The Demon Headmaster – Simply Media DVD Review

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Starting a new school is traumatic at the best of times, but Dinah Glass’ (Frances Amey) first day is worse than most. Most of her fellow pupils seem uncharacteristically docile whilst the Headmaster is a very strange man indeed ….

Created by Gillian Cross, the Demon Headmaster has featured in a series of (to date) seven novels published between 1982 and 2017. When Cross’ books were adapted for television in the mid nineties (there were three series in total) four of her novels were used. The six episodes of series one utilised the first two books – The Demon Headmaster (1982) and The Prime Minster’s Brain (1985) – each running for three instalments.

Dinah, an orphan, has arrived at her new foster home. Mrs Hunter (Tessa Peake-Jones) is warm and welcoming but her two young sons – Harvey (Thomas Szekeres) and Lloyd (Gunnar Cauthery) – are far less enthused. This isn’t because they don’t want a girl around the house, it’s more to do with the fact that they’re members of a small group (five in total) who have somehow managed to escape the Headmaster’s control and fear that Dinah will end up as a spy in their camp.

The central heroic protagonist of the series (subtly reinforced by the title sequence which depicts the other children on either side of the screen whilst Dinah – like the Headmaster – is placed in the centre of the frame) Dinah’s plight instantly captures the viewer’s attention, thanks to Frances Amey’s performance. As you might expect, the child cast are variable (some good, some not quite so) so it’s fortunate that the key role of Dinah went to a strong actor.

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There’s no doubt who commands the screen though. Terrence Hardiman looks to be having a whale of a time as the thoroughly evil Headmaster who isn’t content with just controlling one school. “The man who can keep order can rule the world”. Effortlessly menacing, it’s easy to understand how he managed to traumatise a generation of children ….

Dinah, an incredibly intelligent girl, looks to be ideal fodder for the Headmaster, but her strong will means that she manages to break free of his control after something of a struggle. Quite how Harvey, Lloyd and several of their friends (Ian, Mandy and Ingrid) have been able to resist is never made clear. Possibly the reverse is true with them – they simply weren’t intelligent enough?

There’s an interesting moment in the third episode of series one when we see the Headmaster commanding a group of brainwashed pupils to dispose of Dinah and the others. He tells them that what they can see in front of them are a number of straw dolls who are no longer needed and can be ripped apart. The overlay effect is a simple one, but it’s nevertheless a disturbing little scene.

Danny John-Jules has an entertaining guest appearance in these early episodes as Eddy Hair, an energetic performer who runs a television game show which is the first step on the Headmaster’s path to power. Although with its screaming children and oodles of gunk it seems like the last place he’d want to be ….

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After Dinah manages to scupper the Headmaster’s plans at the conclusion of the third episode, he disappears. The reason for this isn’t quite clear since Dinah and the other members of SPLAT were the only ones who knew about his plans for world domination.

The remainder of series one sees the Headmaster – shock horror – making a surprise return whilst Dinah finds herself in thrall to a highly addictive computer game, Octopus Dare. Since Dinah had already foiled one of his schemes, it seems a little odd to find her recruited for the next one – joining a group of other children with equally high computer skills in an attempt to tap into the Prime Minister’s computer (the first step in taking over the world). Although not as engaging as the first story, there are various satirical swipes – at the addictive qualities of computer games and the dangers of automation – which are nicely done.

The toy helicopter, which the Headmaster escapes in, is possibly not the most convincing effect ever though ….

After speeding away in his helicopter at the end of series one, we pick up next time with the Headmaster coming back down to earth at the Biogenetic Research Centre. Shortly afterwards Mr Hunter takes up a new job at the Centre – as their public relations officer – which means that Dinah, Harvey and Lloyd will soon be tangling once again with their arch nemesis.

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Having skipped the third novel (The Revenge of the Demon Headmaster) the adaptations continued with the fourth, The Demon Headmaster Strikes Again. Given that Dinah had now defeated him twice, clearly the Headmaster was a glutton for punishment (he, of course, was responsible for bringing “Little Miss Dinah Hunter” back within his grasp).

The setting – a sleepy village – suits the story down to the ground (other series, such as Doctor Who and The Avengers, also made fruitful use of this type of environment). Having previously controlled (virtually) an entire school, the Headmaster’s now setting his net a little wider as he starts to bring the whole village under his spell.

Some familiar television faces, such as Annette Badland, pop up whilst Katey Crawford Kastin makes a welcome return as Rose Carter. During the early episodes of series one she was the Headmaster’s most loyal prefect – times might have changed but her loyalty remains constant (at least to begin with).

This second run, with a single story spread across seven episodes, feels more substantial than the first series. It certainly boasts the Headmaster’s strangest plan yet – with the power of evolution at his fingertips, he creates a human/lizard hybrid. The human part is a clone of Dinah, meaning that our heroine is forced to come face to face with an implacable foe – Eve – who looks identical to her (apart from possessing one lizard hand and a very long tongue). That’s not something you see every day.

Although the Demon Headmaster was killed at the end of the second series, the attentive viewer will probably have realised by now that a minor inconvenience such as death wouldn’t be enough to stop his evil plans. And so in series three (adapted from The Demon Headmaster Takes Over) we discover that a clone of the Headmaster, created at the Biogenetic Research Centre, proves to be just as troublesome as the original ….

Nina Young, as Professor Claudia Rowe, is a strong addition to the regular cast as is Tony Osoba whilst Ed Bishop is amongst those making guest appearances. With the military called in to deal with the fallout at the Research Centre, there’s something of a Doctor Who/UNIT feel about the opening episode (indeed, at times The Demon Headmaster does have a rather late eighties Whoish feel).

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One of the themes of S3 – surveillance – feels just as topical today as it did back then. After Mr Smith (Osoba) is brought under the Headmaster’s control, he explains how the British government (whom he works for in a shadowy capacity) attempts to control and manipulate the population, both through the flow of information and through surveillance. For a children’s series, this is quite an adult theme.

The nascent internet is also a running thread as Hyperbrain – an artificial intelligence programme – proves to be vital to the Headmaster’s latest plan for world domination. The computer stuff may seem a little quaint today, but at the time no doubt it would have seemed cutting edge.

The Demon Headmaster might not have had a particularly large budget, but what it lacked in money it made up for in sheer imagination. Some of the effects don’t quite convince, but that’s not a problem – indeed, I love the fact that they weren’t afraid to think big.

All three series, nineteen episodes in total, are contained within this three disc set. Sadly there’s no special features (the 1997 CBBC Christmas Pantomime The Demon Headmaster Takes Over TV would have been an obvious thing to include). An interview with Terrance Hardiman would also have been nice, luckily there are a few scattered around the internet, such as this one.

Packed with plots which get ever more bonkers as the episodes click by, The Demon Headmaster is held together by the performances of Terrance Hardiman and Frances Amey. No matter how strange things get, both continue to play it completely straight – which helps to keep the show grounded in reality.

Given the paucity of science fiction/fantasy programmes on British television during the 1990’s, The Demon Headmaster is quite a noteworthy series. It stands up well today as good, pulpy fun and whilst this DVD will be a nostalgic treat for many, there’s no reason why the Demon Headmaster shouldn’t cast his spell over a new generation of children.

The Demon Headmaster is released by Simply Media on the 14th of May 2018, RRP £29.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

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Little Sir Nicholas – Simply Media DVD Review

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Following a terrible tragedy at sea, Sir Walter Tremaine, his wife and their four-year old son Nicholas are all feared lost. Six years later, Lady Tremaine (Rachel Gurney), still mourning the loss of her son and grandson, is now considering the question of inheritance (the Tremaine family are one of the wealthiest in the land).  To this end, she advertises for any relations of Edward John Tremaine to come forward.  The ambitious and grasping Joanna Tremaine (Bernice Stegers) is delighted when her young son Gerald (Jonathan Norris) is declared the nearest blood relative and is therefore chosen to inherit the family title, estates and fortune.

But no sooner have Gerald, his sister and his mother become accustomed to their new and privileged surroundings than the rug is pulled from under their feet as Little Sir Nicholas (Max Beazley) is discovered alive and well, living in obscurity in a French fishing village …..

Broadcast in six episodes on CBBC1 during January and February 1990, Little Sir Nicholas is an efficient adaptation of the novel by C.A. Jones, originally published in 1892.  It’s an all-film production, which is slightly surprising (it was still common for the cheaper alternative of videotape to be used at the time). But the filming adds a welcome extra gloss, so I’ve no complaints.

In the pre-credits sequence for episode one we witness the shipwreck which drowns Sir Walter and his wife. It’s impressively mounted, mixing model shots and a full-sized ship, which was presumably shot in the water tank at Ealing studios. An elaborate scene like this wouldn’t have come cheap, so it’s an early indication that Little Sir Nicholas has a very healthy budget.

A caption then tells us that events have moved on six years – we see Lady Tremaine speaking to Mr Apted about the possibilities of finding an heir. Rachel Gurney will, of course, always be best remembered for playing the refined Lady Marjorie Bellamy in Upstairs Downstairs.  Her television credits were rather scarce after leaving UpDown in 1973, and Little Sir Nicholas (her penultimate screen role prior to her death in 2001) was one of her most substantial roles post 1973.

Barry Jackson has a nice cameo as the kind-hearted shoemaker Mr Nolan, who points out the newspaper advertisement which leads to Gerald’s new-found fortune. It’s telling how both Gerald and his mother immediately dismiss him from their life as soon as they move upwards (neither seem inclined to settle their debt with him either). It’s left to Gerald’s kind-hearted sister, Margaret (Louisa Milwood-Haigh), to thank Mr Nolan for all he’s done for them and ensure he isn’t out of pocket. Margaret is the conscience of the family and stands as a sharp counterpoint to her more selfish mother and brother.

The second episode concerns itself with the twelve-year-old Sir Gerald adapting to his new life as a baronet in Cornwall. Gerald and his mother continue to act in a thoughtless manner (we can maybe excuse Gerald because of his age, but it takes a lot longer before we understand what motivates his mother). Mrs Tremaine is rude to Lady Tremaine and dismissive to the dignified family retainer Robinson (the always immaculate Jack Watson). Gerald and Margaret meet William Randall (Christopher Villiers), a friend of the family and a portrait painter (his painting of the four-year old Sir Nicholas hangs in the Tremaine’s hall). It’s rather hard to swallow that shortly after this meeting, Randall, on a painting trip to Britanny, identifies a young French lad as the missing Sir Nicholas.  But such a stunning coincidence has to be accepted in order to bring Nicholas back into the story.

In the third episode, Sir Nicholas returns to Cornwall to claim his inheritance, but finds the environment to be extremely unwelcoming. Although Randall has the best intentions in returning Nicholas to England, it’s a heart-breaking moment when he has to leave his adopted mother and sister behind. There’s a nice bit of banter between the maid Dulcie (Cathy Shipton) and Bootle (Philip Whitchurch) who’s come hot-foot with a telegram for Lady Tremaine with the news that Nicholas is alive. Since he decides to wait for a reply, he’s clearly read the telegram beforehand!  After she’s received the amazing news, Lady Tremaine doesn’t throw Gerald, Margaret and their mother onto the streets – instead she’s more than generous, settling substantial sums of money on all of them and insisting they continue to live in the big house with Nicholas. Needless to say, Mrs Tremaine isn’t satisfied with this ….

Episode four features the wonderful James Ellis as the old sea-dog Mr Penfold. He’s made an impressive toy boat which he intends to give to Nicholas. This irritates Gerald who wants the boat himself. It’s true that Gerald loves the sea whilst Nicholas fears it, but given that he watched his parents drown that’s quite understandable. Gerald calls him a coward, but luckily Margaret is on hand to show Nicholas unconditional love and understanding. The Christmas celebrations see Robinson entertain the household with stirring tales of exploits on the sea (another fine scene for Jack Watson).

Nicholas’ wretched life continues in the fifth episode as his pet pony Peterkin, one of his few friends, vanishes. Gerald, still smarting at the way Nicholas is always first in line, rides Peterkin away and hides him. And when Margaret leaves for boarding school, poor Nicholas feels even more isolated.

The sixth and final episode sees Mrs Tremaine’s hatred of Nicholas boil over. Nicholas and the now-reunited Peterkin have run away, although rather conventially Mrs Tremaine is able to easily track him down. But instead of taking him home, her scornful taunts drive him away again. Lady Tremaine is forced to accept that due to her mild disappointment with Nicholas, she was happy to leave him in the care of a woman who clearly despised him. Lady Tremaine and Mrs Tremaine face each other in a dramatic scene. Mrs Tremaine admits that she’s ill-treated Nicholas, but it was out of a fear that she’d have to return to London, penniless. “I am what poverty made me. I couldn’t be poor again.”

The story concludes in a dramatic fashion as Gerald and a local boy called Joe are stranded on a rock in the middle of the sea. Nicholas is forced to confront his fear of the sea as (rather unbelievably) he’s the only one who can row a boat out to save them. Mr Penfold rather succinctly sums it all up. “Well I’ll be jiggered.”

This may have been a children’s serial, but there’s no shortage of quality acting talent on display.  Any devotee of archive television will have no trouble in recognising the likes of Rachel Gurney, Christopher Villiers, Jack Watson, James Ellis, Barry Jackson and Noel Johnson.  Julian Fellowes doubles as an actor and co-adaptor, turning up as Mr Apted in three episodes. It’s true that some of the child actors – not just Jonathan Norris and Max Beazley but the minor players as well – are a little stilted at times, but that’s not uncommon with period dramas of this type. But the oldest of the juvenile actors, Louisa Milwood-Haigh, is very assured as the compassionate Margaret.

Little Sir Nicholas is an impressively mounted, well-acted serial which deals with universal themes such as greed, loneliness and childhood jealousies.  Unseen since a repeat run in 1992, this may be an obscure production, but it’s also an engaging, heart-warming and thoroughly rewarding one.

Little Sir Nicholas is released by Simply Media on the 10th of October 2016.  RRP £19.99.