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.