Interview: Emma Reeves, ‘The Demon Headmaster’

❉ We chat with the BAFTA-nominated writer about the return of the cult series.

“In many ways, I feel that The Demon Headmaster is the perfect story for our times. As I kept saying in pitching meetings, there’s never been a better time to distrust the man in charge.”

The Demon Headmaster : The Headmaster (NICOLAS GLEAVES), Lizzie (ELLIE BOTTERILL) – (C) BBC – Photographer: Robert Periera Hind

Hi, Emma. Let’s start at the beginning: You entered into screenwriting via a BBC Talent competition and a development group at BBC Wales – what was your background prior to that, and how did these formative experiences within the BBC help you find your feet as a scriptwriter, was it a good training ground for you?

You’ve really done your homework, I’m impressed! Yes, it was the BBC group which got me my break into CBBC writing through The Story of Tracy Beaker, which was filmed in Wales at the time.  The person who recommended me for that job was Helen Raynor – prior to her work on Doctor Who, she was a BBC script editor at the time. So I have Helen to thank for a lot of things. The BBC group was a wonderful opportunity – through that group, I got to write an episode of Doctors, and radio plays for Radio 4, Radio 3 and Radio Wales. Sadly, they never ran a similar initiative again, which is a familiar story in this industry – you need to be in the right place at the right time. But at the same time I was knocking on several other doors – I had written stage adaptations and found a producer, and was also doing a lot of script reading for various TV companies, some of which also led to work in the future. As a TV writer you always need a lot of irons in the fire anyway, as, sadly, so many exciting projects just don’t happen for one reason or another, so juggling multiple projects becomes a way of life.

The Demon Headmaster is the latest in a string of writing credits for you at CBBC. You’ve previously worked on The Worst Witch, Young Dracula and Tracy Beaker. What is the secret of writing for a viewing audience that has to cater for not only its target audience of 6 to 14 year olds, but also the parents that are also watching?

If there’s a secret, I’m not sure I’ve found it. I don’t have children (although I’m proud to say my nephews are my biggest fans) so I mostly write to entertain myself. However, there are quite strict CBBC guidelines to follow when writing for that channel. Some of them are pretty much set in stone – you’re never going to hear full-on swearing or see sex or nudity – but other things change all the time.  There’s always a nervousness around “sensitive” or controversial content and in some ways it feels as if we’ve gone backwards – some of the most famous storylines from Children’s Ward, Byker Grove, Grange Hill and Press Gang would never be allowed on a show aimed at children today. But as writers we need to keep pushing boundaries if we think a certain decision is right for our story. (For example, in Hetty Feather, a show set in the 1880s where childhood deaths were very common, we told a story about a young character’s death and her friends’ reactions too it. There was a lot of back and forth between the production team and BBC compliance for me, the producers and director Delyth Thomas, but despite many restrictions on what we could show it was a powerful episode, I think.)

How does writing for television for a junior or family audience differ from writing say, soap opera or adult drama series? Or is it essentially the same job?

I would say it’s exactly the same job, and just as exacting. I have seen writers with brilliant spec scripts and great CVs fail to thrive on CBBC shows precisely because, consciously or unconsciously, they’re writing down to the audience. People are biased against children’s TV, perhaps because of lingering memories of the time when they decided they were too old to watch and it wasn’t cool any more. Obviously, I wish people would get over those prejudices! It makes me very angry when somebody is making valid criticisms of a show – for example, there are plot holes, no subtext, the characters are cardboard and unrealistic, there’s a simplistic or vacuous moral judgement, and carelessly fling around the words “it’s like something on CBBC” as an insult. I often wonder watch CBBC shows they’ve watched recently. Nobody lets CBBC writers get away with lazy writing – not ourselves, not our dedicated script editors and least of all our audience.

For those of us who grew up in the 1990s, The Demon Headmaster was one of a raft of memorable Childrens BBC dramas, alongside the likes of The Queen’s Nose, Uncle Jack, Century Falls. Were you part of that audience, what are your memories of your childhood viewing?

I was an avid CBBC and Citv viewer, albeit from a slightly older generation. I was a student by the time of The Demon Headmaster and The Queen’s Nose, but I watched them anyway (the shows were on BBC1 in those days and we students all loved them). My favourite shows would have been a bit earlier – I adored long-running favourites like Rentaghost, Grange Hill and Press Gang, and also remember occasional dark suspenseful thrillers like Running Scared, adaptations like The Cuckoo Sister and The Chronicles of Narnia, and of course the evergreen Box of Delights.

What was the process that led to CBBC revisiting The Demon Headmaster, and can you tell us a bit about your role in the series’ development? When did you first come on board?

I remember it vividly – I was in Salford, at a meeting with script editor Cathianne Hall and CBBC Head of Drama Development Anna Davies. We were discussing another project. This was a lovely project, which we were very optimistic about at the time, but it was destined to be one of those could-have-beens which make up more of a writing career than the produced ones (see above!) Anyway, just as I was leaving, Anna suddenly said “how do you feel about The Demon Headmaster”. I was just picking up my stuff and I remember it like one of those “needle ripped off a record” moments – I probably stuttered something like “The Demon Headmaster?! Yes please!” I was very excited to bring it back in any form, and was thrilled when Anna told me that Gillian Cross had written a new book, in which the Headmaster is the head of an Academy school.

How daunted were you and your fellow writers about being entrusted to bring back a much-loved series and supervillain like The Demon Headmaster for a new generation?

Very daunted! Fortunately we had Gillian Cross’s book to work from. She wrote it because she was worried about what’s going on in British education at the moment, and believed that the Academy system would suit the Headmaster perfectly. I found this interview in The New Statesman very inspiring:

In many ways, I feel that The Demon Headmaster is the perfect story for our times. As I kept saying in pitching meetings, there’s never been a better time to distrust the man in charge.

The original series comes from a time when the internet was still in its infancy, and original actor Terrence Hardiman recently told Metro, “I remember on one of the series I had to do a scene where I phoned Frances Amey’s mother, and they said, “Here you are, it’s a mobile phone,” and I’d never seen a mobile phone before!’” How easily does the current incarnation of the character and his machinations fit into our crazy modern world where tech is built into every aspect of our daily lives?

The Headmaster has always been at the cutting edge of technology. We don’t know for certain whether his hypnotic powers are biological or based on some sort of cybernetic enhancement, but we do know that in the past he has built a cloning machine, experimented with genetic splicing and accelerated growth rates (not to mention his teeny tiny helicopter). And it’s been established long ago that he can use video and computer games to hypnotise. So every aspect of modern technology plays more and more into the Headmaster’s hands – he’s adept at all things scientific and can use any sort of technology to further his evil agenda.

How heavily involved has Gillian Cross, who wrote the books the original series was based upon, been in this series? Did you receive much in the way of positive or encouraging feedback or advice from Cross during the production of the series?

Gillian was very kind and helpful; she set out her rules for writing the Headmaster and we tried to follow them as closely as we could. She had very few notes but they were all very useful, and she also helped with research, generously sharing some precious copies of magazines from the 1980s and 1990s with original Demon Headmaster stories in.

Had you read Gillian Cross’ original books as a child?

Yes, but there were only two at the time; The Demon Headmaster and The Prime Minister’s Brain. I loved them, and my mum found an old copy which I read to my nephews! It was fun to read all the new books that it turned out Gillian had written since I grew up.

The series is adapted from Cross’ own return to the Demon Headmaster, her original novel Total Control; what was the process for taking the source material and extrapolating it into a ten-episode series?

The series was originally commissioned as 5 episodes. In the original 1996 show, the first Demon Headmaster novel lasted only 3 episodes, so even with five episodes we always envisaged adding a few new elements (I can’t really say in detail what they were at this stage because of spoilers!) Then we were asked to expand to ten episodes; we chose to follow the arc of the book but explore some ideas in more detail. Looking at the series as a whole though, the second half is quite different from the first – everything changes in episode 6, so please keep watching!

The new series takes place in a ‘Super Academy’. Schools always seem to be a rich source of drama for children, with schoolkids’ rich internal worlds coming up against the unknowable secrets of grown ups, and of course the clash between individuality and authority. And of course, the education system is very different to what it was 20 years ago, with more pressure on grades and tests – was much thought put into reflecting what modern schoolkids would find relatable about the series’ setting?

I think Gillian sums it up perfectly in her New Statesman interview. I think there’s a lot more pressure on children as you say, with grades and tests and a general feeling that every moment of the day must be accounted for and productive. Maybe it’s because I live in the South East now but it seems to me that there’s a lot of importance attached to which school you can get into – and  that young people are aware of that. (In 1980s Wrexham you pretty much went to the school whose catchment area you lived in and that was that.)

Of course, since leaving home for university and then working in TV, I’ve become very aware of the life-long advantages which a certain type of education can give you.  Top schools, both private and state, can confer incredible life-changing self-confidence. I’ve seen it in action again and again and I’m not surprised that some parents are willing to make big sacrifices to obtain this advantage for their children.

The trouble is, of course, that most parents don’t have the means to make this “sacrifice” even if they were desperate to – private school fees are beyond the range of most people’s salaries, and most people are also priced out of the catchment areas for the most desirable state schools. Nobody wants to think of their child being left behind, so the transformation of a failing school like Hazelbrook to a national centre of excellence would be a lifeline for the local kids. Unfortunately, the Headmaster’s miracle seems to be too good to be true – and it is…

Not long after Nicholas Gleaves was announced as the new Demon Headmaster, it was confirmed that Terrence Hardiman would be making a special guest appearance. Without spoiling too much, does this make the new series a ‘reboot’ or a continuation?

Spoilers have been released in various forms, and I think by now it’s OK to say that it’s definitely a continuation! I was inspired by what Russell T Davies did with the 2005 series of Doctor Who – at the beginning this appears to be a completely new story, with no prior knowledge needed – but we gradually realise that Lizzie and Ethan’s story is part of a much longer narrative…

Hardiman was truly iconic in the role, with his steely appearance – how has Gleaves gone about making the role his own? What would you say are the unique strengths that he brings to the series as a supervillain?

I think they have quite a lot in common actually – both are very experienced actors who have worked a lot on stage and television, mostly in straight dramatic roles. They’ve both played a few villains, but not exclusively. They’re serious actors, not comedians or “personalities” and certainly not children’s entertainers! As you can imagine, we talked about a lot of names and ideas for the role of the Headmaster – I know there was some speculation about who would be cast, and some big names were mentioned – but in the end, it’s most important that we found somebody who could be utterly believable as the Headmaster, and who the audience would accept instantly on his own terms.

I think Nicholas made a conscious decision to stay away from the books and DVDs of other Demon Headmaster versions, and to base his character entirely on the scripts. He worked very hard to find variety in the Headmaster – listen out for the many different ways in which he manages to inflect the phrase “look into my eyes!” The production team took the brave decision of not using any CGI for the moments when the Headmaster hypnotises people, so we had to rely completely on Nicholas’s acting (which he does brilliantly).

Terrence’s Headmaster is more obviously frightening to look at, but I think Nicholas’s Headmaster is scary in a more insidious way. Although he never did hit the children, Terrence’s Headmaster was sometimes pictured with a cane – I think with Terrence the fear is more immediate and physical; with Nicholas it’s more psychological and unsettling. Like O’Brien in 1984, Nicholas’s Headmaster really pushes the idea that he’s doing all of this for your own good, and that your own mind is the problem if you can’t understand that.

For some reason, my nieces and nephews are more scared of shouty teachers than anything in the world, so they’re absolutely terrified of both of them!

Can you tell us a little about how your role as head writer on this series works? Joe Lidster, Lucy Moore and Andrew Burrell are also on board writing for the series, all very experienced writers with a range of credits across different platforms and genres. How much of a collaborative creative experience is working on a series with multiple writers across various episodes?

It’s usually very collaborative; unfortunately because of the timescale this was slightly less so than usual. As you say, we had to pick very experienced writers who could hit the ground running, and be quite prescriptive with the brief. But they all brought wonderful ideas to the show and I’m lucky to have been able to work with them.

Have you picked up much feedback for the episodes that have gone out so far? Have you received much positive feedback from adult viewers, with children of their own, who remember the original series?

The response so far has been very positive, from both children and adults. I hope they spread the word!

Are there any plans as yet for a second series; do you forsee any spin-offs such as tie-in books?

We have pitched a second series but are still waiting for a decision.

What else are you working on at the moment? Have you got any other projects you’d like to tell readers of We Are Cult about?

Aargh, as usual there are lots of things in development but nothing formally announced yet so I’d better not. Crossing fingers for series 2 of Demon Headmaster!

Thanks for taking time out to chat with We Are Cult, Emma.

Thank you!

❉ ❉ The Demon Headmaster is produced for CBBC by Children’s In House Productions and Spencer Campbell is the Executive Producer. Told over ten 30-minutes episodes, the show is available to watch on CBBC and BBC iPlayer:

❉ You can follow Emma on Twitter: @emmajanereeves

❉ James Gent is the Editor of We Are Cult, and is the co-editor of ‘Me and the Starman’, (Chinbeard Books, 2019) Available in paperback from Amazon: All profits from this book go toward supporting the work of Cancer Research UK

Become a patron at Patreon!