Alex Rider Season 1

Launched in 2000, the Alex Rider novels for Young Adults have been hugely successful – in fact creator Anthony Horowitz (who also invented Foyle’s War) was awarded an MBE in the recent New Years Honours List. The books are about a somewhat reluctant but very skilled teenage agent who works for a shadowy government department. There was a film version of the first novel Stormbringer about fifteen years ago but it didn’t do well enough at cinemas to warrant a follow up.  Now there’s a tv adaptation whose first season works the origin story into an adaptation of the second novel Point Blanc. It went down very well last year on Amazon and IMDB, a second has just been streamed with a third ten episode season due to be made this year and released in December. 

The thing with stories for so called young adults is that they can become dated very quickly and those people who enjoyed the Alex Rider books as teenagers are now in their thirties. Can these schoolboy spy stories engage the current teenagers and will a tv adaptation reach a wider audience? The answer in both cases seems to be Yes as a second season has just premiered while this first from last year was shown in its entirety on E4 one evening in December.

The style and pace of this story does work better as a filmed origin tale than Stormbringer did in any case, The fact that Stormbringer is also about a deadly virus means that had they gone with that it may not have been suitable to show though in 2019 they wouldn’t have known that. It suggests the series has luck on it’s side!  Point Blanc is slower and far less reliant on the idea of Alex being a “junior James Bond”. Instead it has the ominous air of a classy production though not without splashes of humour. It’s a series that probably works best if you watch it a week at a time though you may find, as I did, that is simply not possible. I’ve not read the original novel but this adaptation has a knack of placing enough pointers and cliffhangers for you to want to watch the next episode right away.

Alex Rider is a teenager who’s uncle Ian with whom he lives seems to have been covertly training him in all sorts of skills not required for real life When Ian dies mysteriously in a supposed car crash the boy discovers that his uncle had a secret life as an agent for the British authorities. We see in the opening few minutes how resourceful Alex is when he breaks into his school to retrieve a confiscated phone so when he manages to locate a secret government headquarters the secret service begin to see the possibilities. When clues towards Ian’s murder lead to a remote school in the Alps, Alex is recruited -not entirely willingly- to go undercover.

While the Stormbringer movie covered some of this ground it did so as part of a lively action feature. For the smaller screen the approach is different. We’re taken into a murky world of mistrust courtesy of largely dimly lit sets and various characters who may appear to look after people’s welfare but who can be ruthless. There is only a small dividing line between the heroes and villains here- espionage is a dirty game. There are no concessions to the juvenile audience which the makers of the film specifically aimed at. Later episodes carry a warning of unsuitability for a younger audience. There is a more than a hint of recent tv hits about the glacial pacing, slow camera work and inscrutable characters who populate this story but as a way of showing the odds Alex is up against it works extremely well.

Given that the whole idea of MI6 recruiting a teenager not just to spy for them but to go undercover in a remote location is ridiculous you can park that thought at the gate and revel in what unfolds. For this version Alex Rider has been stretched out – the character seems older than he was in the books, the scenario less concerned with gadgets and Bondian stuff and a real shiver of tension runs through it. The villains are underplayed- nobody sits in a gold suit stroking a cat here! There’s music that no Bond film would entertain, all moody electronic pulses as the cameras glide around, rarely still, in the expansive Point Blanc location which is actually in Romania but certainly looks like the Alps. The mood is further heightened by the murkiness of the settings- the department’s staff are seemingly forced to work in the half shadow of old fashioned strip lights while Point Blanc is housed in what looks like a poorly lit power station. Both are therefore dripping with doomy portent even before anything happens. The direction is terrific, the cinematography as artful as you like.

There are really two narratives going on one following Alex and the other cutting back to the Department as the MI6 people are called. The exchanges between agents and government officials are terse and measured as if everyone is holding secrets and there is palpable tension that keeps you watching. Given that nobody really knows how such organisations operate the production has a dramatic licence it uses effectively though occasionally this can seem unintentionally literal for example just because their work is covert do Department operatives really need to work in an artfully lit but semi dark office? Yet it works tremendously well.

It takes a while to get to Point Blanc with the first episode setting the scene and then Alex discovering the Department who put him to the test with some very harsh treatment. We see examples of just how powerful the government agency is when Jack is threatened with deportation to sway the teenager’s hand in helping them. Later he is kidnapped and tortured only for it to be revealed this is his `training`. I suppose real agents are amused that this sort of behaviour is regularly shown on tv and I found it less than convincing that it might happen even if it gives lead actor Otto Farrant a platform for some strong reactions. He really is impressive in this awkward role in which he is required to keep the viewer’s sympathies even if the character, as written, is by no means a regular teenager. Farrant is one of those actors who can convey hidden feelings with just a slight change of expression and he really suits this role. There’s also an episode spent at Sir David Friend’s house, this being the least essential part really with an unlikely scene in which the posh local kids and Sir David’s daughter take pot shots at Alex with shooting rifles. Its only once he is vetted in a tense scene that he heads into the Alps.

In fact the whole show is very well cast with Stephen Dillane as a difficult to read head of department Alan Blunt whose over the glasses glare and calm demeanour adds much to the scenes set there. Vicky McClure of course has form with this sort of material as a regular on Line of Duty so she’s in her element as Alex’s (slightly) more empathic handler given the enigmatic name of Mrs Jones. As Tom Brenick O’Connor provides a welcome bit of fun to what might otherwise be an overly serious production. As housekeeper Jack Starbright (the name reminds me of some intergalactic warrior!) Ronke Adekoluejo is wry and knowing, a great character.  Though often expositional roles both  Ace Bhatti and Nyesha Hatendi manage to add some character to their Department jobs. On the baddies side we have a somewhat disturbingly calm Thomas Levin as an assassin and a great turn from Ana Ularu as Point Blanc’s nasty Eva who is not averse to slapping pupils and later even hitting Alex with a fire extinguisher.

I suppose the most glaring anomaly is how the super clever antagonists don’t know that Sir David Friend, whose wayward son Alex poses as, only has a daughter – it takes them ages to even check but surely if this was a well known family it would be common knowledge? Also it does seem unconventional for a kid to be trained in sundry martial arts and climbing skills by an uncle who supposedly works in a bank. Alex is shown as being intuitive when on his mission yet didn’t he ever harbour a suspicion in the past that his uncle was doing more than approving mortgages? It seems a tad unlikely. Even so the production sells it well enough for us to buy in and thankfully doesn’t try too long to keep up the even less likely idea neither housekeeper Jack nor best friend Tom would soon be enlightened as to what is going on. There is no silly Superman / Clark Kent identity nonsense here!

The school’s ultimate intention does have a more Bondian ring to it yet presented as something rather more horrific than 007 would. Its devisor Doctor Greif quotes Hitler in classes and dreams of a new world order helped by the clones he is creating of the offspring of well placed people who themselves will die in accidents. The ruthlessness of the villains is a recurring feature that makes a strong change from the genre’s usual “I’ll give you one last chance” cop outs. This really does create a sense that anyone could be in danger.

There is less action than you might expect though the pace speeds up in later episodes and there are some very well assembled sequences including an assault on the school that brings the viewer with it, the cameras very close to the action. Alex’s escape from the school on an ironing board is another very well shot sequence. Yet the focus is often more on the suspicion and observation, the way characters are playing each other and some sudden moments of violence.

It wraps up across two episodes really with one of those great double endings where you think it’s all wrapped up but there’s more to come in the form of a clone of Alex. We’ll skip over how comparatively easily this copy manages to get back to England and concentrate on a well presented confrontation between real and fake Alex that provides an edge of seat finale and shows off Otto Farrant’s abilities. Normally when actors play an evil version of themselves the differences are minimal but he really defines them.


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