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Interview: Emma Reeves discusses the revival of The Demon Headmaster

When it comes to writing for children’s TV, names do not come much bigger than Emma Reeves. Her work has branched from main stream kids shows into those shows with a more cult element. Shows like Tracy Beaker have led her to Young Dracula, The Worst Witch, and one of TV’s biggest secrets – Eve. Today she sits down with Cult Faction’s Brett Summers to discuss her work on the phenomenal continuation of The Demon Headmaster which is available to watch now on BBC IPlayer with the final climatic episode of the series airing tonight!

You have a long successful career in writing for TV including Tracy Beaker, The Dumping Ground, Young Dracula, Eve, and The Worst Witch. What led you to this genre?

It sort of happened by accident – I was part of a writer development group at BBC Wales; The Story of Tracy Beaker was being made in Cardiff at the time, and I was recommended to that show and that led to lots more work on children’s shows. It’s been great though, I’ve got to write for all sorts of genres – realistic drama, mystery, martial arts action-adventure, supernatural, sci-fi, sitcom, even musical.

Each show has been a standout success and had a huge following, is their any particular show or episode that stands out to you?

Well to be honest not every show I’ve worked on has been a huge success – I’ve worked on several shows which only ran for one series but I wouldn’t see them as failures, although some were perhaps under-appreciated or simply didn’t quite work… You do your best and learn from every experience. The Tracy Beaker shows – Story of Tracy Beaker, Tracy Beaker Returns and The Dumping Ground – were very good to me; it’s been an honour to work on a series that’s so iconic and treasured by what I think we can now safely call generations of children – seventeen years and going strong! It was wonderful to work with Jacqueline Wilson’s characters on these shows and on Hetty Feather, too. And when I worked on The Worst Witch I got to meet the brilliant creator of the original stories, Jill Murphy. We’ve become really good friends and made a stage version together which toured the UK and went to the West End.

Eve was a very special show to me as I was co-creator and lead writer for the first time. It was never easy but I loved guiding those characters through epic adventures for 36 episodes. I’m proud of the risks we took; we told some complicated stories, explored some dark territory and also had fun with a lot of science fiction concepts. I loved working on Young Dracula, too. But at the moment I feel that The Demon Headmaster is possibly my proudest achievement; the powers that be have allowed the show to remain angrily political (reflecting Gillian Cross’s reasons for writing a new book in 2017) and I really hope it reflects the mood of the nation’s young people right now!

With all those shows on your CV do you feel any pressure as you take on something new?

Always. You start again from scratch every time. They say you’re only as good as your last job, but in fact you’re only as good as your current job, and if all you have is a blank page, your self-esteem plummets accordingly. It’s terrifying. Every time.

What led to you becoming involved with The Demon Headmaster?

Anna Davies, head of drama development at CBBC, asked me what I thought about The Demon Headmaster and revealed that Gillian had written a new book and CBBC were planning to option it. I immediately jumped at the prospect.

Had you read any of the books or seen the previous TV incarnation?

Yes; when I was a kid I read The Demon Headmaster and The Prime Minister’s Brain – they were the only two Headmaster books at the time; the others came later, when I was grown up. By the time the 90s TV series was made, I was in university but I watched anyway, along with many of my peers.

With Gillian Cross creating such a wide range of source material did you find this helped or hindered your work on the script?

It definitely helped, I love to research and explore a world that somebody else has created. Gillian was kind enough to send me some stories published in magazines from the 80s, 90s and 00s – I wanted to know everything about her concept of the Headmaster and his universe.

When adapting someone else work what steps do you take to ensure you are staying true to the initial vision?

I usually read as much of their other work as I can, and try to find out about the author’s life to work out what might have influenced them to write what they did. With Gillian, I was lucky enough to be able to meet her and talk about her work. There are also some very good interviews with her online.

Did you get to meet Gillian? Did you get any feedback on your work?

Yes, I have been lucky enough to meet her a few times. She’s been very helpful and she was always very positive about our work. She allowed us to take some liberties although she did have a few strict rules about the portrayal of the Headmaster. So much of his power is in his mystery. There are so many questions that people ask about the Headmaster, it’s tempting to try to answer them – but as soon as you do, you diminish him. Knowing that Gillian would be watching kept us focused on getting her characters right!

When writing for the series, does casting influence your writing or vice-versa? Do you have any influence in the casting?

I have some small influence in casting and was kept informed of the major choices. It definitely begins to influence the writing, but this only really kicks in after you’ve seen the actors play the roles – so by block 2 (eps 6-10) we knew who we were writing for, but in block 1 we had no idea. The show was actually cast quite late and we didn’t even have a readthrough so we were working everything out as we went along.

What was you process in mapping out the ten episodes of the new series?

Well, we started off writing it as a five part story! The original series adapted the books very faithfully, and the first book (The Demon Headmaster) lasted for 3 half hour episodes. Total Control, the 2017 novel our series was based on, is a similar length so we always knew we’d be adding new material. We planned to start and finish with events from the novel and add some extra twists and new story elements in the middle episodes – all inspired by the book. So we planned the revelation about Ethan’s parents, the true nature of Mrs Maron, Dinah’s return, and a cameo from the new Headmaster and hoped to fit it all into five eps. It was definitely a good thing that we were then asked to expand the series to ten episodes, it gave us much more space to explore the world. When we knew we were adding five more episodes we had a story conference with the other writers and incorporated their ideas, that helped the episodes to take more shape.

How did you feel about letting other writers tackle various episodes of the series?

It’s quite an emotional process actually. It’s hard not to feel proprietorial, even though the characters are adapted from Gillian’s book. But I’ve been through this a few times and you do learn to welcome the new insights and ideas that other writers bring. It’s hard at first but in the end you’re a team and you bond and appreciate each other – just as Lizzie, Tyler, Blake, Ethan and Angelika do!

In particular, Episode 6: Be Your True Self! totally changes the game for the series and leaves the audience shell-shocked. Was this part of your game plan all along?

Yes, it was always part of the game plan. I always knew that I wanted to tie the new and old books together. The gang going on a quest to find Dinah was always in the outline. But the idea of going to the Headmaster’s old school (albeit one that doesn’t look much like the one from the 90s show!) came up when we knew we were making 10 episodes – we realised it would make a great and unusual episode. By episode 6 we really wanted to see something different visually. And by this point, Angelika, Lizzie and Ethan are forming a core resistance group and we wanted to send them on a quest – and explore Blake and Tyler’s relationship back at Hazelbrook. We knew Joe Lidster would do a wonderful job writing it.

How tough was the decision between total reimagining vs continuation?

There was no decision for me – I knew immediately that I wanted to make everything fit together, that’s the sort of geek I am. I was delighted that nobody stood in my way – everyone, including Gillian, agreed to the plan immediately which was brilliant.

Another shock revelation takes place in Episode 9: The Making of You. This again leaves the audience gobsmacked. How important was it for you to pick up certain storyline threads from the Demon Headmaster’s history?

I think it comes from having a fannish mentality; I was really interested in Rose as a character (and she was portrayed so brilliantly by Katherine Wyeth) – in the original series the Headmaster drags her away from home to a remote village to do his bidding; she seems isolated from all her friends and completely the Headmaster’s creature. What happened to Rose when she grew up? Surely there’d be lingering trauma from the Headmaster’s conditioning? And why and when did she get away from him? I was really interested in all these questions, and was delighted that Gillian, CBBC and the team allowed me to come up with some answers!

As we approach Episode 10, how do you feel about the series and how it is been received?

I’m proud of what we have achieved and the reactions I’ve heard – it really seems to have struck a chord with those who have watched it, children and adults. We may be a small show on a small channel but we’re resonating with our audience. I’m grateful to CBBC for allowing us to be quite subversive – I think being a genre show helps us to get away with some quite radical messages.

Did it match up to your vision?

There are always budget-related challenges – you tend to imagine the Hollywood blockbuster version of a scene in your head, and obviously you can’t achieve that on a CBBC budget and schedule. But I’m so proud of our wonderful cast and crew and all their hard work. I would start naming people but they’re all so talented and I’d hate to leave anyone out. Check the IMDB listings and take my word for it that they’re all brilliant!

Will this truly be the end of The Demon Headmaster or is there a chance we may see him return once more?

The Headmaster will never truly be defeated. He’s so resilient and resourceful that he’s irrepressible – and readers and audiences love to hate him. Maybe I’ll get to write another series, maybe I won’t, but in either case I’m sure future generations of children will be forced to look into his eyes…

Is there anything else you are working on that we need to keep an eye out for?

Nothing I can talk about yet as I’m waiting for decisions… this is the reality of most writers’ lives unfortunately!

How can fans keep up with what you are up to?

I am on Twitter and my agent, David Higham Associates, has a website which has information on what all their clients are up to.

 

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