AIV Laserdiscs produced by the BBC - Domesday (2 full sets), Volcanoes, Countryside Disc and EcoDisc.

          I have a third Domesday player that I am currently trying to repair and the real rare item there is the ARM Evaluation system that is an ARM1 with a serial number of 23 that still lives in its original box.

          The Reason that I have the Domesday Disc is a bit of a weird one.....

          When I was at school I can remember seeing the Domesday Project that was on loan for a week and I was told by a teacher that I would never own one.... And there the project started.

          In about 2001 the guardian published an article about the lifetime of digital data being so short and the Domesday was the perfect example of how not to do it, as only 15 years had passed and the LV-ROM was unreadable. I started to hunt down manuals, hardware, schematics and anything I could find until I eventually ended up with three broken players but I have over 1500 laserdiscs in my film collection so had plenty of discs to experiment with. After many months fighting it I managed to repair one of the players.

          While at uni, I wanted to do a data recovery of the discs for my final year project and reverse engineer the file formats to retrieve the data but the university would not let me do it, even though I had sought permission from the BBC. (Too much red tape).

          I finally did my dissertation on the subject of long term preservation of digital mass storage, during the work on my thesis I managed to repair my second player and acquire a full set of discs at great cost and then managed to rub the university's nose in it when I ended up doing a talk about my trials and tribulations of my personal data recovery of the discs.

          1. eJ2095

            Re: Superb film

            I know sum with the same stuff as u..............

          2. Enrico Vanni

            Re: Superb film

            I actually contributed to one of the articles in the Domesday project. Not exactly an epic about news in my home town. Probably the most interesting piece concerned the privatisation of the local bus service.

            Still, I can say I was there!

  13. making

    Tight Swines

    I'm the owner of the Science of Cambridge MK14 that they used for filming, It's currently homed at the Museum of Computing at Swindon. I agreed with the curator at the Museum the terms for them borrowing it and added on the end that they could at least make a donation to the museum. They sent a car out to collect the MK14 but guess what - the tight buggers never made a donation :(

  14. Pig Dog Bay

    One slight adjustment tho

    If I were to make one adjustment to poignant end scene, I'd have a huge spaceship flying over the juggernauts, showing the ARM logo.

  15. e38500


    Why in god's name did they never release a DVD of this awesome dramatisation?

    1. Sean Timarco Baggaley

      Re: DVD

      The article explains the reason: the music.

      The BBC have a blanket license to use such music for their broadcasts, and I think they can still show the programme on iPlayer as that comes under the 'broadcast' umbrella too.

      A DVD or Blu-ray release is not a broadcast, so the music licenses would need to be renegotiated at some expense. As this was a low-budget BBC 4 documentary, it's probably just not worth it. They could simply substitute library music instead, but it wouldn't be the same.

  16. SealTeam6

    Watch it!

    It can be found on YouTube (in the UK, at least).

  17. John Smith 19 Gold badge


    Needed a more egg shaped head IMHO.

    Just saying.

  18. stu 4

    The real Jim Westwood

    that's him behind Jimmy Saville is it ?


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