Athletic, daring, loyal and a born rule-breaker, teenage superspy Alex Rider is a hero to a generation of young readers.
But he’s also just a schoolboy, and that’s what makes him such an irresistible and unique special agent – every young reader can imagine themselves in Alex’s place.
And soon every viewer will be able to when an all-action, eight-part TV series launches on Amazon Prime next month.
Fans of the 13-book series, written by Midsomer Murders screenwriter Anthony Horowitz, will know that Alex is recruited by a shadowy branch of the British security services to tackle kingpins of organised crime and megalomaniacs intent on destroying the world.
And it’s his boyish enthusiasm, as much as his bravery and brains, that wins the day.
Alex (Otto Farrant) in action alongside SAS soldier Wolf (Howard Charles) in teenage superspy series Alex Rider
For Anthony, finding an actor to play Alex was almost impossible. He had to be blond and good-looking, of course, but he needed a vulnerability too – Alex is an orphan who lives with his Uncle Ian and their female housekeeper Jack Starbright after his parents were killed in a plane crash.
‘Casting was a long process,’ says Anthony. ‘More than 600 young actors were seen for the role.
‘Not all of them were from drama schools by any means. One who got through to the last four had never performed in anything bigger than a school play.
‘Finally, it all came down to a day when we had six candidates for Alex, six for his best friend Tom, and six for his housekeeper Jack.
‘They were all terrific – but it was all about the chemistry when the right three came together. I’ll never forget the moment… everyone in the room looked at each other, thinking, ‘We’ve got them!’
Step forward Otto Farrant in the role of Alex. He’s already known to BBC1 viewers from the drama Mrs Wilson, in which he played Nigel, the son of actress Ruth Wilson in a true tale about her own grandmother.
Alex Rider is written by Midsomer Murders screenwriter Anthony Horowitz, pictured
Though Otto is 20, he looks no more than 16 (Alex is 14 in the books). Brenock O’Connor, also 20 and best known as Olly in Game Of Thrones, is cast as Tom, while Ronke Adekoluejo will appear as Jack.
The relationship between the two boys was crucial, because Tom takes a much bigger role on TV than in the books.
‘Tom and Alex really are friends, we see that right away – and the two actors have struck up a genuine friendship, too,’ says Anthony. ‘That glows through in every scene.
‘On screen, Alex’s school is totally believable. That was important, because I knew he had to go to a state school, not public school like me.
‘I made a conscious decision he’d be very different from me. So the script had to show Alex as a pupil before he was a spy, and that meant his school had to be realistic, but still exciting.’
Alex has been seen on screen before, of course, in the 2006 film adaptation of the first book Stormbreaker, with Alex Pettyfer in the lead role.
But the movie failed to kickstart a franchise after only getting a limited cinema release in the US.
The new series has been adapted from the second novel Point Blanc. ‘The TV series is closer to the spirit of the books,’ says Anthony.
‘I’d love to have seen more movies, but these days a successful TV series is seen by more people in more countries than all but the biggest cinema blockbuster. I’m glad to be doing this now television has come of age.’
Alex has been seen on screen before, of course, in the 2006 film adaptation of the first book Stormbreaker, with Alex Pettyfer in the lead role (pictured)
The high production values mean the action on screen can at last match what he sees in his imagination.
High-speed chases on TV used to mean ‘a car knocking over a dustbin’, says Anthony, but all that has changed. ‘A glossy, expensive look is de rigueur for platforms such as Amazon.’
Otto found this out during a snowboard sequence in the Alps – with Alex escaping from Point Blanc, a finishing school for the psychotic children of billionaires.
WEINSTEIN IS MY ONE REGRET
Anthony Horowitz talks at 100mph, but the rate speeds up if you mention Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, the former head of Miramax who is now serving a 23-year prison sentence for rape and sexual assault.
‘If I could go back and change one thing, I would have Harvey drop out as a producer on the Alex Rider movie Stormbreaker in 2006.
In fact, I encountered him twice in my life, the first time on a film I wrote called The Gathering, and both times he was a malign influence, a really unpleasant man.
‘Weinstein’s modus operandi was to make promises about distribution and publicity that he would break.
‘In this way he wielded enormous power without having to invest a lot of money.
‘He knew that if he broke a contract, it would take you five years to sue him, and by the time it came to court the costs would have bankrupted you.
‘I don’t mean that his business misdemeanours were in any way as serious as what he did to so many women, but I won’t pretend I was sorry to see him jailed.
‘He was a force for bad in everything he touched. If there’s one thing I regret, it is meeting Harvey Weinstein… twice.’
‘He’s a very athletic actor and was annoyed not to be able to do all his own stunts,’ says Anthony.
‘But in the final episode there’s so much action and fighting he was wiped out. I’ve never seen an actor so close to exhaustion – he really threw himself into it.’
The young cast is balanced by top British talent including another Game Of Thrones star, Stephen Dillane, as the menacing head of a spy unit known as The Department, and Vicky McClure as his deputy Mrs Jones (‘I’ve always been a fan of Line Of Duty,’ says Anthony, ‘so I was overjoyed when she accepted the part’).
Broadchurch’s Andrew Buchan is Alex’s mysterious Uncle Ian, while Howard Charles (Liar) plays SAS unit leader Wolf.
For Anthony, seeing his characters made real by such top stars is humbling. ‘I was blown away – just ‘Wow!’ I was amazed they managed to capture the essence of the books while making it appeal to a more adult audience.’
That is crucial, he says, because his original readers are now two decades older. ‘The challenge was to embrace older viewers without disenfranchising the younger ones.
‘That means keeping the swearing to a minimum, for instance, just as I do in the books. And Alex doesn’t carry a gun – that’s important to me.’
Anthony has never hidden his loathing for his own schooldays, though he says regular visits to talk at schools have been one of the favourite parts of his job. ‘I am not schoolphobic!
‘But I went to a hideous prep school, very unpleasant and damaging. And I did come from a slightly strange family background.’
That background was wealthy but rackety. His father died in the late 70s, leaving a stack of debts and a fortune in a numbered Swiss bank account.
Neither the number nor the name of the bank could be found, and the family had to sell practically everything they owned.
Anthony, then 22, hurled himself into writing and his first children’s novel was published a couple of years later in 1979.
Since then there’s been a stream of books and TV shows, most notably the Second World War crime series Foyle’s War.
Vicky McClure has been cast as his deputy Mrs Jones. ‘I’ve always been a fan of Line Of Duty,’ says Anthony, ‘so I was overjoyed when she accepted the part’
He’s also been appointed as successor to both Ian Fleming and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, writing novels featuring James Bond (Trigger Mortis) and Sherlock Holmes (The House Of Silk).
But it is Alex Rider that marked the biggest turning point in his career when Stormbreaker was published in 2000.
Until that point, he says, many of his tales had elements of autobiography and even therapy.
‘I had issues as a kid, but I worked them all out in my earlier books. The day I started writing about Alex was the day I stopped writing about my own problems and hang-ups.’
The next big challenge is to decide on the follow-up if the show gets a second series, before Otto and Brenock become too old to play schoolboys.
‘The clock is ticking, though I talked to Otto via Zoom the other day and he looks five years younger – lockdown must be good for him.
‘We’re going to have to work out how to make an action serial while maintaining social distance.’
Meanwhile, Anthony’s in negotiations to write another Bond novel and working on a raft of new ideas.
‘For me, the secret of a writing career is to keep pushing myself to do things I haven’t done before… and not to be afraid of falling flat on my face.’
All eight episodes of Alex Rider will be available on Amazon Prime on 4 June (watch on TV, phone or tablet, see amazon.co.uk/piv).