The Demon Headmaster

With a new CBBC series continuing to introduce a whole new generation to Britain’s greatest authoritarian creep (he trumps Jacob Rees-Mogg by having the decency to be fictional), now feels as good a time as any to look back over one of its greatest ever programmes, The Demon Headmaster, series by series. Don’t look into his eyes…

Series 1 (adapted from The Demon Headmaster and The Prime Minister’s Brain)

The original, but not for me. Coming to the show late, I watched the first series as a repeat. Maybe this is why I think of it now (at least the first half) as the weakest story. The Demon Headmaster’s schemes grow more extravagant as time goes on, and his day job comes across in retrospect as rather small fry. Behold this sinister man, using his hypnotic powers to… teach children about the Solar System. When he tries to hypnotise the nation through a garish, gungy game show, the main threat seems to be that the country will wake up knowing more about ants.

The second three episodes give us our first steps into full-on supervillain territory, with the Headmaster brainwashing children to help him get access to 10 Downing Street and hypnotise the PM. Worries about new technology start to appear when children are subliminally influenced by cool new computer game Octopus Dare, leading to a battle with robots and a supercomputer that fills an entire tower block. By the end of this repeated series one, The Demon Headmaster had become the show I recognised from the first series I had watched…

Series 2 (adapted from The Demon Headmaster Strikes Again)

My original. The scariest series and the best. It’s an episode longer than the others as well – more chance for slow, creeping fear to build.

We know Dinah and the SPLAT crew now, and they’re a happily functioning unit after some angst early in series one (Lloyd and Harvey take time to accept their adopted sister). But now, creepy former prefect Rose from series one gets stuck into the group and turns them against one another again. It’s agony for us watching, and I catch myself shouting, ‘She’s clearly manipulating you, you idiots! My God, you’re as gullible as every adult character who appears the entire run of this programme!’ every time I come back to it. Simon’s relationship with his distant father is bleak too, with things tense between them even before his dad is hypnotised – and it’s never resolved. Things are taking a darker turn across the board.

After dipping his toe in the water in The Prime Minister’s Brain, the Headmaster’s a full-blown evil genius now, successfully hypnotising parents as well as children, and using his fancy new biogenetic research centre to interfere with evolution itself, playing with life and death as he pleases (appropriate with Lloyd spending most of the series in a coma, perhaps the easiest acting job in the history of CBBC).

That leads us onto the further edge series two has: monsters! Not just the giant creeper, silently inching its way towards you, or the Headmaster’s Dinah-lizard hybrid Eve, but the giant wasp that nearly kills Lloyd. I’m scared of normal-sized wasps, and I now realise all these years later that this is why. It’s wisely barely shown, and the endless distant buzzing combines with Richard Hartley’s radiophonic score and the atmosphere of night shoots and tunnel scenes to make some of the most terrifying kids’ TV ever. The darkest series, literally and figuratively – the impression it leaves doesn’t go away.

Series 3 (adapted from The Demon Headmaster Takes Over)

Oh joy of joys, a children’s programme that comes back with everyone’s voice suddenly broken! This is the one I recorded on my own VHS (my brother recorded series two, and to watch it was a rare privilege). Because of that, this was my favourite for a long time. Looking back, it’s a beautiful late-nineties curio, all artificial intelligence and the world wide web, with our heroes saving the day from a cyber café. Chat rooms and cool new webspeak, crystallised on screen for us to gawp at in delight. They should have called this one The Demon Headmaster Gets Dial-Up.

In some ways, it’s a step back from the last series. We’ve seen adults hypnotised before, along with a distant father-son relationship. The Headmaster isn’t really the Headmaster either, but a clone of the original trying to piece together who he used to be – Terrence Hardiman is menacing as ever, but I remember my instinctive confusion at the time: is this one the real deal?

He’s boosted, on the other hand, by a new villain in hologrammatic artificial intelligence system Hyperbrain (an eerie, otherworldly performance by Alphonsia Emmanuel, realised with visuals that blew my 7 year-old mind). Amoral rather than immoral, which makes her even more frightening, and a perfect foil for the Headmaster. Like The Prime Minister’s Brain, the scariest element here comes from paranoia about technology, when Hyperbrain drains adults’ minds and leaves them zombified, white contact lenses and all – still nasty and compelling 21 years later. Even if her getting beaten by the internet being full of nonsense does tax the mind now.

Series 4 (adapted from Total Control)

And what of the new series? It’s a worthy sequel, upping the suburban paranoia, adding a more overt political message and building on how the old series handled the psychological impact of hypnotism. Now it’s a truly frightening experience, and we feel the characters fear as they have momentary flashbacks to when they were more themselves. Nods to the past are perfectly judged too, and the first three series are honoured even as the concepts are updated. So far, I’m loving every minute of it. The parents are all still idiots though.

The new series of The Demon Headmaster is available to watch on BBC iPlayer here.

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The Gunked and the Dunked

When people ask me if I had any TV shows I watched in my childhood other than Doctor Who, I can actually list a great deal once I’ve stopped spitting in their face and shouting, ‘Obviously!’

I can mention Coronation Street, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (‘Don’t reach for the cocking cheque, you moron! He’s obviously gonna say, “But we don’t wanna give you that!” for cock’s sake!’, my mother was known to shout, years before the show even began), Robot Wars, Jonathan Creek, Father Ted, Black Books (wet myself laughing during the first episode, if memory serves). If we look at children’s programmes specifically, I could also list Blue Peter, ChuckleVision, The Demon Headmaster, Aquila, Pig Heart Boy, Home Farm Twins, The Ghost Hunter, Bodger and Badger, G-Force, Mr Wymi.

Not all of those CBBC programmes are so well-remembered now, but another that is which I loved dearly was Get Your Own Back. Why didn’t I go to see the live version a few years ago? Almost as big a regret as never going on a tour of Television Centre before it was hollowed out and ruined.

There was little on telly that felt more exciting to me, especially in its 1996-and-beyond incarnation. The colours, the noise, the obstacle courses, the gunge. It was the anarchy that anyone with taste loves regardless of age, but which TV aimed at adults has yet to capture.

Kids gunging their parents was one thing, but one of my most vivid TV memories is the first time I watched the last in the series of that year (my diligent research has not yet revealed wether this was a Christmas special). I still remember my amazement when a girl who had brought her father (?) on said to Dave Benson Phillips, ‘I don’t wanna gunge him… I wanna gunge you!’ The tables had turned. The only bigger shock I ever got from CBBC was when Grange Hill very bloodily killed a girl off, and this put significantly less of a damper on my day.

I decided unusual gungees must have become a tradition of series finales when I caught the end of another episode (I have decided this was broadcast in 1998) and saw Mr Blobby being lowered into the pool of gunk, in a bid to finally kill the monster. His distorted screams combined with the kaleidoscopic visuals of the studio to create an experience more unsettling than any nightmare. I understand they buried the still-twitching body below TV Centre that night, and his malign spirit has been used to explain why so many things have gone wrong for the BBC since (often being blamed ahead of examples of clear wrong-doing).

Unfortunately, because I drifted away from the show (perhaps I believed it would never again top ‘I wanna gunge you!’), I didn’t see any of the other celebrity Gunk Dunks that must have happened each year, and until today had no idea which surprise victims were eventually gunged. The truth of the years I didn’t see has astounded me, and it seems I missed some astonishing TV moments, all sadly absent from YouTube and therefore impossible for you to fact-check. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

  • 1997: The Spice Girls. At the height of their power, it was decreed these, let’s call them what they were, modern-day Suffragettes, needed taking down a peg or two. Exposed in their true form as one five-headed and twenty-limbed entity, they were hurled screaming into the slimy abyss and immediately lost all credibility. Sure enough, their movie at the end of 1997 turned out to be quite bad, and Geri split painfully away from the main body the following year.
  • 1999: Jar-Jar Binks. One of the most expensive episodes of British children’s TV ever made, as the flailing CGI buffoon slapstuck his last. In a palaver beyond the BBC’s control, the episode’s child audience was driven out of the studio by hordes of fully-grown, uncharismatic men, who whined their approval at the defeat of the creature they claimed had destroyed their childhoods, although in retrospect it would have been more accurate to say he had proved a minor irritant in their misspent adulthoods.
  • 2000: Chris Tarrant. Gunged for ITV’s crime of scheduling the first win of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire against the last ever One Foot in the Grave. ‘We do wanna give you that!’ bellowed the crowd. My mother squealed with delight.
  • 2001: Effigy of Osama Bin Laden. A jubilant autumn special that tapped into the same spirit that had made that year’s bonfire night such a success. Now recognised as having played its own small part in the slow cultural radicalisation that has turned so many of today’s eligible voters into white supremacists. Repeated in late 2011 on BBC4.
  • 2002: Gareth Gates. A Pop Idol special in which Will Young once again triumphed over the humiliated Gates boy. As in 2000, big ITV names were chosen for the dunking as part of an ongoing campaign of revenge for the Millionaire/One Foot
  • 2003: Richard Hillman. Appearing in character as the Coronation Street serial killer, actor Brian Capron was a surprisingly good sport in this edition which foreshadowed his looming drowning on the soap. The BBC viewed this subtle spoiler as the final act of revenge on ITV, and now opted for new targets.
  • 2004: Tony Blair. ‘We got him, everyone,’ said a sombre Benson Phillips to the camera in the last ever episode. ‘We got him.’ Still cited by Blair’s critics as more effective retribution than the Chilcot Report 12 years later. Seen by many as a counterpoint to the 2001 special, and attracted the same questions from commentators and BBC management as to whether this was the most appropriate way to address the issues at hand.

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Toys, Toys, Toys!

We all have our favourite toys and games that we played with as children – or at the very least watched the adverts for over and over again on TV. Below is a small selection I always wanted but unfortunately never owned (perhaps, looking back, for the better).

  • Baby Uh-Oh! (RRP £39.99) – A follow-up to Mamosa Toys’ highly successful Baby Wee Wee. Building on Baby Wee Wee’s urination, intended to teach children some of the grim realities of raising a child, Baby Uh-Oh! was designed to develop a vivid rash, high temperature and shallow breathing. The only way to cure Baby Uh-Oh!’s mystery illness was to treat her with the full combination of Baby Uh-Oh! Intensive Care Unit accessories (RRP £10.99-£69.99).
  • Cluedo Extreme (RRP £19.99) – A deluxe edition of the popular deductive board game. Players, in addition to working out killer, weapon and location, had to correctly ascribe motive. Since no biographies were provided of any characters, the game has reportedly never been won in the 22 years since its limited release, so the senseless killing of Dr Black remains senseless.
  • Play-Don’t Factory packs (£9.99 each) – To show the importance of health and safety, Play-Doh released a number of pre-made putty shapes, dyed and moulded to resemble body parts. Feeding these into a regular Play-Doh Factory, children saw ‘human’ fingers, ears and eyes blossom into a myriad of colours and textures as they passed through the machinery. So appetising were the colours that industrial accidents sky-rocketed once a certain generation reached working age.
  • Ka-blamo! (RRP £39.99; increased every year with inflation) – An inventive cross between Monopoly and Buckaroo, in which players have to stack a series of wooden blocks representing sub-prime mortgages onto a model of the global economy, until eventually a spring mechanism destroys the entire structure. Whoever lays the final piece gains all the others upon eruption, while the remaining players are plunged into poverty and manipulated by super-rich racists for years to come.
  • Dinner Time (RRP £29.99) – Released by Hasbro for six months in 2003 was this food-based variant of Operation. Using a diagram of a sleeping chicken hanging upside down, the players have to give rather than avoid an electric shock, but must do so in the perfect place to ensure a humane death and enable a guilt-free dinner. Otherwise a signal is beamed to the Food Standards Agency, who immediately send staff to confiscate the game and necessitate buying a new board.
  • Jailbirds (RRP £9.99 per bird; playset £24.99) – A series of miniature robotic birds in a variety of multi-coloured stripy prison uniforms. The idea was to collect the whole lot, which was near-impossible without first buying the Bird Jail playset for them to escape from. Otherwise they would break out of their owner’s house instead, leaving them with an incomplete collection. Many such Jailbirds are still spotted wandering the streets today, desolate and at a loss as to what to do with their freedom. Members of the public are advised to take them home to escape again, giving the poor creatures some fleeting sense of purpose once more.

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Peter Fleming’s Blue Peter Gossip

Hi everyone. This week, British children’s TV legend Peter Fleming has written to me about Blue Peter to commemorate the programme’s 61st birthday this week. Take it away, Peter!

Hello there, my friends!

Well, well, well, happy birthday to that television institution, Blue Peter! Now, over the last 61 years, there have been 38 different presenters of the programme, not counting occasional guest presenters, and an incident in 1967 in which I was mistaken for newcomer Peter Purves and helped helm a live edition, ending in an unfortunate incident that saw me barred from Television Centre for the next month (in my defence, you’d be amazed how easy it is to kill that many horses without even realising!),

Returning to my point, there have been 38 Blue Peter presenters over the years, and through the decades, I’ve picked up a great deal of gossip about them all (either through working with them directly or through hearsay). It seems fitting to share a handful of the most interesting titbits for this week’s anniversary. After all, as the old saying goes, what better way to show your love than to libel multiple national treasures? Enjoy, my friends!

  • Christopher Trace, hired as the first presenter for his love of model trains, ended his time on the show by making off with a real steam engine that he pinched from a railway museum whilst filming in Norfolk – everyone was at a loss as to how, because it wasn’t on tracks and had no fuel in it, but he managed it nonetheless, and was never seen again!
  • Katy Hill is three children on each other’s shoulders in a big coat.
  • Tim Vincent refuses to go out on any set until he has been fitted with the skin of a younger man.
  • Konnie Huq can extend her neck up to two miles long – she was originally pencilled in to do more RAF parachute jumps than she eventually did, but she would keep completing them by stretching her neck out of the plane before jumping, clamping her jaw onto something at ground level and lowering herself to safety (very impressive in a different way, but it was cheating).
  • Janet Ellis is one of five Blue Peter presenters to have engaged Tom Baker in hand-to-hand combat.
  • Matt Baker is the only Blue Peter presenter to have shot me.
  • Valerie Singleton once flogged a Girl Guide during camera rehearsals as a warning to the other guests.
  • Anthea Turner has seven legs*.
  • Peter Purves is the only Blue Peter presenter who can fly – he discovered his skill while bored at Crufts one year, but fears being captured in a big net and experimented upon by the government, so he only shows it off to close friends in his garden.
  • Mark Curry eats the core of the apple.
  • Peter Duncan fights tramps for food.
  • John Noakes was 50ft tall – every time you saw him on-screen, a camera trick was being employed for which he was required to stand at the far end of the studio to make him appear normal-sized. (Climbing Nelson’s Column doesn’t seem so impressive now, does it?!)
  • Diane-Louise Jordan started the fire at Notre-Dame – loathsome woman!
  • Richard Bacon never took cocaine in his life; he just didn’t want the dogs to get into trouble.

*somewhere in her house

Fascinating stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. And I haven’t even mentioned what Lesley Judd did! Many happy returns, Blue Peter!

Best wishes,

Another Peter

Peter Fleming: Have You Seen? is being performed for the last time at the Bill Murray in Islington on Sunday 20th October at 4.15pm. Tickets are available here.

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Catalogues

My first memory of being let down and betrayed by an adult came when I was six. I’d drawn four of my favourite Action Man figures – best of all was Dr. X in his lab, surrounded by bubbling chemicals in test tubes and beakers. I hadn’t coloured them in, but I knew the colours in my mind, and I was very proud of them.

I took the drawings into school, and my teacher was so impressed that she asked to take it to the staff room to show all the other grown-ups. I agreed, and never saw them again. I nagged and nagged her for them back over the next two years, and she always told me to remind her again later. After leaving that school I saw her once more, when I was nineteen, and decided it was now too late to ask. Who knows how quickly they ended up in the bin?

My imagination had really felt like it was soaring when I drew those pictures – probably more so than it would have done had I ever played with those Action Man figures. Because I never owned any of them. Every single one of the drawings had been based on each figure’s promotional photo in the Argos catalogue.

It is surely a testament to the power of advertising on gullible children, and not simply an indictment of me, that I consider catalogues unequivocally to be the greatest genre of children’s books ever published. What could better light up the mind of a child than the prospect of new adventures to create for themselves with a shiny new toy? (Answer: many things.)

I’ve been thinking more about catalogues lately since discovering the excellent Vintage UK Catalogue Pages account on Twitter (here it is). Scrolling through those glorious double page spreads, those enticing little photographs and the item numbers that would make your wildest dreams come true if only your crap, selfish parents would cough up, I’m reminded just how much of my youth I spent hungrily browsing.

Sometimes, my dreams did indeed come true. I remember writing down the three items I coveted most in a mail order catalogue (not Argos) at my grandparents’ house in the run-up to Christmas one year. Within months, the chemistry set and Hoberman sphere were mine, along with something else that I loved so much I can no longer remember what it was.

That memory hammers home a conviction I can’t quite shake looking back at these books (and they were books). I can recall vividly the yearning, the pure yearning, to own those Game Boy games, those actions figures, those Star Wars toys, those Lego sets, and ideally all the scenery that was provided for their photos too. In the luckiest cases, I vividly recall owning them and playing with them too – usually in the case of the Lego sets, especially the Ancient Egyptian series in the late nineties. Those items that really encouraged your creativity and your engagement had the best life beyond the catalogue page.

But there are others I remember receiving only vaguely now, which must have inspired me less in real life than the promise of their pictures had. I only ever owned one Action Man doll (I think I’d be right in saying it was the original Professor Gangrene). I had fun with it, but even now I still pine more for those lost drawings when I squint back into the mists of my childhood. Actually being given something you saw in a catalogue was one thing, but I realise in retrospect that the idea of having it was often the biggest thrill.

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The Four-Four-Two Customs Union Klopp Bandril Fleet Confirmatory Vote Strategy

If there’s one good thing to have come from our ongoing Brexit crisis, it’s the dissolution of my previous grudging respect for boorish football fans.

There was a time when, hearing them confidently discuss misguided signings and foolhardy strategies on the part of managers, I would conclude that, yes, these men (and they are always men) must know the sport better than Roy Evans, Gerard Houllier, player-manager Ruud Gullit or even player-manager Gianluca Vialli (I haven’t followed the sport closely since my 90s childhood spent with two Liverpool-and-Chelsea-supporting brothers).

Now, hearing the same men (and they are always the same men) discuss the benefits of no deal with the exact same confidence (the exact same ill-informed confidence with which I continue to back Remain, actually), I can see clearly that they must understand both politics and sport about as little as David Moyes (my brothers occasionally try to share their interest in the game with me, perhaps to help me keep my references bang up to date, as illustrated by the previous joke).

In boyhood, I always treated such footballing insight with the respectful, intimidated silence I felt it deserved. I was a sheltered child who shied away from sport thanks to the horror of PE lessons, preferring instead to lurk on Doctor Who forums populated largely by bitter middle-aged men. I specifically loathed PE lessons with the other teenagers in my set, realising too late that, being in the same low-ability set as me, they clearly weren’t skilled athletes, but enjoyed PE as an opportunity to fall back on their instincts for violence. Like Chris, who said his favourite beer was vodka and went on to earn the first ASBO in the town.

Today, I imagine one of those boys being put in charge of a professional team and it ending up the same way as the day in Year 10 when Ben bullied and alienated the entirety of his own side in our softball game. This culminated in me obeying his angry shriek to get off the pitch, and, to my surprise and delight, being followed off by all our other players. We sat happily and watched him grow quieter and more desperate as he continued playing alone against 11 other boys and got a well-earned thrashing. Our teacher never stopped him physically hurting us from week to week when he was in a bad mood, but she didn’t stop us walking off either, an approach that gives credence to my theory that all PE teachers are closet libertarians.

I wonder what would happen if the Doctor Who fans who inhabited the forums of my childhood got to create their own vision of the show. At last, a chance to make the show as it was always meant to be made, if only those idiots at the BBC had ever listened to people with no experience of making television. Perhaps it would be a new golden age, like the much-loved early Tom Baker years; classic after classic, brimming with rich dialogue, atmospheric design and terrifying monsters, blissfully untroubled by indulgent references to the past or the presence of women.

More likely, I suspect we’d end up with the mess of the mid-eighties, when it became impossible for fans to accurately blame any one member of the production team for declining quality because multiple forces were pulling the programme in diverging terrible directions. Which brings me right back to Brexit. A fan project if ever there was one, as power is employed to kowtow to people who were always more comfortable shouting from the sidelines about how they’d do it much better.

Whether your frame of reference is sport, sub-par sci-fi, or literal current affairs, there’s no doubt in my mind that Brexit is our political equivalent of 1985’s Timelash. Led by unpopular figures who, at the critical moment, all found themselves simultaneously operating at their lowest level. A story of scenery-chewers and android leaders used as a front for a much more malignant force. A story harking back to some glorious past that had never happened (the viewer is made to think they’d appreciate the story more with knowledge of a previous Third Doctor adventure fabricated entirely by the script). Crucially, a story whose conclusion satisfies absolutely no one.

I could have done a much better job.

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1999

As we grow closer and closer to Doctor Who having been back longer than it was ever away, I think about my generation of fandom: children who developed a love for the show in spite of there being no new series on the telly to watch. Looking back over my memories of discovering the show, I see how indebted I am to a small handful of people making TV in 1999. In one corner or another of the BBC, they were determined to keep a candle burning for the programme. In my case, the flame caught.

When my much-missed uncle died in 1998, we found a double-VHS of 1975’s The Sontaran Experiment and Genesis of the Daleks in his house. Enough to summon my lingering memories of the 1996 Paul McGann movie, cowering by the arm of our settee as Eric Roberts beat him up towards the climax. Those two Tom Baker stories (and just as importantly, the other adventures on VHS advertised on the inside cover) ignited my imagination.

My local second-hand video shop helped me explore further (thanks, The Video Crypt, and RIP). I lived close to Longleat too, and started asking my parents regularly if we could visit its exhibition (to their credit, they endured this for years in spite of it never really changing, up until it was closed permanently in 2003 to celebrate the 40th anniversary). The stories on video showed me more of the programme, and the exhibition educated me about it. I started wanting to read more of the Doctor Who books that were available, and Doctor Who Magazine.

Trouble was, with the best will in the world, they were not aimed at seven year-olds. Why should they be? By that time, there won’t have been many seven year-olds who really even knew what Doctor Who was. Watching the show itself on video was always the main thing for me, but being a young fan at that time could be an isolated experience.

Then one day, less than a year after first finding those VHS tapes, I came home from school to watch Blue Peter. I’d watched it for years, and was astonished when the usual theme tune turned into this:

Some of the clips in that opening sequence are still burned into my memory as I experienced them then (especially the bits from Carnival of Monsters and Terror of the Autons). Watching this ten-minute item about the series and its emerging online fandom, I felt like someone had made a piece of television just for me. One of my most vivid childhood TV memories.

That was only weeks after Steven Moffat’s The Curse of Fatal Death had brought the programme back for one night only as part of Comic Relief. Somewhere, in television being made now, were people who liked Doctor Who too – and felt the exact affection and positivity towards it that were felt by this seven year-old watching at home. I may not have known any fans my age yet, but there were definitely people out there who understood. This CBBC ident was another nod that I enjoyed seeing come up around the time too:

Throughout 1999, my security as a Doctor Who fan grew as I found more stories to watch on video, my confidence boosted by the TV shows that understood how good it all was. It culminated one Saturday that November, at 8:55pm, when BBC2 broadcast a Doctor Who Night presented by Tom Baker, complete with documentaries, clips galore, and my first experience of Mark Gatiss and David Walliams (an interesting first impression). This was to launch a brand new season of repeats, short-lived due to ghastly ratings, but the final boost I needed. Over that year, and over several productions, a small number of people working in TV had made me feel much surer in my feelings for a strange TV show that I hadn’t known much about before, but that I was now pretty certain I loved.

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