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.
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 ….
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.
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).
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).