Back in April 2009, I was approached by a researcher from Darlow Smithson about the possibility of the Centre for Computing History, for whom I work, of possibly supplying vintage computers and related tech for use in a one-off TV drama documenting the struggle between two companies to dominate the home computer market in the early eighties.
Those two companies were Acorn Computers and Sinclair Research. I couldn't believe my luck! The two companies closest to my heart were Acorn & Sinclair. My father bought me a Sinclair ZX81 in 1981 and from that point in time I would be forever hooked on computers. A few years later my mother bought me an Acorn BBC Micro and my really serious adventures in electronics and programming started...
As you might guess, the chance to be involved was one that I could not pass up. It was 28 years since I first started programming the ZX81 and the time was right to take a nostalgic trip to simpler yet more exciting times.
Early Conversations & Electric Dreams
Many phone calls and emails ensured in the early stages but then all went very quiet. The museum became involved in another production called Electric Dreams which took all of our resources and I worried that if Darlow Smithson called and gave us the green light, we simply wouldn't be able to respond.
Electric Dreams was a huge amount of work. After all, we had to supply enough computers and tech to kit-out a house throughout 3 decades of technological revolution. An entire van full of computers, gadgets, games and associated kit left here destined for the families house.Throughout all this time there was still no word about the film, known then as Syntax Era. I knew that both Electric Dreams and Syntax Era were to both flagship programmes to be shown as part the an IT season that the BBC had planned called "Electric Revolution". So I assumed that sadly Syntax Era just didn't get the go ahead ...
It wasn't until xxx that I had a call out of the blue from the Syntax Era production team saying that everything is organised and ready to go and that they would like the Art Department to visit the museum to take photographs of the potential props.
Now, if there is one thing that I have learned about my involvement with TV companies, it is that EVERYTHING is last minute and NOTHING is set in stone!
From this point on everything is a bit of a whirlwind ...
The Director, Saul Metzstein, Producer, Andrea Cornwell, Art Director, Chris Roope, and several others arrived at the museum and we talked through the whole project. We waxed lyrical about the glory days of the early eighties and how computers have come to dominate our lives. It was obvious to me that these people had a genuine heart felt interest in the subject matter and I was sure that the outcome would be nothing less than excellent. Saul in particular obviously shared the same spark for computers and I guessed that we were probably roughly the same age so sharing the same generational point of view.
A couple of cups of coffee later we took a tour round the museum and most importantly the stores where we have an untold amount of equipment just waiting to be documented and catalogued. It was like showing round a bunch of Japanese tourists - they must have photographed practically everything we had and from every angle!
Whilst talking to Chris Roope that day we discussed how much interest I had in this story and how they couldn't believe their luck that not only had they found a museum with everything they need, but they also found a person with a passion for the companies and products portrayed. Not only that but the museum is placed not far outside Cambridge where the two companies were based in the eighties. Everything just fell into place. It was during this conversation that Chris suggested "perhaps we should get you a cameo role in the film ... would you want to do that?" to which I think my reply was "Christ yeah!" which I think quite eloquently portrayed my approval! He couldn't promise anything but he thought it was worth looking into ...
You've Got the Part
Several days later I had a phone call from someone in production saying that Chris had suggested that I should play the role of David Johnson-Davies. Excuse me? I thought this would be a walk on part somewhere that required no acting skill and probably when edited would only reveal my left elbow anyway. You want me to play the part of someone? I think you have me mixed up with someone else I said. But no, apparently there were two people they were looking for - Nick Toop and David Johnson-Davies. Both of these are 'supporting artist' roles which means that you feature in many scenes but you're not required to actually say anything. Just look the part and react to other peoples dialogue.
Nick Toops' look was based on a picture of the Acorn team holding an Acorn Atom. In this picture Nick has the look of a mad scientist with big mad hair to match. Kinda like he'd received shock therapy moments before the picture was taken. David Johnson-Davies on the otherhand had short straight hair. Somehow a report had fed back to production that I had 'short straight seventies looking hair' and that I was right for the part of David Johnson Davies !! So I got the part !!
Diary for a Week at 'Acorn One'
Most of the footage of the internal Acorn scenes was shot at West Drayton military base. Whilst there I kept a basic diary of our antics ... read on ...
Okay so I got to RAF West Drayton and I told the guy on security that I was involved with the filming that was going on here today. He kindly directed me to the west building and I walked around talking to various people for 15 minutes helping move set around and generally getting involved. I asked where Tim was and no-one knew his name. I called his phone and said I was around and already in the thick of it. He sounded confused and after another phone call we worked out that I was actually walking around the new set for Spooks! The building I needed to be in was 300m further down!
So once in the right building, the work started. Unloaded the car with yet more screens and junk, and then got stuck into planning and organising the items needed.
Its been a fairly easy start. Only a couple of scenes that involved technical props and even they were just placements and nothing tricky.
I've had a message left on my phone by Elaine who does the PR for the museum. Apparently I've effectively announced the film online before the BBC has ... and they're not very happy about it. We've had to rip down our news article from the website and delete my comments from twitter!! Ooops. The damage is done though, other sites and blogs have picked up the info from our site and posted thier own stories. Sorry BBC, I was just a bit over enthusiastic and didn't think it through :-(
Had a good evening last night, had a beer and a kebab with Saul Metzstein, the director, whilst wandering around West Drayton looking for somewhere to sit! Not the glamorous kind of evening I expected these film director type have! Ended up on a bench outside the local library! Good conversation though. Got back to the hotel and spent a good couple of hours writing a dummy program for the spectrum so that they can get plenty of loading screen and sound. Arrived on-set at 6:15am to get things set-up ...
Just been through the costume department and then make-up! Sat next to Martin Freeman in make-up whilst they sorted out my hair. Sadly, it didn't take long to give me 70's looking hair - I don't think thats a good thing!
The rest of the day was too busy to be able write. Being infront of the camera AND then advising on the technical aspects between shots AND then helping set-up the computers during set re-dresses is leaving me no spare time at all. It's cool though ...
I'm much happier behind the camera - on the tech side of things. Infront of the camera I feel like a total dick head!
The other actors are all cool and are taking an inerest in the museum and asking lots of questions relating to thier characters and the early days of computers in general. The common question for the Sincair ZX80 was "but what could you actually do with it?"
On the one scene hat I wasn't in today I did take a look at the monitor screens. It looks bloody great! - There is an amazing transformation from what you see in RL on the set and what you see on the screen. It's being filmed in HD, yet the film crew do lots of things to soften the picture and take away the harsh detail of HD. Wierd, it's like adding the sound of pops, clicks and scratches to CD's to make them sound like vinyl ...
Finished the day again with a walk through West Drayton with Saul on a Kebab mission! - 2 day, 2 kebabs ... let's see if we can't make this common theme !!
Arrived on set early again. Far too keen!
Arranged the centre table for the Acorn Computers set. Laid out some Acorn Atoms and polystyrene packaging to be put in the prop boxes that had been carefully made by the art department. They open from the top but the original Atom boxes open from the end. Oh well, who's gonna write in a complain about that!
So in that scene I ended up walking backwards and forwards with a wad of Acorn Atom manuals ... for an hour !! Later progressed onto having pretend conversations with someone on the phone. Hopefully you'll be totally convinced? Perhaps you won't! Lets be honest, it was probably off camera anyway!!
Now, I thought having imaginary conversations with people was pretty silly, but later that afternoon I learned that PRETENDING to eat a chinese meal with a pair of long nose pliers is a whole lot more silly. We had to rehearse and block a scene where the Acorn gang were sitting around discussing business over a chinese meal, but since this was only a rehearsal we has to pretend to eat the food and not actually eat it until the camera was rolling. So the food brought out and we started shooting from every conceivable angle. 3 hours laters, the food was cold, yet we were still discussing and eating! - Hopefully the scene will look good though, it is quite funny.
So by the end of the day I was pretty knackered, but had to then take the prototype BBC micro back to the hotel to try and add some pretend wirewrap to the back of the board. Originally the board was only to be seen from the top, but a change of script now means they need to be able to see the wire wrap on the underside of the board! Arrghhh! I have no wire wrap and no tool with which to wrap it! What you'll see is my best effort with a bit of solid core copper wire and some blue sheath (after two bottles of Budweiser in a dimly lit hotel room). Sounds like an excuse? It is!
Okay, so now it's about 9pm and I'm off to sample some local cuisine .. Kebab maybe!
Couldn't be bothered to walk all the way down the high street last night to get food so I just got a Pot Noodle from the garage round the corner. Got on set and saw Saul at breakfast, had a quick chat and the subject of evening meals came up - seems he had the same idea! .. again.
It was a very busy day for technical props. Had to do a bit of on set programming to create a screen full of assembly code. The scene showing the underneath of the prototype board with its wire wrap was shot today too. I had to be on the phone, do some typing, work on an atom and tuck in to a kebab today!! Never actually got to eat the kebab though :-( It was cold by the time we'd finished anyway! I even taught 'Steve Furber' how to solder !!
There was a bit of excitment today. I had a BBC micro that sat under the desk fore the scene where the Acorn guys were gathered round the proton. The beeb created the screen output of the proton and I had a switch in the video output to give a dirty switch-on as the proton starts up after 'they cut the clock wire from the host'. Well a capacitor in that beeb decided to self destruct and emmit the usual acrid smoke. PANIC!!
It was a mad dash to rip the power supply out of one of the spare BBC computers and transplant it into this one. I couldn't just swap out the entire beeb as it was modified to load code from an MMC card. The pressure was on because any hold up in the filming schedule has cumulative knock on effects and basically costs money! Big money!
With another power supply half fitted, hanging out of the case, the beeb booted up with the reassuring two-tone beeb and we were back in action. The scene was shot and Gretjen (The 1st AD) was smiling again.
Gretjen keeps the whole thing running to schedule. She's excellent at her job, and a lovely lady. I guess that never being involved in making a film before, I was probably in Gretjens eyes, the weakest link, and a possible liability. But if that crossed her mind, she certainly never let on. I hope (so far) that I have done good!
Had some really interesting chats between takes with various people on set. Learnt a lot about the industry and the film making process. This particular film is being shot on an inconceivably low budget (less than £1.5 million) but I have to say that watching the live feed from the camera it looks fantastic. Really moody and atmospheric, I was amazed at the transformation. The cameraman (Hubert) is really top notch. There has been a minimal amount of lighting involved and he seems to make absolutely best use of the natural light available.
Woke up early this morning, about 4:30am, just couldn't get back to sleep so I turned the TV on. I was shocked to see that sadly Michael Jackson had died. The guy was only 50 :-(
It's the last day today. Have to pack up my stuff this morning before checking out and leaving for the set.
Might as well finish how I started - got on set really early with not a sole about. Tidied up a lot of stuff. There was some kind of order when this all started. Now its spread across three locations in absolutely no order whatsoever. I have little idea where anything is and since the smoking beeb incident, not even the machines are all in one piece.
Today we're shooting the computer fair scenes. I need a lot of machines up and running and the Acorn Atom will feature heavily proudly displaying its 3D graph on a green screen monitor.
I took a walk over to the disused military command centre where the computer fair was to be shot. It was really quite imposing and had a real menacing air about the place. There were consoles and abandoned server racks everywhere, and small posters telling personnel how to deal with bomb threats! There were red and blue arrows put up by the production team telling the crew how to navigate through the maze of corridors to get to the set. It was quite a shock to turn the last corner and be confronted by an authentic 1979 computer fair in every detail!! It was great.
So my job today was solely to set-up computers and associated items to make the fair look as authentic as possible. I wasn't on camera at all today, so I could dress in my usual clothes. This confused the actors a little bit! It seemed strange to them that David Johnson Davies was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and not the hideous 70's tank tops that they were used to! Whats more I had headset radio on to communicate with the rest of the production team which made it even more strange to them.
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