CLIVE SINCLAIR is a well-known figure in the UK and has widely been credited with bringing the computer out of the lab and into the home but this comedy docudrama from the pen of Tony Saint digs deeper than ever before into the character of the man who brought us the ZX Spectrum.
Following the parallel careers of Sinclair and his one-time employee Chris Curry, this not entirely flattering portrait of one of the most important and influential inventors of the 20th Century paints Sinclair as a megalomaniacal, bipolar tyrant who would hurl abuse at his employees just as easily as stray bits of office equipment.
Alexander Armstrong's performance as the balding, bespectacled Sinclair veers between subtle and overblown as often as the plot bounces between the lives of Sinclair and Curry, leaving you wondering if perhaps the writer had seen or heard only one side of the story.
In fact it is with some discomfort that we watch Martin Freeman play Curry, who surely could not have been this angelic at the same time as running a multi-million pound electronics company. To say that the writing is slightly skewed in Curry's favour is a bit like saying McDonalds sells a few burgers. We suspect that Sinclair, on being approached to become involved in the making of this drama by the BBC, probably told the august institution to beggar off, still upset at being snubbed by the broadcaster once before. And it is the trueish story of that snubbing that is at the heart of the highly watchable if horribly biased hunk of nostalgic geekery.
Based on real people and real events - although the programme makers are at pains to point out that, for the purposes of the narrative, some scenes have been invented - Micro Men initially follows the path of electronics wizard Clive Sinclair and his struggle to obtain the recognition and wealth he craves in the rapidly-developing world of consumer electronics.
He is the first person to introduce a useable pocket calculator to the world, and invents the LED digital watch, but all of his inventions are ruthlessly cribbed by Japanese electronics giants and Sinclair is repeatedly priced out of the markets he single handedly created: "Hijacked by the Japanese and their ugly plastic grot," as Sinclair so succinctly puts it.
Poor quality components and some poor quality business decisions also mean that Sinclair's Pocket TV (yes they really did have pockets that big in the eighties) bombs so badly that the Cambridge based company has to be bailed out by National Enterprise Board, a government department intended to help finance burgeoning British Tech companies.
Sinclair is so incensed by what he sees as government interference that he sends Curry off to work for a shell company he has set up, but Curry is determined to be more than just a caretaker, taking it upon himself to design and create a microcomputing kit, which will allow punters to build their own basic computer.
Obsessed as he is with his singular vision for a personal transport vehicle, Sinclair rudely dismisses Curry's idea to spark the home computer revolution and when Curry mocks the C5, Sinclair throws him out of his house mid-dinner in yet another petulant strop.
Rather than turning up to the work the next morning as Sinclair confidently predicts to his long-suffering wife, Curry sets up on his own with amusingly louche Austrian wine maker Hermann Hausser, and Acorn Computing is born.
What comes next is a parallel tale of two companies. Sinclair struggles to stay afloat whilst blowing millions of pounds on the C5 and Acorn poaches the cream of the Cambridge Processor Group, band of socially dysfunctional nerds who build cattle-feeding computers for fun.
Sinclair soon realises that Curry was onto something with this whole personal computer theory and decides to take on the likes of Apple, Commodore and IBM by inventing a home computer which will sell for the magical sum of £99. At the time, an Apple II would set you back something in the order of £2,000 and even the Commodore Pet, which was seen as affordable at the time, was £695, a sum which was way out of reach for anything other than a college or large company.
The Sinclair ZX80 was a revolutionary failure. It sold by the shedload to an audience eager to jump on the computing bandwagon, and is probably responsible for setting off the UK computing revolution. But it overheated, made the screen flicker with every key press and probably convinced as many people never to touch a computer again as it did to go on to become multimillionaire superstar programmers.
Curry, on the other hand, is forced to go cap in hand to the banking system in order to fund his digital dreams and spends most of his time trying to second guess his former boss in order to get the upper hand in the fledgling computer industry.
It's astonishing to note that, at the time, there were over 600 independent companies making computers in Britain and one of them, Newbury, was expected to pick up the biggest contract in home computing history when the BBC announces that it will become involved in a government-funded scheme to put a personal computer into every school in the country. Backed by regular television programmes, the BBC Micro could bring everything that both Sinclair and Curry could ever desire. Acclaim, respectability and wealth.
When Newbury suddenly announces that it is pulling its New Brain computer out of the BBC project, Curry and Sinclair both rush to adapt their existing hardware to match the BBC's specifications, but it is Curry who gets to the punch, sending Sinclair off into another toy-throwing strop.
Micro Men is an unmissable - for anyone reading this website for fun, anyway - tale of hard work, greed, friendship and redemption, all wrapped up in the giddy boom and ultimately catastrophic bust of the first home computing gold rush.
Anyone who grew up with computers in the eighties will be spellbound by the attention to authentic detail the programme makers have lavished on this show. Every car, every hideous jumper, every hand-soldered circuit board and every note of the soundtrack is spot on. The battle between Sinclair and Curry is well-paced and fascinating even to those of you who wouldn't know your Jet Set Willy from your Manic Miner, even if poor old Clive does come out of the whole deal looking like a bit of an arse whilst Curry comes up smelling of roses at every juncture.
In fact, the main protagonists are drawn with such broad strokes as to render them almost cartoonish, no doubt for comic effect. Armstrong's portrayal of Sinclair as a bumbling, single-minded sociopath is often clumsy. But it's Freeman's too-cuddly-to-be-credible reading of Curry which ultimately fails to ring true.
Perhaps Freeman is incapable of playing anything other than loveable rogues with that caught-in-the-headlights look he seems to bring to every role he takes on. Maybe it's time for Freeman to accept a role as a Nazi, or a serial killer, or a hedge fund manager. If he doesn't do something to dispel his image as an all-round nice guy, typecasting hell awaits.
Unbalanced but unbelievably affectionate all the same, Micro Men is one you really should not miss. µ