Anthony Horowitz’s teen super spy Alex Rider is coming to television in an eight-part series drawn from the writer’s hit novel series. DQ went back to school to visit the set.
In a hazy, smoke-filled school corridor, a blond-haired teenager is hurtling down a passageway. Shadows dance on the dimly lit walls as he charges along, his jacket lifting behind him, while a camera positioned on a moving platform captures him in full flight.
It’s not clear what he’s running from – or to – but the arrival on set of a group of ‘agents’ carrying guns suggest this isn’t your average school day. But then, since he was recruited by a shadowy government agency to work as a spy, no day has quite been the same in the life of Alex Rider.
Fifteen years after Anthony Horowitz’s literary character made the leap to the big screen in 2006’s Stormbreaker, Alex Rider will land on the small screen in an eight-part adventure of the same name produced by Eleventh Hour Films (EHF) and Sony Pictures Television (SPT).
Taking its lead from Horowitz’s second Rider novel, Point Blanc, the series sees the teenager learn that his recently deceased uncle, who unbeknown to him was a secret agent, had been surreptitiously training him his whole life to follow in his footsteps.
Then when clandestine MI6 offshoot The Department calls Alex up, the reluctant spy is sent undercover to the Point Blanc Academy, deep in the French Alps. Here he must uncover the sinister truth behind this exclusive boarding school, which is home to the troubled children of parents who run successful global businesses.
Otto Farrant stars as Rider, with Brenock O’Connor as his best friend Tom. At The Department, Stephen Dillane plays Alan Blunt, while Vicky McClure is his second-in-command, Mrs Jones, and Ace Bhatti is John Crawley.
Unusually, the series has been financed and produced without a commissioning broadcaster, with distributor SPT now shopping the coming-of-age drama worldwide for a 2020 broadcast. Horowitz previously partnered with EHF – where his wife, Jill Green, is CEO – on crime dramas Foyle’s War and New Blood, and exec producer Eve Gutierrez says she had been tracking the availability of his Alex Rider novels for some time.
“The world has changed so much since Stormbreaker that we realised there is now this huge TV landscape opening up and a desire for things that are more ambitious,” Gutierrez explains on the school set where Alex and Tom both attend lessons.
“That coincided with the rights situation clarifying itself and us being able to then start conversations more seriously with Anthony about what we might do with it and how it might evolve for the screen.”
As well as admiring the books’ story of an ordinary person becoming a hero, Gutierrez noted the popularity of series such as Stranger Things, in which children and teenagers are forced into adult situations, and saw an opportunity to bring the young spy to TV.
Whereas the books are predominantly aimed at a young-adult audience, however, writer Guy Burt has endeavoured to broaden Alex Rider’s appeal to viewers beyond that demographic. To emphasise the point that this isn’t a kids’ series, Austrian director Andreas Prochaska (Das Boot) was brought in to lead the show’s visual style alongside second-block director Christopher Smith.
“The books are written very much from Alex’s point of view, while the other characters are very peripheral in his world,” Gutierrez notes.
“So we have opened up all the other characters that exist in his world, particularly the characters who work at The Department, played by Vicky and Stephen, and also Jack, the girl who shares Alex and his uncle’s home and was a nanny when she originally joined them. She’s more a housekeeper to them now and provides a 20-something point of view of the world.”
The intensive six-month shoot began in March 2019 on location in the Romanian mountains, which doubled for the French Alps and the location of the Point Blanc academy.
The site was so remote that cast and crew had to use skidoos to reach the set, while the first few weeks of shooting involved several action-packed stunts, including a sequence from the book where Alex snowboards down the mountain on an ironing board.
“I was seriously intimidated by the prospect of bringing this sequence to life in Romania, a country I’d never shot in before,” admits series producer Matt Chaplin. “This iconic sequence was first up in the entire shoot, the first thing Otto had to do.
“We very quickly identified Romania as the place to do it. They have a film-friendly infrastructure, the right climate and topography, and had the right location to use as the basis for Point Blanc, which we are enhancing with effects.
“Then we set about figuring out how we would get 100 people up to the top of the mountain, shoot safely and then get them down again. The Romanian people we were working with were just brilliant. I’d go back there in a heartbeat.”
Filming then resumed in London for five months, in locations including Bermondsey, Crouch End, the South Bank and the Shard. Hornsey Town Hall was used for interiors of Point Blanc.
To find the right actor to play Alex, the production team embarked on an extensive search across the UK, scouring schools, drama groups and theatre schools. All the leading candidates were seen at least twice by the casting team, with the role open to candidates from anywhere and of any ethnicity. “We even had a girl turn up to the open casting demanding to know why Alex Rider couldn’t be a girl,” says Chaplin. “It’s a valid question.”
Eventually, Farrant (Mrs Wilson, The White Queen) was selected for the role, with the producers convinced he could convey the emotional depth required to take Alex from an ordinary boy to an extraordinary hero across the series.
Speaking during a break in production, Farrant describes a vigorous week filming stunts at the West London school location for the climactic eighth episode. A demanding training regime before shooting started, incorporating running, Tae Kwon-do and Israeli martial art Krav Maga, has kept him in good stead for the gruelling schedule.
“It’s been a real test of endurance,” Farrant admits. “It’s a big job; it’s not something I’ve done before so it’s been really useful to take that [training] experience and put that into the work. I hope that reflects on screen.”
Farrant puts Alex’s literary popularity down to his relatability. “He’s a normal kid – he goes to parties, he has trouble with girls. He’s just a typical teenager,” he says.
“Then you throw in this world of espionage he has to navigate and he’s out of his depth. He really has to dig deep to essentially save the world. That is such a cool and epic story. I don’t think we’re telling a story of someone who has it easy, we’re telling a story of someone who really has to fight to save himself and save his friends.”
Part of Farrant’s task has been the aforementioned emotional journey, as Alex confronts the loss of his uncle, as well as lying to his friends and seeing his two worlds collide. “So you do see the struggle he goes through as a kid, becoming a man throughout all this turmoil,” he continues.
“He has to dig deep to find out who he is and how he fits into this world and the world of spies. He has to readjust throughout the series. That’s why it’s interesting to watch.”
British Olympic snowboarder Billy Morgan doubled for Farrant in some of the iron-boarding scenes, though the actor says he has tried to do as many stunts as the production team would let him. However, insurance practicalities prevented him from later joining Morgan on the slopes.
“I’m happy to do them and I love doing them. It’s a welcome relief from some of the more intense emotional sides of the character,” Farrant explains. “It’s actually quite cathartic doing those stunts. Mostly, I’ve done my own stunts bar some big hits and the snowboarding, because there’s some big hits in the snowboarding. Those guys were insane!”
Meanwhile, Alex’s best friend Tom has been given a beefed-up role in comparison to the books, where he doesn’t feature until further down the line. “There wasn’t a great deal on the page, so one of Guy’s fantastic contributions to this is that Tom is essentially his character,” says Gutierrez. “The relationship between Tom and Alex is one of my favourite things in the show.”
Tom is one of the few people to know about Alex’s double life, providing someone to whom the title character can reveal his worries about his covert activities.
“He’s definitely there to support Alex going through whatever it is he’s going through,” says O’Connor, best known for playing Olly in Game of Thrones. “From a human standpoint, Tom’s best mate loses an uncle very early on in the story. If your best mate at 16 loses his parental guardian, it’s a horrendous trauma, so that’s what Tom’s role is in the early part, to be the support to that, and then there happens to be some spy stuff along the way.”
It’s not all deep and meaningful, however. “For the first couple of episodes, all I do is pop up occasionally, say something sarcastic and then disappear again,” he jokes.
“It’s been such an easy ride for me. It gets messy – you don’t get to be friends with a super spy and get away with it. But I really love Tom, he’s exactly like I was at 16. He thinks he’s cool as hell and really isn’t. Tom’s very relatable to me; there’s very little acting required.”
The other person to learn about Alex’s secret spy games is Jack Starbright, played by Ronke Adekoluejo (Been So Long). Arriving in the UK from the US to study, she becomes a housekeeper in the Rider household, growing up alongside Alex.
In the beginning, Alex lies to Jack about his new role, struggling with the deception that comes with his secret life. She puts their changing relationship down to his growing pains as a teenager, until she learns there’s something bigger behind it.
“Obviously, discovering he’s a spy is a bit much to handle,” Adekoluejo says. “It doesn’t quite make sense. There was a child before and now there’s a spy. She definitely doesn’t approve. It’s a very dangerous profession!”
Keeping her role in the series quiet proved to be her own secret mission, particularly when she began borrowing the novels from her younger brother. But Adekoluejo says his excitement, and that of her younger, female cousins, means she is now even more thrilled to be a part of the show.
“We all have the desire to be the best version of ourselves and to save the day, whether it’s our own day, our family day or the world,” she says of the reasons for title character’s popularity. “So because Alex is so ordinary and very much a representation of us in our day-to-day lives, when you see him go on to become a super spy and save all these people, even though you might not admit it, you think you could do it too.”
With a dozen Alex Rider novels to draw from – the 13th will be published in 2020 – Gutierrez says there’s hope the series can run for several seasons. And as superhero films and series continue to dominate the screen, there’s something refreshing about watching Alex Rider save the world. “It’s so normal,” O’Connor adds.
“He’s just a normal kid in a normal school – and then he fights a supervillain!”
Have you met Mrs Jones?
Best known for starring roles in Shane Meadows’ gritty This is England franchise and Jed Mercurio’s hard-hitting police corruption series Line of Duty, Vicky McClure doesn’t often get to introduce younger members of her family to her work.
So when the opportunity to star in Alex Rider came along, she immediately sought the advice of her 11-year-old nephew.
“I wasn’t familiar with the books, just because I’m not the demographic to have read them. But I asked my nephew and he knew exactly what they were,” McClure tells DQ on set, her hair in rollers ahead of the day’s shoot. “He’s been on a school trip while I’m shooting this where the theme was Alex Rider, so he was a big reason for doing this. I don’t think he’s really ever been able to watch anything I’m in because the majority of what I do is fairly dark. And the success of the books and the writers and the involvement of everyone in it – it seemed really exciting.”
McClure plays Mrs Jones, second-in-command of The Department, the shady organisation that recruits Alex. The actor describes her character as “very headstrong and probably slightly frustrated with certain decisions that get made.” Her relationship with Alex, however, is less business and more personal, with Mrs Jones adopting a nurturing role towards the teen spy.
“She does have this concern for him,” McClure says. “If it was an adult they were putting in that position, I don’t think she’d feel quite the same, but there’s a history there as to why she’s concerned for Alex’s welfare. He’s a child and he’s being put into situations and scenarios that are really dangerous, and part of the reason he’s in those positions is because of her part in The Department. There’s that element of responsibility.”
McClure says she always likes to push her characters’ hairstyles and costumes to the extreme, hence the rollers, so that she can change her appearance between series while remaining believable.
“[Line of Duty’s] Kate Fleming has got quite a distinct look, Lol [in This is England] has quite a distinct look, and it was the same for my character in [fact-based single drama] Mother’s Day,” she explains. “All these different roles I’ve done all have quite distinctive looks, so I’m always up for making sure there’s something to play with. Mrs Jones is very suited so I’m in predominantly in suits, which is fine by me.”
But why does she think Anthony Horowitz’s young hero appeals to so many readers, particularly youngsters? McClure points to the chance to escape reality within the pages of the novels, which also offer adventure, excitement and some humour.
“The scripts and the writing are brilliant – it’s a page-turner – and you could see there’s something we can all play with,” she says. “It doesn’t have to have blood and guts everywhere to make it exciting. It can still be exciting without those elements in it, so it’s quite safe but, in the same breath, there is violence, there are fights. There’s a lot at stake.”