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Spectrum Analyzer: Micro Men

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Now that it’s all over, I have a confession to make. I came into this assignment with some preconceptions about the ZX Spectrum, none of them flattering. However, if there’s anything I’ve learned over these past three months, it’s that the Spectrum isn’t so much a computer or a game system as it is a deeply personal experience. Taken solely on the merits of the hardware, the Spectrum is not very impressive… it was designed as cheaply as possible, to get it into as many homes as possible, and the hardware suffers for it. However, that low price point opened the door to home computing for countless British kids, eager to prepare themselves for the next century. This was computing for them. It was their childhood; a way to pass the time during the rainy days while becoming familiar, even comfortable, with the kind of technology that would remain with them for the rest of their lives.

When you take this into consideration, it’s not hard to understand why so many British members of Generation X have such a fierce devotion to the Spectrum. Sure, it may look quaint to us Americans, but think of how the average teenager would react to our own childhood favorite, the NES! Now think of how much you would bristle at their lack of perspective, as well as their failure to look beyond the limitations of the system to the underlying brilliance of its games. This is likely how the British feel when other gamers scoff at the Spectrum. When you focus on the hardware, you’re not seeing the full picture... the thousands of games designed especially for the system, and the cultural impact it had on an entire nation. Three months after immersing myself in that culture and playing the system’s best games, the Spectrum still isn’t my favorite classic game console, but I can understand the attraction it holds for others.

I thought I’d end this series with a review… not of a video game, but of a film. (Trust me, I’m going somewhere with this.) Remember The Pirates of Silicon Valley? It aired on TNT about ten years ago, and detailed the early days of Apple, including everything from the company’s origins in a college student’s bedroom to a young Steve Jobs, matching wits with Microsoft founder Bill Gates. It was a fun, if not entirely authentic, look at the early days of the home computer industry, and it now has a British counterpart in the BBC production Micro Men.

media?id=3833896&type=lgMicro Men focuses on the heated battle between two of Britain’s own computer pioneers, ZX Spectrum mastermind Clive Sinclair and Acorn Computers CEO Chris Curry. The film begins with Curry working for Sinclair, and brainstorming ideas to keep Sinclair Radionics afloat after its line of pocket calculators is edged out of the market by the Japanese. Curry suggests that the company start selling computer kits, but Sinclair vehemently rejects the idea, claiming that the future lies in pocket television sets and electric-powered personal vehicles.

Right away you start to notice that Clive Sinclair (Alexander Armstrong) isn’t the loveable and boundlessly creative inventor that the media had made him out to be. He is a coiled viper, spitting veiled insults in a high-pitched, Malcolm MacDowell-like hiss before lashing out with acts of frightening violence. After he chucks a telephone through a plate glass window, past the adjacent room and into a nearby office, you start to think that he should have given up on the whole computer business and trained as an Olympic shotputter.

media?id=3833897&type=lgBy contrast, Chris Curry (Martin Freeman) is the mouse that roared. After being on the receiving end of one of Sinclair’s outbursts, he quietly leaves the company to start Acorn Computers with a handful of misfits, including a metaphor-mangling Austrian and a team of nerds hand-picked from the local college. They slave away at their first personal computer, taking breaks only to eat Chinese food with multimeter probes as chopsticks. Meanwhile, Sinclair wises up and designs his own machine, determined to limbo under the impossible price point of ninety-nine pounds and win over the casual market.

Sinclair’s ZX80 is a big success (and a big piece of crap… ahem), with Curry’s more upscale Acorn taking a respectable second place in sales. Soon, the British Broadcasting Company takes notice of the growing computer market, and promises a fat educational contract to the first manufacturer that can meet its high technological standards. After hands-on favorite Newbury Computers withdraws from the competition, Sinclair and Curry scramble to get high-powered versions of their respective machines in the hands of the BBC. Curry is first across the finish line with a 48K computer that works just as a representative of the network walks through the door. When he learns he's lost the contract, Sinclair boils over with vengeful fury, and vows to make his next computer the household standard.

media?id=3833898&type=lgThe way the film tells it, it seems that although both men were successful in their own segments of the market (Curry in classrooms, and Sinclair everywhere else), each one was hungry for the other’s piece of the pie. When advised to pursue the gaming market that made the Spectrum a massive hit, Sinclair flatly refuses, lamenting, “This is what my life’s work has been reduced to? Clive Sinclair, the man who brought you Jet Set Fucking Willy?!” Meanwhile, Curry wanders into a computer store and stares in slack-jawed envy at the hundreds of Spectrum games lining the shelves. (There are just four for his Acorn, tucked away on the bottom shelf and clearance priced.)

Eventually, both men watch helplessly as the computer market slips through their fingers, hitting a devastating crash rivaling that of the US video game market. Sinclair attempts to bring his computer line back to life with the 16-bit QL, but it flounders badly due to product delays and the “quality” that people had come to expect from the Sinclair brand. Curry, frustrated that his own computer line is swirling the bowl, jumps on the opportunity to exploit the Sinclair brand's 24% return rate with a full page advertisement in a local newspaper. That decision literally comes back to haunt him in one of the film’s best scenes… Sinclair bursts into Curry’s favorite pub and mercilessly beats him with the paper!

media?id=3833899&type=lgMicro Men ends with a brief wrap-up, informing the viewer that the Sinclair brand was purchased by Amstrad (owned by billionaire Alan Sugar, an even less likeable fellow who’s currently hosting the UK version of The Apprentice) and that Acorn went on to design the microchip for every mobile device known to man, including the Nintendo DS you may have in your pocket right now. As the credits roll, Clive Sinclair rides off into the sunset on his latest invention, the Power Wheels-for-adults C5, only to be left in the dust by semi trailers bearing the Microsoft and Compaq logos.

The film is a fun and mostly factual account of the British computer industry in the 1980s, and has been warmly received by critics in that country. However, Micro Men does have a few issues. Stewart Meagher of the Inquirer questioned its objectivity, saying that “calling this a bit skewed in Curry’s favor would be like saying McDonald’s sells a few burgers.” I’m inclined to agree… even the makeup department seemed intent on mocking Clive Sinclair, sticking a bald cap on Alexander Armstrong’s head, then gluing a wreath of orange shag carpet on top of it. Suspiciously, Chris Curry is spared the tip of the scriptwriter’s poison pen, perhaps since the network that broadcast this movie was the same one that funded his computer all those years ago. The film also fast-forwards through the details of the market crash, offering only grainy stock clips of Alan Sugar- the real Alan Sugar, not an actor- announcing his purchase of the Sinclair brand. If the producers were so intent on casting Sinclair as the villain, it would have been a lot more fun to watch him grovel at the feet of a competitor. Finally, there’s a lot of fiction stirred in with the facts, clouding the narrative and cheapening it as an educational tool for non-Brits. I feel like I’ve only gotten half the story here... mostly Curry’s.

media?id=3833900&type=lgDespite all this, I’d strongly recommend Micro Men for gaming historians, along with any television viewers with nerdly inclinations. The battle between Sinclair and Curry was a chapter of home electronics history that most Americans had missed, and Micro Men is a good way to start filling in those gaps. Sadly, the film isn’t available on DVD in the United States, and I haven’t found it for sale at any of the major online retailers, including iTunes and Amazon. There are other ways to see it, but I’d suggest contacting BBC Four and asking them about an American release before you sail the pira-seas.

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