Andrew Norriss tells Geraldine Brennan how a hypnotist led him to write a prizewinning children's novel
Andrew Norriss has been known to lie about his age, but only from the purest of motives. Having discovered children's television in his thirties, he once "lost" 20 years to be eligible for a Blue Peter badge.
He is now 50, but looks about 11 when talking about his many enthusiasms. Besides television (a former teacher, he is well into a second career as a screenwriter) there's comics. Aquila, his Whitbread Children's Book of the Year and children's television series, was inspired by the mini-planes on the back of the Swift, a companion comic to the Eagle which he read as a child. Norriss's Aquila (Latin for "eagle"), in his second novel for children, is an ancient Roman spacecraft discovered by two schoolboys on a geography field trip.
The book was written after the pilot Aquila script and before the final BBC series, broadcast late last year. It shares the pace and adventure value of the TV version, but Norriss has given the text extra layers of meaning. Its subtle handling of the mechanics of learning and of the relationship between Geoff and Tom, two underachievers who have effectively been written off by their teachers, make it much more than a book of the film.
"It's much more finely wrought than that," said author Anne Fine, chairman of the Whitbread children's judging panel. "It can be read on all sorts of levels and it's extremely well observed - full of telling asides."
"A wonderful, understated story . . . the very model of what a modern children's novel should be," wrote Tony Bradman in the Daily Telegraph (November 29). "A wry, delightful book ... warm, funny and thoroughly uplifting," said the Scotsman alongside the Whitbread judges' preview of the shortlist.
Norriss shows his sitcom roots in the book's short sharp scenes and the delightful cameo roles of the archaeologist who finds the Romans may have discovered America, the baffled birdwatcher who mistakes Aquila for a UFO and the hapless Mrs Murphy, who tangles with the craft's killer lasers and puts it down to the side-effects of her medication. But his main source of fun is the collective amazement of the well-meaning but distracted teachers as Geoff and Tom, apparent no-hopers, swot up on Latin, flight techniques and map reading.
Tom is a quiet, over-cautious child whose agoraphobic mother sends him to school with a first aid kit. His informed passion for geology is unnoticed because he is perceived as Geoff's silent partner. Geoff has more confidence and a quicker intelligence which means he can hide his dyslexia.
Norriss never uses the D-word, although the boys' difficulties and breakthroughs are essential to the plot. "I had to force myself to take out explanation," he said. "It's all there, but it doesn't hit you over the head."
An example of his light but profound treatment of learning appears in the funny, touching scene in which the boys try to communicate with Aquila in Latin armed only with the questions in an old textbook ("Why is the master attacking the girls?" and so on.) Once they learn how to ask the machine to speak English, everything is plain sailing.
Of course, the truth behind the boys' metamorphosis proves too much for the adults. The fierce deputy head finds Tom's meticulous Aquila logbook, but assumes that it's a creative piece of unsolicited coursework. But as a result Geoff and Tom get the sort of teaching they need (no mean feat in a school where an enthusiastic Latin specialist is teaching ironing).
Norriss intends the book to be teacher friendly. "I am full of admiration for teachers who can get it right. Unless they are very worn out or embittered, they are invariably willing to give their all." When describing his own 10 years teaching history at a Winchester sixth-form college, he could be auditioning for a Teacher Training Agency advertisement. "I knew that many of my students were cleverer than me and that I was helping them go on to better things than I could do. It was a lovely, lovely feeling."
The decision to shift to screenwriting - "the first conscious career move I ever made" - came when he was in fact semi-conscious, being hypnotised to give up smoking in the early 1980s. "I had drifted into teaching, but the decision to write was very clear. Smoking had been replacing writing in my life. I wrote for an hour a day in the attic and at the end of a year I was writing Chance in a Million (his first television series, which he wrote with Richard Fegan). And I haven't started smoking again."
He left teaching in 1984 and wrote a series of screenplays including The Brittas Empire, a sitcom set in a sports centre. His first novel for children was Matt's Million, published in 1995, about the dilemmas faced by a schoolboy who becomes rich overnight. "I wrote it for one of my sons, who at the time thought that money solved everything."
Overnight wealth or fame is unlikely to change his life much although he now has the Pounds 10,000 Whitbread cash to play with. After a nomadic life as the son of a Navy chaplain - "we didn't have a television," he remembers wistfully - he hopes never to move house again. He lives with his wife Jane, a primary teacher, and two sons in a Hampshire village where he knows everyone.
"Matt's Million is about the importance of deciding what you really want to do and Aquila is about the importance of realising that once you've decided, you can do anything. In a way I wrote them both for myself."
Andrew Norris's 'Aquila' is published by Puffin, Pounds 3.99