Silicon Glen: From Ships to Microchips

BBC1 Scotland and iPlayer


THIS documentary about Scotland’s starring role in the IBM story began on a soaring note.

There were shots of a sun-dappled Greenock, shiny happy Scottish people in lab coats tending to whirring machines, and former employees, now long retired, reminiscing. “We thought we were film stars,” beamed one.

Then cut to a shuttered, abandoned site today. IBM no more, as The Proclaimers might have put it.

From cradle of manufacturing life to an industrial graveyard: between those two staging posts lies the story of Scotland’s recent economic history. It is a tale well worth telling, not least because many a lesson lies within, and Margaret Shankland’s slick, entertaining documentary was more than up to the job.

With narration from Michelle Gomez (Green Wing), Silicon Glen: From Ships to Microchips cantered through the early history of IBM and how it came to arrive in Greenock. Basically, an American exec became pals with a former Glasgow Uni engineer turned MP; the American told the Scotsman he was looking for a UK site for a new plant, and the rest was history. All very Local Hero.

The Americans had landed and soon made their mark. Any documentary stands or falls on the quality of its contributors and use of archive. Shankland lucked out with the writer Andrew O’Hagan and the journalist Alf Young, formerly of this parish.

Young did the economic analysis, O’Hagan supplied the lyricism (“Not since Brigadoon has there been a Scottish myth of place quite as potent as Silicon Glen.”) More impressive still were the former workers, or IBM-ers as they were called. They had been brought together in small groups, Nae Pasaran-style, to look back at their time at the plant.

Together, they brought the old place roaring back to life. We heard in fascinating detail what it was like to work for “Big Blue”. The new, trendy, American ways of working, including calling managers by their first names and wearing ID badges. All the training you wanted, foreign travel, a chance to swap jobs and stay with the firm your entire working life.

“IBM transformed whole family lives,” said Young. “It embraced the fact its workforce were important and were to be valued.”

The workers, or the ones shown here anyway, loved it. “God,” says one, “I sound like I’ve been brainwashed.”

The only time the film threw shade on IBM was when it picked up on its refusal to negotiate with unions.

There might have been more criticism, if only to balance things out, and there was undue haste at the end when it came to wrapping up the story. Could nothing more have been done to keep the plant going? What part did the politicians of the day play, or fail to play?

Delving into the politics of the story might have led to a drier film, though. Given the other material to hand you could hardly fault Shankland’s choices. I had not known about the connections between Stanley Kubrick and IBM, for instance. Kubrick, as we heard from a former assistant, was an early adopter of IBM computers. He bought one to do the accounts for The Shining. It cost £16,000 – a huge sum for the time.

People thought the director was mad, but the computer did such an impressive job Kubrick hired it out to other productions and the thing paid for itself.

The film also picked up on the connection between the power-crazed computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey and IBM (the name HAL is made up of the three letters that precede IBM).

Other pop culture references included the use of an early IBM machine in an episode of Mad Men. Sure enough, there was the exact clip of Peggy the young advertising executive, with the machine in the background. Details like that, which can take an age to root out and are only on screen for seconds, make such a difference in pepping up a film.

Ditto the interview with the secretary of Len Deighton, another early adopter. His novel, Bomber, was the first composed on a “word processor”.

The film closed as it began, on a rousing note. “It’s sad to see the shipyards go as well,” said one IBMer, “but you’ve got to move on.” Not before watching this, I would say.