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Not quite warts and all for BBC's Micro Men

Clive Sinclair and former rival both advised on production of BBC Four 8-bit computer wars drama, airing tonight

It's the story of wild ambition, technological revolution, global success, jealousy, revenge, crushing failure and ultimate reconciliation that shaped the British games industry in the 1980s – and its main protagonists, Clive Sinclair and Chris Curry, have both raided the data banks to guide BBC Four's retelling in a one-off comedy drama.

And the production team revealed that it withheld some suggested content that may have proved a little too close to the bone.

"There are some scenes that aren't in the film that Chris Curry told us that were so libellous towards himself that we took them out," producer Andrea Cornwell revealed to during a Q&A session last month following the drama's BAFTA premiere.

Ultimately, however, Micro Men is an affectionate account of the rivalry between Sinclair and ex-employee Curry's Acorn as they – in one instance, literally - slug it out to secure a lucrative BBC contract to supply computers to school, going on to clash in an ultimately destructive arms race which, the film suggests, was caused in large part by Sinclair and Curry's obsessive rivalry.

"We were all a bit in love with computers in the early '80s and that's what Clive tapped into," said Alexander Armstrong, who underwent four hours of make-up every morning to assume to role of Sinclair. "The notion that a computer was something you could have in your own home was something very exciting to all of us."

Chris Curry is played by Office star Martin Freeman, who admitted the digital revolution largely passed him by. "I'm not interested in computers at all," he said. "I do [have one], under duress, but I didn't think they'd take off! I honest to God didn't. But this isn't about computers, it's about these two men and the relationship between them and their hopes and dreams shattered on the way.

"I came away with an admiration. It's so easy and compulsory to laugh when you see [Sinclair] being interviewed because he is a bizarre figure, it's fair to say. I don't know whether he was a genius, but he was pretty close to it on both an inventing and marketing level. He kick-started a lot of stuff."

"[Clive]'s biggest weakness was he didn't recognises he wasn't a boffin," added Armstrong. "His genius was marketing. He got a bit carried away and thought he could walk on water. Rightly or wrongly he's remembered principally for the disaster of the C5, which has completely overshadowed his relevance in the advance of computers."

Armstrong had to learn to drive a C5, Sinclair's doomed electric car, for the film. "I have to say, that's the biggest pile of... I am second to no-one in my admiration for Clive, and I do mean that. [But] It would be hard to conceive a less well thought through piece of kit."

Some of the most dramatic moments in the piece, the BBC insists, are played exactly as they happened. In one scene Curry and Acorn co-founder Hermann Hauser meet with a bank manager in Cambridge to secure a vital loan. The bank manager asks them which college they attended and Hauser, nimbly, points out of the window and says "that one". The loan is granted.

"That is verbatim Herman Hauser telling that story," said Cornwell. Later, with the rivalry between the two firms at its most intense, Curry publishes a newspaper ad questioning the reliability of Sinclair's Spectrum computers. Sinclair explodes, storms to the Baron of Beef pub in Cambridge - the pair's local – and assaults Curry, ridiculously, with a rolled-up newspaper.

"The fight at the end was absolutely real," insisted director Saul Metzstein. Clive's dialogue, "You f***ing buggering s*** bucket" was a word for word quote. We suspect people into computers might go onto the Internet and complain about things that weren't quite right!"

Cornwell said Sinclair's "temper" was "very well documented", adding: "He's very open to admitting that's one of his character traits." In one early scene, Sinclair, in a rage, throws a telephone through a window in his office. Cornwell revealed the awkwardness of watching the film through with him. "Yeah, yeah... I had to sit next to him. It must be a weird process. But he laughed [at the phone incident].

"Inevitably there are some things that are strange for him to watch. He was pleased to see it, came to the screening..." she trailed off, to laughter from the BAFTA audience.

Retro gaming enthusiasts can also look forward to a wealth of archive material from the period, from news reports to game footage, while the BBC further sourced all relevant hardware as props. "We blew up an Acorn Atom on set," revealed Cornwell, to the undoubted wince of geeks in the theatre.

As the businesses collapsed and US rivals began to dominate the market – captured wonderfully in a motorway sequence featuring Sinclair in his C5 – the feuding pair reconciled.

"I suppose you could see it [as a love story]," Armstrong conceded. "I think it's very touching the scene at the end when they come back together again."

And Cornwell said they have remained in touch to the present day. "They're not friends as they were in the beginning; when you speak to them there is a bit of regret between them," she said.

"When they worked at Sinclair Radionics they were best friends. They did fall out quite spectacularly, but by the end it is pretty much how we depict it in the pub. They did make up. I know they still send each other Christmas cards. Clive remarried this summer and Chris went along to that."

Micro Men, part of BBC 4's Electric Revolution season, airs tonight on BBC Four at 21:00 BST.

Update: The BBC has contacted to clarify that certain proposed content was not included in the completed programme.

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Johnny Minkley avatar
Johnny Minkley: Johnny Minkley is a veteran games writer and broadcaster, former editor of Eurogamer TV, VP of gaming charity SpecialEffect, and hopeless social media addict.
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