“Anyone who wants to complain to The Daily Mail would be doing us a huge favour and getting us much-needed publicity!” laughs Emma Reeves, head writer of CBBC’s The Demon Headmaster. “I hope you call and tell them!”
I’ve asked if, in the hale and hearty tradition of BBC children’s drama being accused of pushing ‘Marxist’ propaganda onto young minds, she’s had any stick for her new show? Not yet, is the answer. CBBC tends to fly under the radar, explains Reeves. And however politically tuned-in The Demon Headmaster might be, as a sci-fi fantasy drama it enjoys the camouflage of the genre.
“We certainly went darker than the book and didn’t really encounter much opposition,” says Reeves. “Anything that’s not obviously kitchen-sink realism, you’re able to get away with quite a lot more. Because the context is fantastical and we know the Headmaster has got a magic power… I feel actually we get away with a lot in this show.”
You could say that. Over its first series, The Demon Headmaster has critiqued contemporary educational policy, achievement-obsessed parenting, technological state surveillance, patriarchal power systems, neoliberal economics and every oppressive political -ism that privileges conformity over freedom and control over individuality.
It’s also, to be clear, a ripping sci-fi yarn aimed at six to 11-year-olds.
Set in a once-failing school transformed by its mysterious new head into a top-performing Academy where “every student is a star”, The Demon Headmaster is adapted from Gillian Cross’ latest addition to her series, Total Control. The books have been a perennial favourite with children and teachers since they first arrived in the 1980s and haven’t been out of print since. Only in the first instalment is the lead villain a headmaster. In the sequels “he’s more like ‘Demon Evil Scientist Guy’ and has all sorts of crazy schemes,” says Reeves.
“In 2017, the new book was published and she brought it back to him running a school because Gillian felt very strongly that the way education was going under the Academy system [under which schools are funded direct from central government rather than local education authorities and aren’t subject to the national curriculum], the Headmaster would actually find things a lot easier than he would have done in the 1980s.”
Cross was particularly worried and angered by “the idea that as log as you get good results, that’s all that matters, no questions asked and children’s feelings don’t matter,” says Reeves, whose mother, aunt and grandmother are all teachers. “That was why she decided to take the headmaster back to his roots and he’s now running an Academy school.”
Younger viewers may engage more with the show’s bullying or action-adventure storylines than its political debate, but they absolutely recognise what’s at its centre, says Reeves. “Education policy and what governments might be doing to change the curriculum in schools is obviously more of an adult conversation,” she tells us, “but young people certainly feel the idea of being pressured to fit particular boxes in which they don’t belong.”
That’s what starts to happen to the pupils of Hazelbrook Academy, who find themselves specialising – and excelling – in areas in which they previously showed no interest. Coder Ethan Prendergast becomes a trophy-wining footballer, disrespectful bully Blake becomes obsessed with school tidiness, vegan anti-capitalist Angelika opens a lucrative coffee shop on school premises and starts talking like a week nine candidate on The Apprentice, independent thinker Lizzie Warren becomes a martial arts soldier and her science-illiterate brother Tyler develops a sudden compulsion to build robotics… something strange is happening at Hazelbrook, and it’s down to the kids to find out what.
“One of the very core themes that Gillian was tapping into is that idea when children know there’s something wrong at school but can’t quite get the message across to their parents,” says Reeves. Armed with the power to hypnotise, the Headmaster “makes people doubt their own memories. He makes people think ‘I don’t know what’s true, I’ve got no certainties anymore, I don’t know who I am’.”
That might be described as Gaslighting these days, I suggest? “He’s the ultimate Gaslighter, he really is!” laughs Reeves. “Somebody who can undermine your very reality, that’s for me the most frightening thing about him.”
A “terrifyingly efficient” leader who “thinks he’s doing the planet a favour,” what’s truly scary about the character (played here by Nicholas Gleaves, taking over the role from Terrence Hardiman in the 1990s TV version) is that “he really believes what he’s saying. He thinks he’s better than everybody else. He thinks he’s qualified to make decisions for everybody else. He thinks he knows best for everyone.”
“The Headmaster’s powers could be an allegory for all sorts of things,” says Reeves. As well as representing fascism, the patriarchy… “he could also be an abuser in an allegorical sense – that’s how abusers get away with what they do. But it’s not a show about child abuse.”
“It’s a drama, not a manifesto,” stresses Reeves, whose previous work includes Doctor Who and Torchwood Big Finish audios, CBBC fantasy adaptation The Worst Witch and sci-fi series Eve. “You try to look at various elements and put the different points of view across. When you’re writing a character like the Headmaster, you need to see things from his point of view a bit.”
Reeves has her own ideas on the Demon Headmaster’s origin (calling it her “fan theory”) but says what he stands for is more important than where he comes from. “He represents a drive towards conformity and also a very right wing agenda, and a very ‘them and us’ agenda, except to him there is only one ‘us’ and it’s him!”
With such efficiency and power, how can he possibly be defeated? It’s to do with hanging on to a sense of self, says Reeves. “The fact that Tyler loves his sister, that’s a way to fight back against the Headmaster’s powers.”
The Headmaster underestimates young people, she says, and crucially, he also underestimates love. “The power of love can compel people to do things in a way the headmaster just doesn’t understand and will never understand – maybe that’s why he keeps losing to all these gangs of scrappy kids.”
The Demon Headmaster episode eight airs on Monday the 2nd of December at 5pm on CBBC. All previous episodes are available here on BBC iPlayer for the next ten months.