Upon discovering Gillian Cross’ The Demon Headmaster was about to be remade by the BBC left a weird taste in my mouth. The original television series ran for three seasons between 1996 and 1998 and left a strong legacy. Why did it need to be remade? Spoilers people! One massive twist is the 2019 version is the goosebump inducing moment when you discover that this show is infact not a remake but is instead a continuation of the original show! There are plenty more shocks and startling moments as the show progresses but this genius move united a number of generations in front of the television set and rekindled an energy that has been lacking in children’s television for a long time.
In this incarnation, the Headmaster is played by Nicholas Gleaves and he has recently taken over the out of control Hazelbrook School. This change occurred when brother and sister Lizzie (Ellie Botterill) and Tyler Warren (Jordan Cramond) were in America trying to find help for their sick mother. Upon their return they immediately notice the change to Hazelbrook where now “every student is a star.” Lizzie feels something is wrong especially when her friend science hating friend Sophie (Jade Chan) is now a science expert, computer hacker Ethan (Dijarn Campbell) is now a football star and school bully Blake (Jordan Rankin) is now a prefect-like “Welcomer”. Her investigations into what is going on come to a screeching halt when she is framed for vandalism. When she finally gets access to the CCTV to prove her innocence she discovers is what her that did it? How though? She has no memory of it!
The Demon Headmaster is back with his “look into my eyes” tricks and manipulation and Gleaves delivers a megalomaniac control freak who truly believes his vision of the future is what is best for society. The best villains always view themselves as the hero in their own narrative and Gleaves carries this across every word and action he carries out on screen. From stares to body language the audience is in no doubt just how much of a threat the headmaster is to our young students and their families.
With no SPLAT to stand against him this time, Lizzie seems to be the only one who can stand against him. Soon she enlists Ethan and the deputy head’s daughter Angelika (Lori Stott) to help. Their influence eventual brings Tyler and Blake into the fold but is it too late? As Lizzie Warren, Botterill manages to show both a fierce strength and weakness to her character which helps the audience understand just how The Headmaster can manipulate such a strong willed person. We feel her frustrations with each step forward and step back she suffers. Cramond’s transformation from timid Tyler to a mature forward thinking young man also stands out in this series. Cramond has an amazing “off the ball” ability that even when he just in the background of the scene he can express what his character is going through. When a second series arrives (which it must!) it will be very interesting to see how Tyler develops further. Not to be short changed are Dijarn, Jordan and Lori whose characters also go on their own journeys throughout the show leading the audience along through each step of their struggles.
What really impressed was the writing behind the show because everything is there for fans of the old series – especially when our group discover a message from the Headmaster’s original nemesis Dinah Hunter (now played by Charlotte Becket) that may just help them in their battle. Series creator Emma Reeves really did her homework into the history of the show. The attention to detail is outstanding and just goes to show that good writing revolves around appreciating the property in front of you and using it to tell your story. Unfortunately nowadays in the reboot world, most writers get a property and just change it to what they want and then wonder why it sucks. If you have no respect for the source stay away from it. If Hollywood wants a lesson on how to craft a compelling new story from a loved franchise they should contact Reeves (as should Doctor Who!) Questions like where did this Headmaster come from? and what happened to the old one (Terrence Hardiman)? are tackled through this show but as always with the Headmaster a bit of mystery remains, in a good way.
Verdict: 9/10 The Demon Headmaster is a triumph in writing that builds on what has gone before and delivers it to a new generation. The cast and crew deliver in a big way that makes they show seem much larger than the CBBC budget it was given. The Demon Headmaster also does something that has not been seen for many years, it does not talk down to its audience. Instead it respects them and in turn this allows them to explore the story in more depth. Most children’s shows these days are scared they might scare or offend – you will find none of that here – there are probably more scary moments, political undertones, identity issues, conformity issues amongst others than the majority of “mainstream” shows lets alone a show for children on CBBC.
You can watch the show on BBCiPlayer HERE.