Looking Back At THE DEMON HEADMASTER (1996) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At THE DEMON HEADMASTER (1996)

Tony’s going back to school. That’s pretty scary.
There’s something about The Demon Headmaster (1996 version) that deserves a bigger screen than it had at the time.

When you consider that things like the Star Wars prequels and sequels were greenlit for movies with extremely thin plotlines, the sheer quality and texture of the ideas and pacing behind the Demon Headmaster feel like they really deserve a movie-size canvas.

On the other hand, if they’d had one back in the Nineties, we would have been robbed of the joy and the wonder of the TV version, starring Terence Hardiman, so perhaps there are blessings – at least for viewers – in the fact that The Demon Headmaster has (at least so far) been confined to the small screen.

The premise is one that’s guaranteed to appeal to the intended audience of school-age children. In fact, it’s probably one that’s OCCURRED to most school-age children. The headmaster (other evil teachers are available, your mileage may vary) is not JUST a petty, tedious, point-scoring, child-hating scumbag. That’s more or less par for the course in school – however much you may like your educational experience, there’ll be at least ONE teacher who feels like it’s their dedicated mission in life to make you feel like a miserable, talentless, worm, with no potential and no future.

But for Dinah Glass (Frances Amey), things are far, far worse than that.

Orphaned when she was just a year old, Dinah has already had an interesting and fairly tough life before we meet her in The Demon Headmaster, living in a children’s home. When she’s fostered into the Hunter family, which already has two boys who’ve also been fostered, Lloyd and Harvey, there’s a sense that things might be looking up.

But it’s not long before things in Dinah’s life start getting very, very weird.
Met with a degree of initial hostility by the boys, the real weirdness starts when she attends her new school, St Champions. Mixing elements of classic science fiction like John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos with any classic possession movie you care to name, the kids are weird, and there’s an oppressive atmosphere that turns St Champions into a dark, dark place.

While the original book of The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross was published as far back as 1982, the time for evil teachers was about to hit a high point in 1996, when the show hit children’s minds across the UK. For reference, the first Harry Potter novel was released in 1997, with Professors Snape and Quirrell beginning a short list of evil teachers on both the page and the big screen to terrify and torment the boy who lived – and his faithful fans.

At the risk of alienating a generation of Potter-fans, we’d argue that both Cross’ books, and the screen versions, adapted by Helen Cresswell (herself no stranger to ‘outsider kid’ fiction as the creator of Lizzie Dripping, and with plenty of other literary adaptations to her credit, including Five Children And It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Famous Five) are actually BETTER than Rowling’s works.

Yes, really.

How are we justifying such – as some will see it – heresy?

Simple.

Point 1 – the structure of Dinah’s journey, both in the books (which carry on much further than the TV show), and the show, is succinct, concise, and feels like it has purpose, where Potter feels like a series of individual mini-quests.

With the first three episodes covering the first of Cross’ novels, it feels like The Demon Headmaster has the time and the breath to develop its tension, its characters, and its depth of storytelling. It almost feels like a perfect combination of a movie trilogy and a hardcore TV drama – without ever getting too ‘Hobbity’ and drawn-out. The tension builds from episode to episode as Dinah’s character development is achieved THROUGH the drama, rather than, as it sometimes feels in the Potterverse, because the author remembered there had to be some at some point.

Point 2 – Orphan for orphan, Dinah Glass is much more interesting and fun to be around than Harry Potter. If you combined the Potter trio together, you might end up with someone ALMOST as cool as Dinah – she has the cleverness of a Hermione without the initial superiority. She has the guardedness of Harry, because like him she’s learned that showing how clever you are is often a reason people will punish you. And she’s still grounded enough to appreciate the fun in life, like Ron, and has an intuitive appreciation of what ‘normal’ at least SHOULD look like, even if her own home situation has rarely if ever come close to it.

Point 3 – while we’re not about to throw shade on any of the Potter actors, the work that Frances Amey does in The Demon Headmaster hardly ever gets the appreciation it deserves. The point about Glass’ books is that the characters – particularly Dinah – are not straightforward avatars of goodness, despite the Demon Headmaster himself being a more straightforward and enigmatic avatar of evil than for instance Lord Voldemort.
Dinah’s very much a believable human being first, and a hero second. She’s achievable, she’s identifiable and reachable for the audience – hardly something that can be said of the boy who lived, given his famous history. That makes Dinah a much harder character to balance and play – and Frances Amey absolutely knocks it out of the park. She makes Dinah exactly what she should be – a clever girl with a hard history, some sharp instincts for danger, and the inner strength to stand up and stop evil when she identifies it.

That makes her a hero the audience can identify with, especially (without getting overly dark about it) any of the audience who have hard histories of their own, and have their own Demon Adult to combat in their lives.

And while we’re talking about the acting, step forward Terence Hardiman.

Certainly, if we’re maintaining the comparison, there’s no-one in his generation who can ‘villain’ like Alan Rickman, who provided an anchor weight of believable rancour from an adult to a child throughout the Potter movies.

But that’s partly the point.

Rickman had a history of playing positively spectacular villains by the time he came to the world of Potter, and really the genius of his performance was in reining in that powerful potential for acting the villain.

Terence Hardiman is an actor that could and can pass for the man on the street. If there’s an actor more inherently suited to playing John Le Mesurier roles – harmless, slightly ineffectual but always well-meaning roles – we’re not sure we know who they are.

Perhaps only Michael Sheard, within a handful of generations, comes close. And yet both actors were known for playing merciless Nazis in TV dramas, because they had a similar gift – they could look perfectly pleasant and stable, and yet, on demand, they could release a performance that spoke of twisted logic and human evil.
Perhaps it’s also no coincidence that Michael Sheard played Mr Bronson in Grange Hill – terrifying a generation of children with the human equivalent of ‘that’ teacher, the one whose very existence seemed based on making the lives of children a living nightmare.

Hardiman in The Demon Headmaster leaves nothing on the field, without ever noticeably going over the top for the material. It’s no real surprise that the Demon Headmaster has become the role for which he’s most known and instantly recognised. When Hardiman goes full demon, it’s believably terrifying, the sense of ‘standard’ power giving way to world-conquering ‘supernatural’ power ridiculously compelling and convincing.

And finally, let’s touch on this just briefly – you can enjoy The Demon Headmaster without having to separate the author from the work, as most people have to do in the 21st century with JK Rowling and the Potter universe.

You can just dive in, and between Gillian Cross and Helen Cresswell, with Frances Amey and Terence Hardiman smashing their adversarial roles so far out of the park you can only marvel at them, you can enjoy three series of Demon Headmastering for the characterisation, the complexity, the challenge of standing up to evil even when everyone else is going along in a hypnotised zombie-state, speaking and acting like robots.

You can watch Dinah stand up first to the power of a leading adult in her school, when most of her experience has told her she doesn’t have the right.

And in later episodes, you can watch her stand up to ‘influencer’ adults in the person of tech leaders (the Demon Headmaster acting as the owner of the company controlling the most popular game among young people), and against unscrupulous med-tech (as the Demon Headmaster plans to accelerate human evolution).

Ultimately, coming full circle, Dinah has to stand up to the whole notion of unthinking conformity culture in Series 3, going along with the ‘norm’ as libraries close, as amenities shut down, and as people stop talking to one another. If that doesn’t strike you as a relevant lesson to re-learn in the 21st century, you might want to take a look around sometime between bingeing sessions.

The three series of The Demon Headmaster include some pretty ethical lessons, with a complex central hero and a mesmerising villain (in every sense of the word). More than a quarter of a century since it was first broadcast, it’s still fresh, still complex, and still highly rewatchable. Which is at least one of the reasons why a follow-on series behand broadcasting in 2019, based on some of Cross’ later Demon Headmaster books.

By all means, enjoy the new series. But now that they’ve arrived on Britbox, it’s time to resist the forces of evil all over again. Take time out for a Demon Headmaster rewatch today.

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Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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