❉ A long-overdue DVD release of the beloved 1990s CBBC TV series.
Having adored the original book by Gillian Cross as a child, I recall my teenage self greeting the TV adaptation with interest in 1996. However, as I was a teenager, I was a bit sneery, dismissing it as ‘not as good as the book’. In the intervening years, I’ve learnt to assess TV and film adaptations with a bit more nuance, so it wasn’t difficult to volunteer to review the DVD release. Have the 20 years that have passed helped me see the adaptation in a better light? Let’s see…
The Demon Headmaster franchise spawned six books (most of which, I’m ashamed to admit, I had no idea about), four of which the CBBC adaptation uses for its three series. I downloaded the relevant books in order to refresh my memory, two of which, The Demon Headmaster and The Demon Headmaster and the Prime Minister’s Brain, are used for the first series. I was very happy to discover that the original book has lost none of its menace, and, indeed, as an adult, you are probably more disturbed than as a child at the terrifying potential of the Headmaster’s power. Obviously, in order to share the series with the second book, a fair amount of material is cut (which I imagine is what attracted my young ire), but more than enough is present in order to tell a coherent story.
Naturally, it’s not just about plot in these adaptations, as the cast are tasked to convey the character work. Happily, we have a solid group of young actors as our leads; Frances Amey shines as the bright, but haunted Dinah, having to deal with being blessed with the sort of brain the Headmaster is craving, and fighting against her weakness for being hypnotised. Gunnar Cauthery (now known for War Horse and The Tudors) shows his talent as Dinah’s new elder brother Lloyd, who is the leader of the pupil resistance group, SPLAT (Society for the Protection of our Lives Against Them), with Kristy Bruce (a regular in The Bill) as the feisty SPLAT member Ingrid. Jake Curran, as one of the chilling prefects who carry out the Headmaster’s discipline measures, has also enjoyed a steady acting career. It’s just as well, as the formidable presence of Terrence Hardiman (a cult TV regular) as the Headmaster demands performances which match up to him. The first book features the in-universe childrens’ hit The Eddy Hair Show, with an effervescent Danny John Jules as the eccentric Eddy Hair, which enables nerdy viewers like myself to get overexcited at the sight of a BBC OB van, as Dinah’s school, St Champions, hosts what the Headmaster hopes will be his platform to the nation.
I suspect it’s not much of a spoiler to say that his failure doesn’t put him off trying again for what was the second book and second half of the first series. Although the second book gives a memorable description of the Headmaster’s lair, Vulcan Tower, it is unfortunately a little beyond the BBC, at least in 1996, to recreate it with any real conviction (an office block in Uxbridge is rather clumsily superimposed onto a roundabout in Warwick Avenue), but at least we don’t see it for very long. We have the pleasure of Florence Hoath (who made a splash in Doctor Who) in this section of the series, as well as the rather ingenious method of entry into the Vulcan Tower that Lloyd comes up with to help foil the Headmaster’s plans once again.
Both parts of the first series motor along at a fair whack, which I think is one of the main factors in why I found this series to be by far the best on my rewatch. The other two series, based on The Demon Headmaster Strikes Again and The Demon Headmaster Takes Over respectively, seem to suffer a little from having a whole book to cover, as all the books are roughly the same length. (It’s not clear whether the screenplays or books came first, but if you can find a clear, undisputed reference online, please let me know!) Both books also have a problem with focus, as although the plots are straightforward, they take place in the wider world outside the school and the computer competition that featured in the first series.
In the second series, this is probably best seen in the character Rose Carter, who turns up as a ‘friend’ of the family when she spent the first half of the last series being a tool of the Headmaster as a prefect. The actress puts in a mannered, chilling performance in the confines of this role, but can’t really translate this into the wider range required for the second series. This is partly the fault of the book, as I never really bought that the Hunters and the rest of SPLAT would trust Rose enough to enable her to drive a wedge between them and Dinah, but it’s a terrible shame for the actress to be faced with such a complex job when she’s up against Frances Amey. Frustratingly for the audience, the plot requires Lloyd to be in a coma for most of the series, which is a criminal waste of Gunnar Cauthery, who is able to translate the often impatient and bossy Lloyd into a more charismatic creation.
Series three in particular struggles with the nationwide element of the plot, although I feel the book also fails to truly get a grip. However, it is notable for its use of the internet, something that’s likely to amuse Gen Xers/Millennials, as the children who use the network featured find a way, orchestrated by SPLAT, to circumvent the censorship and surveillance that the Headmaster has introduced. Those of us of a certain age will remember the days when the internet was seen as an instrument of liberation, and this story translates that feeling, genuine or not, into a form that children could understand, picking up also on the tendency for children to invent ‘secret’ languages to keep their thoughts from judgemental, nosy adults. This series also includes an unpleasant ordeal for Mrs Hunter, played reliably by Tessa Peake-Jones (probably most famous for Only Fools and Horses), which I found quite shocking for a CBBC series. I also suspect it’s not much of a spoiler to mention that everyone turns out to be ok in the end; or, at least, everyone we care about.
In summary, this is a well-overdue release of a strong series. It’s a shame that the menu for the first series, with a still of the Headmaster and his prefects, is used for every disc, but that’s probably the only gripe I have with the release. Would it have been marvellous to have commentaries? Undoubtedly, but sadly, we probably all know the score on modern DVD releases. Knowing more about the making of the series would have been fascinating, but how ironic, perhaps, that the invention that the third series plays with to such great effect is the force which makes this a vanilla release.
❉ ‘The Demon Headmaster’ Series 1-3 was released on DVD 14th May 2018 by Simply Media. RRP £24.99. Order now from SImply Home Entertainment: https://www.simplyhe.com/products/bbcs-the-demon-headmaster-the-complete-series
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