Those magnificent boys ...

12th December 1997 at 00:00
Aquila BBC1, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 5.10-5.35pm, December 2-23

Winter seems to be the season for magic on the BBC. On Sundays, E Nesbit's Phoenix and the Carpet are to be found flitting about the Edwardian era with four attendant mischievous children. Now on Tuesdays and Thursdays, two latterday lads from Andrew Norriss's novel Aquila are taking to the skies in a flying machine, miraculously discovered under a Roman skeleton in a cave.

Aquila or eagle, as an inscription in the cave named it, is not exactly magic, it's a "space-ship from the star Deneb", but same difference. Tom and Geoff, who unearth it, are as modern as the gadgets in their mothers' kitchens, but as ageless in their sense of fun as Nesbit's quartet.

While they are busy digging a hole and falling into it, their mothers are sitting sipping tea in their holiday cottage, working out how to deal with a dead chicken donated by the local farmer and talking about relationships.While the police and the local archaeology unit are busy digging up the Roman remains in the cave, the boys are chortling over the flying machine, which they have squirrelled away in a barn.

Back home, as mothers (sharply observed by Sallyanne Law and Vivian Parry) chat, phone, shop and generally worry, the boys discover more of Aquila's wonderful powers: it can not only fly up and down, over and round; it can also become invisible, send out laser and paralysing rays and talk to its pilots. So, whose life would you rather have?

Even when they get into trouble with the school bully, the boys manage their adventures with aplomb. Tom, the thoughtful one with the giggly, single mother, and Geoff, the impulsive one with the concerned parents into pop psychology, make a good team.

When Aquila makes Tom's hand go green and scaly (ugh!), conferring powers of invincibility (wow!), Geoff shares his concern and delight. When the old lady next door (Hilary Mason) suspects that they are aliens, the boys hatch a cunning plot to discredit her - but they take time to straighten her TV aerial, too.

Tom and Geoff (beautifully played by Ben Brooks and Craig Vye) are normal - though middle class (rather like E Nesbit's children). They go to a school with uniforms, playing fields and

bike sheds, live in suburban streets next to nosy neighbours, enjoy football and practical jokes and have a healthy distrust of adults. None the less, they have tender hearts.

Norriss has a lot of fun with reversing stereotypes: the thuggish older brother who talks about counselling, the headteacher who worries about upsetting the pupils. It is refreshing to see boys on television wrestling with their consciences, especially when the consciences win and the boys save elderly Mrs Murray from being carted off to the mental hospital.

Lots here to delight many age groups. The special effects and the exhilarating sense of flying are very fine. Aquila in its invisible state generates lots of slapstick humour for younger children, from the window cleaner who bangs his ladder on it, to the footballer who heads it instead of the ball.

The web of relationships between the boys and their friends and families are instantly recognisable for 10 to 14-year-olds. Viewing adults will not fail to enjoy the wicked portraits of parents and teachers, so enmeshed in their own concerns that they do not see what is going on under their noses.And senior citizens will revel in the character of Mrs Murray, who has a fine old time with the boys next door.

As ever, a magical device has a liberating effect on all concerned. As Geoff remarks to Tom: "Wow! We could do anything!". And as Tom replies: "We could go farther afield!" Just what we all need as the evenings draw in, the cold bites deep and we huddle round the telly - Keats's "casements opening on faery lands forlorn". Crack open another carton of crumpets, mother.

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