Continental Europe is notable for its almost complete absence during the early years of the PC revolution. Even Germany, by popular (or stereotypical) perception a land of engineers, played little role; when PCs started to enter West German homes in large numbers in the mid-1980s, they were almost entirely machines of American or British design. Yet in some ways European governments were quite forward-thinking in their employment of computer technology in comparison to that of the United States. As early as 1978 the French postal service began rolling out a computerized public network called Minitel, which not only let users look up phone numbers and addresses but also book travel, buy mail-order products, and send messages to one another. A similar service in West Germany, Bildschirmtext, began shortly after, and both services thrived until the spread of home Internet access over the course of the 1990s gradually made them obsolete.
The U.S. had no equivalent to these public services. Yes, there was the social marvel that was PLATO, but it was restricted to students and faculty fortunate enough to attend a university on the network; The Source, but you had to both pay a substantial fee for the service and be able to afford the pricy PC you needed to access it; the early Internet, but it was also restricted to a relative technical and scientific elite fortunate enough to be at a university or company that allowed them access. It’s tempting to draw an (overly?) broad comparison here between American and European cultural values: the Americans were all about individual, personal computers that one could own and enjoy privately, while the Europeans treated computing as a communal resource to be shared and developed as a social good. But I’ll let you head further down that fraught path for yourself, if you like.
In this area as in so many others, Britain seemed stuck somewhere in the middle of this cultural divide. Although the British PC industry lagged a steady three years behind the American during the early years, from 1978 on there were plenty of eager PC entrepreneurs in Britain. Notably, however, the British government was also much more willing than the American to involve itself in bringing computers to the people. Margaret Thatcher may have dreamed of dismantling the postwar welfare state entirely and remaking the British economy on the American model, but plenty of MPs even within her own Conservative party weren’t ready to go quite that far. Thus the British post developed a Minitel equivalent of its own, Prestel, even before the German system debuted. But for the young British PC industry the most important role would be played by the country’s publicly-funded broadcasting service, the BBC — and not without, as is so typical when public funds mix with private enterprise, a storm of controversy and accusation.
Computers first turned up on the BBC in early 1980, when the network ran a three-part documentary series called The Silicon Factor just as the first Sinclair ZX80s and Acorn Atoms were reaching customers. It largely dealt with computing as an economic and social force, and wasn’t above a little scare mongering — “Did you know the micro would cut out so-and-so many skilled jobs by 1984?” The following year brought two more specialized programs: Managing the Micro, a five-parter aimed at executives wanting to understand the potential role of computers in business; and the two-part Technology for Teachers, about computers as educational tools. But even as the latter two series were being developed and coming to the airwaves, one within the BBC was dreaming of something grander. Paul Kriwaczek, a producer who had worked on The Silicon Factor, asked the higher-ups a question: “Don’t we have a duty to put some of the power of computing into the public’s hands rather than just make programs about computing?” He envisioned a program that would not treat computing as a purely abstract social or business phenomenon. It would rather be a practical examination of what the average person could do with a PC, right now — or at least in the very near future.
The idea was very much of its time, spurred equally by fear and hope. With all of the early innovation having happened in America, the PC looked likely to be another innovation — and there sure seemed to have been a lot of them this century — with which Britain would have little to do. On the other hand, however, these were still early days, and there did already exist a network of British computing companies and the enthusiasts they served. Properly stoked, and today rather than later, perhaps they could form the heart of new, home-grown British computer industry that would, at a minimum, prevent the indignity of seeing Britons rely, as they already did in so many other sectors, on imported products. At best, the PC could become a new export industry. With the government forced to prop up much of the remaining British auto industry, with many other sectors seemingly on the verge of collapse, and with the economy in general in the crapper, the country could certainly use a dose of something new and innovative. By interesting ordinary Britons in computers and spurring them to buy British models today, this program could be a catalyst for the eager but uncertain British PC industry as well as the incubator of a new generation of computing professionals.
Much to Kriwaczek’s own surprise, his proposed program landed right in his lap. The BBC approved a new ten-part series to be called Hands-On Micros. Under the day-to-day control of Kriwaczek, it would air in the autumn of 1981 — in about one year’s time. His advocacy for the program aside, Kriwaczek was the obvious choice among the BBC’s line producers. He had grown interested in PCs some months earlier, when he had worked on The Silicon Factor and, perhaps more importantly, when he had stumbled upon a copy of the early British hobbyist magazine Practical Computing. Now he had a Nascom at home which he had built for himself. A jazz saxophonist and flautist by a former trade, he now spent hours in his office trying to get the machine to play music that could be recognized as such. (“My wife and family aren’t very keen on the micro,” he said in a contemporary remark that sounds like an understatement.) Working with another producer, David Allen, Kriwaczek drafted a plan for the project that would make it more substantial than just another one-off documentary miniseries. There would be an accompanying book, for one thing, which would go deeper into many of the topics presented and offer much more hands-on programming instruction. And, strangely and controversially, there would also be a whole new computer with the official BBC stamp of approval.
To understand what motivated this seemingly bizarre step, we should look at the British PC market of the time. It was a welter of radically divergent, thoroughly incompatible machines, in many ways no different from the contemporary American market, but in at least one way even more confused. In the U.S. most PC-makers sourced their BASIC from Microsoft, which remained relatively consistent from machine to machine, and thus offered at least some sort of route to program interchange. The British market, however, was not even this consistent. While Nascom did buy a Microsoft BASIC, both Acorn and Sinclair had chosen to develop their own, highly idiosyncratic versions of the language, and a survey of other makers revealed a similar jumble. Further, none of these incompatible machines was precisely satisfactory in the BBC’s eyes. As a kit you had to build yourself, the Nascom was an obvious nonstarter. The Acorn Atom came pre-assembled, but with a maximum of 12 K of memory it was a profoundly limited machine. The Sinclair ZX80 and ZX81 were similarly limited, and also beset by that certain endemic Sinclair brand of shoddiness that left users having to glue memory expansions into place to keep them from falling out of their sockets and half expecting the whole contraption to explode one day like the Black Watch of old. The Commodore PET was the favorite of British business, but it was very expensive and American to boot, which kind of defeated the program’s purpose of goosing British computing. So, the BBC decided to endorse a new PC built to their requirements of being a) British; b) of solid build quality; c) possessed of a relatively standard and complete dialect of BASIC; and d) powerful enough to perform reasonably complex, hopefully even useful tasks. The idea may seem a more reasonable one in this light to all but the most laissez-faire among you. The way they chose to pursue it, though, was quite problematic.
As you may remember from a previous post, Clive Sinclair and Chris Curry had worked together at Sinclair’s previous company, Sinclair Radionics, before going on to found Sinclair Research and Acorn Computers respectively. In the wake of the Black Watch fiasco, the National Enterprise Board of the British government had stepped in to take over Sinclair Radionics and prevent the company from failing. Sinclair, however, proved impossible to work with, and was soon let go. The NEB shuttered what was left of Sinclair Radionics. But they passed its one seemingly viable project, a computer called the NewBrain which Sinclair had conceived but then lost interest in, to another NEB-owned concern, Newbury Laboratories. As the BBC’s grand computer literacy project was being outlined, the NewBrain was still at Newbury and still inching slowly toward release. If Newbury could just get the thing finished, the NewBrain should meet all of the BBC’s requirements for their new computer. They decided it was the computer for them. To preserve some illusion of an open bidding process, they wrote up a set of requirements that coincidentally corresponded exactly with the proposed specifications of the NewBrain, then slipped out the call for bids as quietly as they possibly could. Nobody outside Newbury noticed it, and even if they had, it would have been impossible to develop a computer to those specifications in the tiny amount of time the BBC was offering. The plan had worked perfectly. It looked like they had their new BBC computer.
But why was the BBC so fixated on the NewBrain? It’s hard not to see bureaucratic back-scratching in the whole scheme. Another branch of the British bureaucracy, the National Enterprise Board, had pissed away a lot of taxpayer money in the failed Sinclair Radionics rescue bid. If they could turn the NewBrain into a big commercial success — something of which the official BBC endorsement would be a virtual guarantee — they could earn all of that money back through Newbury, a company which had been another questionable investment. Some damaged careers would certainly be repaired and even burnished in the process. That, at any rate, is how the rest of the British PC industry saw the situation when the whole process finally came to light, and it’s hard to come to any other conclusion today.
Just a few months later, the BBC looked to have hoisted themselves from their own petard. It had now become painfully clear that Newbury was understaffed and underfunded. They couldn’t finish developing the NewBrain in the time allotted, and couldn’t arrange to manufacture it in the massive quantities that would be required even if they did. It was just as this realization was dawning that they received two very angry letters, one from Clive Sinclair and one from Chris Curry at Acorn. Curry had come across an early report about the project in his morning paper, describing the plan for a BBC-branded computer and the “bidding process” and giving the specifications of the computer that had “won.” He called Sinclair, with whom he still maintained polite if strained relations. Sinclair hadn’t heard anything about the project either. Putting their heads together, they deduced that the machine in question must be the NewBrain, and why it must have been chosen. Thus the angry letters.
What happened next would prompt even more controversy. Curry, who had sent his letter more to vent than anything else, was stunned to receive a call from a rather sheepish John Radcliffe, an executive producer on the project, asking if the BBC could come to Acorn’s Cambridge offices for a meeting. Nothing was set in stone, Radcliffe carefully explained. If Curry had something he wanted to show the BBC, the BBC was willing to consider it. Sinclair, despite being known as Mr. Computer to the British public, received no such call. The reasons he didn’t aren’t so hard to deduce. Sinclair had screwed the National Enterprise Board badly in the Sinclair Radionics deal by being impossible to work with and finally apparently deliberately sabotaging the whole operation so that he could get away and begin a new company. It’s not surprising that his reputation within the British bureaucracy was none too good. On a less personal level, there were the persistent quality-control problems that had dogged just about everything Sinclair had ever made. The BBC simply couldn’t afford to release an exploding computer.
At the meeting, Curry first tried to sell Radcliffe on Acorn’s existing computer, the Atom, but even at this desperate juncture Radcliffe was having none of it. The Atom was just too limited. Could he propose anything else? “Well,” said Curry, “We are developing this new machine we call the Proton.” “Can you show it to me?” asked Radcliffe. “I’m afraid it’s not quite ready,” replied Curry. “When can we see a working prototype?” asked Radcliffe. It was already December 1980; time was precious. It was also a Monday. “Come back Friday,” said Curry.
The Acorn team worked frantically through the week to get the Proton, still an unfinished pile of wires, chips, and schematics, into some sort of working shape. A few hours before the BBC’s scheduled return they thought they had everything together properly, but the machine refused to boot. Hermann Hauser, the Austrian Cambridge researcher with whom Curry had started Acorn, made a suggestion: “It’s very simple — you are cross-linking the clock between the development system and the prototype. If you just cut the link it will work.” After a bit of grumbling the team agreed, and the machine sprang to life for the first time just in time for the BBC’s visit. Soon after Acorn officially had the contract, and along with it an injection of £60,000 to set up much larger manufacturing facilities. The Acorn Proton was now the BBC Micro; Acorn was playing on a whole new level.
Acorn and the BBC were fortunate in that the Proton design actually dovetailed fairly well with the BBC’s original specifications. In places where it did not, either the specification or the machine was quietly modified to make a fit. Most notably, the BASIC housed in ROM was substantially reworked to conform better to the BBC’s wish for a fairly standard implementation of the language in comparison to the very personalized dialects both Acorn and Sinclair had previously favored. After the realities of production costs sank in, the decision was made to produce two BBC Micros, the Model A with just 16 K of memory and the Model B with the full 32 K demanded by the original specification and some additional expansion capabilities. The Model B also came with an expanded suite of graphics modes, offering up to 16 colors at 160 X 256, a monochrome 640 X 256 mode, and 80-column text, all very impressive even by comparison with American computers of the era. It would turn out to be by far the more popular model. At the heart of both models was a 6502 CPU which was clocked at 2 MHz rather than the typical 1 MHz of most 6502-based computers. Combined with an innovative memory design that allowed the CPU to always run at full speed, with no waiting for memory access, this made the BBC Micro quite a potent little machine by the standards of the early 1980s. By way of comparison, the 3 to 4 MHz Z80s found in many competitors like the Sinclair machines were generally agreed to have about the same overall processing potential as a 1 MHz 6502, despite the dramatically faster clock speed, due to differences in the designs of the two chips.
By quite a number of metrics, the BBC Micro would be the best, most practical machine the domestic British industry had yet produced. Unfortunately, all that power and polish would come with a price. The BBC had originally dreamed of a sub-£200 machine, but that quickly proved unrealistic. The projected price steadily crept upward as 1981 wore on. When models started arriving in shops at last, the price was £300 for the Model A and £400 for the Model B, much more expensive than the original plans and much, much more than Sinclair’s machines. Considering that buying the peripherals needed to make a really useful system would nearly double the likely price, these figures to at least some extent put the lie to the grand dream of the BBC Micro as the computer for the everyday Briton — a fact that Clive Sinclair and others lost no time in pointing out. A roughly equivalent foreign-built system, like, say, a Commodore PET, would still cost you more, but not all that much more. The closest American comparison to the BBC Micro is probably the Apple II. Like that machine, the BBC Micro would become the relative Cadillac of 8-bit British computers: better built and somehow more solid-feeling than the competition, even as its raw processing and display capabilities grew less impressive in comparison — and, eventually, outright outdated — over time.
As the BBC Micro slowly came together, other aspects of the project also moved steadily forward. By the spring of 1981 three authors were hard at work writing the book, and Kriwaczek and Allen were traveling around the country collecting feedback from schools and focus groups on a 50-minute pilot version of the proposed documentary. With it becoming obvious that everyone needed a bit more time, the whole project was reluctantly pushed back three months. The first episode of the documentary, retitled The Computer Programme, was now scheduled to air on January 11, 1982, with the book and the computer also expected to be available by that date.
And now what had already been a crazily ambitious project suddenly found itself part of something even more ambitious. A Conservative MP named Kenneth Baker shepherded through Parliament a bill naming 1982 Information Technology Year. It would kick off with The Computer Programme in a plum time slot on the BBC, and end with a major government-sponsored conference at the Barbican Arts Centre. In between would be a whole host of other initiatives, some of which, like the issuing of an official IT ’82 stamp by the post office, were probably of, shall we say, symbolic value at best. Yet there were also a surprising number of more practical initiatives, like the establishment of a network of Microsystem Centres to offer advice and training to businessmen and IT Centres to train unemployed young people in computer-related fields. There would also be a major push to get PCs into every school in Britain in numbers that would allow every student a reasonable amount of hands-on time. All of these programs — yes, even the stamp — reflected the desire of at least some in the government to make Britain the IT Nation of the 1980s, to remake the struggling British economy via the silicon chip.
When the first step in their master plan debuted at last on January 11, everything was not quite as they might have wished it. The BBC’s programming department reneged on their promises to give the program a plum time spot. Instead it aired on a Monday afternoon and was repeated the following Sunday morning, meaning ratings were not quite what Kriwaczek and his colleagues might have hoped for. And, although Acorn had been taking orders for several months, virtually no one other than a handful of lucky magazine reviewers had an actual BBC Micro to use to try out the snippets of BASIC code that the show presented. Even with the infusion of government cash, Acorn was struggling to sort out the logistics of producing machines in the quantities demanded by the BBC, while also battling teething problems in the design and some flawed third-party components. BBC Micros didn’t finally start flowing to customers until well into spring — ironically, just as the last episodes of the series were airing. Thus Kriwaczek’s original dream of an army of excited new computer owners watching his series from behind the keyboards of their new BBC Micros didn’t quite play out, at least in the program’s first run.
In the long run, however, the BBC Micro became a big success, if not quite the epoch-defining development the BBC had originally envisioned. Its relatively high price kept it out of many homes in favor of cheaper machines from Sinclair and Commodore, but, with the full force of the government’s patronage (and numerous government-sponsored discounting programs) behind it, it became the most popular machine by far in British schools. In this respect once again, the parallels with the Apple II are obvious. The BBC Micro remained a fixture in British schools throughout the 1980s, the first taste of computing for millions of schoolchildren. It was built like a tank and, soon enough, possessed of a huge selection of educational software that made it ideal for the task. By 1984 Acorn could announce that 85% of computers sold to British schools were BBC Micros. This penetration, combined with more limited uptake in homes and business, was enough to let Acorn sell more than 1.5 million of them over more than a decade in production.
As for the butterfly flapping its wings which got all of this started: The Computer Programme is surprisingly good, in spite of a certain amount of disappointment it engendered in the hardcore hobbyist community of the time for its failure to go really deeply into the ins and outs of programming in BASIC and the like (a task for which video strikes me as supremely ill-suited anyway). At its center is a well-known BBC presenter named Chris Serle. He plays the everyman, who’s guided (along with the audience, of course) through a tour of computer history and applications and a certain amount of practical nitty-gritty by the more experienced Ian McNaught-Davis. It’s a premise that could easily wind up feeling grating and contrived, but the two men are so pleasant and natural about it that it mostly works beautifully. Rounding out the show are a field reporter, Gill Neville, who delivers a human-interest story about practical uses of computers in each episode; and “author and journalist” Rex Malik, who concludes each episode with an Andy Rooney-esque “more objective” — read, more crotchety — view on all of the gee-whiz gadgetry and high hopes that were on display in the preceding 22 minutes.
There’s a moment in one of the episodes that kind of crystallizes for me what makes the program as a whole so unique. McNaught-Davis is demonstrating a simple BASIC program for Serle. One of the lines is an INPUT statement. McNaught-Davis explains that when the computer reaches this line it just sits there checking the keyboard over and over for input from the user. Serle asks whether programs always work like that. Well, no, not always, explains McNaught-Davis… there are these things called interrupts on more advanced systems which can allow the CPU to do other things, to be notified automatically when a key press or some other event needs its attention. He then draws a beautiful analogy: the BASIC program is like someone who has a broken doorbell and is expecting guests. He must manually check the door over and over. An interrupt-driven system is the same fellow after he’s gotten his doorbell fixed, able to read or do other things in his living room and wait for his guests to come to him. The fact that McNaught-Davis acknowledges the complexity instead of just saying, “Yes, sure, just one thing at a time…” to Serle says a lot about the program’s refusal to dumb down its subject matter. Its decision not to pursue this strange notion of interrupts too much further, meanwhile, says a lot about the accompanying concern that it not overwhelm its audience. The BBC has always been really, really good at walking that line; The Computer Programme is a shining example of that skill.
Indeed, The Computer Programme can be worthwhile viewing today even for reasons outside of historical interest or kitsch value. Anyone looking for a good general overview of computers and how they work and what they can and can’t do could do a lot worse. I meant to just dip in and sample it here and there, but ended up watching the whole series (not that historical interest and kitsch value didn’t also play a factor). If you’d like to have a look for yourself, the whole series is available on YouTube thanks to Jesús Zafra.
October 29, 2012 at 10:12 pm
A nice introduction to what I imagine will be a UK-focused series of articles. You need to change “Cutter” to “Curry” in some of the text and it will be even better. :-)
I still find it a bit strange to read about the BBC as a PC, though it is an increasingly common occurrence. Those of us Acorn users didn’t think of ourselves as PC owners – PCs were the competition.
October 30, 2012 at 7:18 am
Woops! I’ve had this horrible mental block with his name. I was wanting to call him Clive Cussler as well.
October 29, 2012 at 11:37 pm
While a factor of 2 could be an order of magnitude, isn’t it vastly more commonly 10? I don’t think speccies were selling for 3-4 quid, even taking inflation into account.
October 30, 2012 at 7:24 am
Yes, that was kind of lazy writing, wasn’t it? Revised!
October 31, 2012 at 9:45 pm
I don’t understand the punch line to the “cross-linking the clock” anecdote. Are there one or two supporting sentences that could elucidate it for the layman?
“The BBC had originally dreamed of a sub-€200 machine…” That should read “sub-£200”, surely. (Or if you mean €200 in today’s money, that should be clarified, but I imagine you don’t mean that.)
November 1, 2012 at 7:24 am
Somehow my currency symbols got mixed up inside my scattered head. Thanks!
I’m afraid there is no punchline to the anecdote that you’re missing. I have no more idea than you what “Cross-linking the clock” really means, although I could theorize. The only real point to take away is that Acorn didn’t get the machine working until very nearly the last possible moment. The BBC film Micro Men had Curry leading the men from the BBC on a merry chase around the offices, stopping to slowly tie his shoe, etc., while the technical team struggled to figure out what was wrong and get the machine started. That’s when movie-Hauser had his flash of insight. In real life the situation wasn’t that dramatic, but the movie apparently wasn’t THAT far off either.
November 1, 2012 at 11:16 am
It’s an anecdote that Hermann Hauser tells in various interviews, but not the one that I found, which is interesting in its own right: http://www.alanmacfarlane.com/ancestors/hauser.htm
Similarly, it’s absent in this article about him, though some of the other classic anecdotes appear there: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/billrobinson/techstar-interview-herman_b_1520805.html
October 11, 2016 at 2:58 pm
The article glosses over the fact that, at the end of 1980, the BBC sent John Coll’s specification for the BBC Micro to seven different UK manufacturers, six of whom submitted a bid to design and build the machine (Acorn, Nascom, Newbury, Sinclair, Tangerine and Transam). Of those, three were subsequently shortlisted (Acorn, Newbury and Tangerine) and eventually Acorn was chosen on 12th February 1981 (I was at that meeting!).
John Coll’s BBC specification is at http://www.bbcbasic.co.uk/bbcbasic/beebspec.html
Acorn’s proposal in response is at http://www.bbcbasic.co.uk/bbcbasic/proposal.html
July 15, 2017 at 1:43 pm
Is there a source for Paul Kriwaczek’s initiative (ie “Don’t we have a duty to put some of
the power of computing into the public’s hands rather than just make programs
about computing?”), or the ‘two very angry letters’? Thanks.
July 18, 2017 at 1:24 pm
See the March 1982 Your Computer for the former, the January 1983 Your Computer for the latter.
July 19, 2017 at 12:19 pm
Thanks, Jimmy. I found the article for the former, but I checked the January 1983 issue for the latter and I don’t think it’s the correct reference. I also checked other issues of Your Computer, just in case, but I couldn’t find anything on the ‘angry letters’. Any suggestions? Many thanks for the pointers. Even one out of two is excellent.
July 19, 2017 at 2:16 pm
Hmm… my notes on these old articles aren’t the best, I’m afraid. I’ll just dump what I’ve got here. Maybe you can dig up what you’re looking for.
Your Computer, June 1982 (Spectrum review)
Your Computer, July 1982 (Altwasser interview)
Your Computer, June 1981 (editorial as well as feature)
Your Computer, August 1981 (Clive Sinclair interview)
Your Computer, October 1981 (Chris Curry interview)
Your Computer November 1981 (Paul Johnson interview)
Your Computer January 1982 (BBC Micro review, Kenneth Baker interview on IT Year)
Your Computer, Feburary 1982 (editorial, Kerr Borland interview)
Your Computer, March 1982 (Paul Kriwaczek interview)
Your Computer, September 1982 (Hermann Hauser interview)
Your Computer, November 1982 (Clive Sinclair interview)
Your Computer, January 1983 (letters, Hauser’s response to Sinclair interview)
July 19, 2017 at 8:18 pm
Thanks very much, Jimmy. It took some searching but I found it. It’s in the Curry interview, October 1981, p. 21. In the process I discovered other gems too. Thanks for sharing. Hopefully, I will soon finish analysis of several months’ worth of original material and contribute something back.
July 26, 2017 at 12:34 pm
Just come across this as a huge fan and user of the BBC micro. I found this fascinating and filled in some gaps where other articles etc. have failed.
I have recently got the retro bug so now trying to recoup my BBC stuff and reading much more about it now is possible because of the Internet.
August 25, 2017 at 10:33 pm
I stumbled across your blog from a comment on Hacker News which linked to your Infocom series. The whole site is absolutely fascinating and somewhat worryingly addictive; thanks very much for writing all this!
I think you have a typo (or are making a subtle joke!); isn’t it actually the Barbic*a*n Arts Centre? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbican_Centre
August 26, 2017 at 8:14 am
October 4, 2018 at 8:24 pm
typo: “He then draws a beautifully analogy”
Great article btw
October 8, 2018 at 12:49 pm
October 31, 2019 at 9:22 pm
Sorry to comment so very long after the fact, but I feel the need to clarify something.
The idea that the BBC is “the British government’s broadcasting service” borders on the offensive for many of us who fork over our licence fee every year partly so that the BBC can supposedly remain an independent, non-partisan public service broadcaster. As long as it is seen to be fulfilling its remit our government is supposed to have no right to interfere in any way with the way the BBC is run. (I think one way to show that the BBC manages to maintain its independence fairly well is that it has often been criticised by those on the right-wing of politics for being too left-leaning and by those on the left for exactly the opposite).
So I don’t think it can be argued that the BBC Micro was a case of “when government mixes with private enterprise”. I get that to anyone who hasn’t lived in the UK, the BBC probably seems a peculiar organisation, but it isn’t supposed to, in any way shape or form be an organ of government.
Sorry, I think that the blog’s fantastic and I hate that my first comment on it is one so pedantic (and didactic… and pompous), but I know I’m far from being the only Brit who feels strongly about maintaining the BBC’s independence and any suggestion that that is being/could be seriously compromised by party politics is anathema.
November 1, 2019 at 2:57 pm
Fair enough. Hopefully the edits I’ve made capture the reality better.
Some of the strictures the BBC labored under do seem like top-down government mandates. For example, there was once a requirement — I’m not sure whether it still exists — that a certain percentage of the music they played must be British, and, further, that a certain percentage of that music must be performed *live* by unionized musicians.
On the other hand, there’s probably an argument to be made that Britain’s long habit of punching above its weight in music has much to do with the above; not all heavy-handed government policy is necessarily bad policy. And one can certainly not claim that the BBC shows any particular diffidence in questioning British politicians. I’ve long admired British journalists’ habit of pressing politicians relentlessly for an answer to uncomfortable questions, refusing to let them pivot away to their talking points. American journalists could stand to learn a thing or two from them…
November 1, 2019 at 6:46 pm
Interesting to hear that they had/have a similar policy to “CanCon” (Canadian content).
October 30, 2020 at 8:56 pm
It is interesting, but it’s worth pointing out, in deference to the OP of this thread, that “CanCon” applies to ALL broadcasters in Canada, regardless of whether they are Crown Corporations, or entirely “private.” I don’t know about the UK, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this applies there as well. In that case, it isn’t a matter of the BBC’s independence being compromised, but simply government regulation of broadcasting being a bit more intrusive than in the USA.
November 2, 2019 at 8:47 am
Thank you for making those changes, especially to such an old post.
You’re right, of course, I made the whole thing sound far too black and white, in trying not to overcomplicate things. There’s obviously ties between the BBC and Parliament, the instance you mentioned being a fairly minor restriction, and I don’t think that particular mandate applies any more, but it certainly wasn’t the only one. As young child in the 80s, for instance, my classmates and I would crowd, cross-legged on the floor, around the (small) TV in our classroom once or twice a week to watch an educational programme – stuff like that (i.e. quotas for a number of “BBC schools” programmes), I believe, came via agreements between the BBC and Parliament on what content a publicly funded broadcaster had to provide – I guess The Computer Programme may also have been considered educational programming under some quota, for that matter. The biggest government connection, is that because the BBC still gets a majority of its funds from the licence fee (and would have been (more or less) 100% public funded back in the 80s) every 10 years, or so, there is a renewal of the Royal Charter that acts as the BBC’s constitution and the Culture Ministry does have some say on what amendments go into that, though mostly that’s to ensure that public funds aren’t being misappropriated or mismanaged. These days programming is far less restricted but things like being made to publish their top-earning employees salaries is mandated.
The Brits are a nation that love to maintain the fiction that strict notions of fair-play can exist within a political system, so I think we regulate more than most when it comes to political content in the media. Politically, the beeb is, though, only regulated in the same way that all terrestrial TV is in the UK; political advertising is completely prohibited on all broadcast media (not that adverts are an issue on the BBC) but all terrestrial channels have to offer free party political broadcast slots – I think it’s at least one 5-minute slot every year – for every major party and at least two extra in the run up to a general election. So since we’ve just had an election announced, loud cries of “Oh god, where’s the remote, I’m not watching this crap”, or similar, will be once again be heard in homes up and down the country as people’s favourite programmes finish 5 minutes early in order that we can (quickly change channels so as not to) hear dull dull people drone on about their policies. (I’m deadly serious about just how dull it is, even for those with an interest in politics, the no advertising rule and our very restrictive rules about political campaign spending ensures it’s all dry as dust with no bells and whistles.)
Actually, when you mention the BBC’s lack of diffidence, it’s really not just them; most political journalism is similarly… er… robust in the UK, at least on the major terrestrial TV channels (and BBC radio). It’s often incredibly confrontational but at least there’s little sycophancy and politicians don’t, too often, get away with presenting lies as facts. I think it generally leaves us with little to no respect or trust for most of our politicians, but respect and trust are supposed to be earned, after all. One day a politician might work out how to do that – I’ll be over here, not holding my breath.
Okay, sorry, I’ve waffled on far too much again. I guess I can sum up what I wanted to say about the beeb by saying that while the BBC is definitely part of “The British Establishment” (with all that implies) it’s very consciously not a part of “The Political Establishment”. Thanks again for correcting that in your post.
November 2, 2019 at 4:15 pm
A few years ago, I would have said that, while American politics is much more entertaining than British — there are members of my family who rush home to watch cable news the way other people do their favorite drama series or reality show — the British version perhaps serves its country better. But given that neither country’s government has exactly been a model of good civics of late, I’m not sure I can make that argument any more…
April 18, 2020 at 4:23 pm
The comment from Richard Russell above should be given some attention. Richard was an engineer at the BBC and involved in drawing up the spec for the BBC Micro and possibly the bid evaluation process itself. He designed micros used internally by BBC’s engineering group, and has developed and maintained numerous ports of BBC BASIC to the present day.
If Richard says that the result of Acorn winning the bid was not due to the familiar Curry and Sinclair “angry letters” story, but rather down to the response to an RFP, I’d be very much inclined to believe him and research further.
May 24, 2020 at 11:05 am
The BBC Micro Model B was my introduction to computing. My parents bought one second hand, when they had already been out for a few years. So I was never at the cutting edge, but having said that my dilapidated and underfunded high school was still using them in the late 90s.
As suggested here, the big advantage of the BBC Micro was its solid reliability. Compared with Spectrums and Amigas, which would overheat and die just as the game you were playing was getting good, the BBC always worked and few problems could not be solved by pressing CTRL + BREAK.
Looking up now I see there was a large number of adventure games for the BBC, many of them edutainment, though I only ever had access to a few of them, specifically:
The Lost Frog
Merlin’s Castle (its more challenging sequel)
Stig of the Dump
L: A Mathemagical Adventure (never completed)
Lord of the Rings Game One (sadly the disk overwrote itself when I tried to save)
Granny’s Garden (infamously nightmare-inducing)
In fact, now that they’re all online I might try a few again…
August 15, 2020 at 4:12 pm
some many other -> so many other
sponsered -> sponsored
crystalizes -> crystallizes
August 17, 2020 at 10:04 am
March 8, 2021 at 9:00 pm
That crack about American and European cultural values ignores a host of issues not least of which is the scale of infrastructure. Just saying “figure it out yourself” at the end of the paragraph isn’t a good excuse to flatter a prejudice and invite jumping to conclusions.