“The Demon Headmaster is the opposite of Doctor Who”: CBBC revamp’s star and writer on reviving a classic

The 2019 show is based on a new novel by original author Gillian Cross – but will there be a series two?

The Demon Headmaster (Nicholas Gleaves)

Adapting a beloved book for the screen is no mean feat. Nor is producing an updated version of a TV classic for modern audiences. So it’s no surprise to hear writer Emma Reeves admit that she felt “enormous trepidation” revamping The Demon Headmaster for CBBC.

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But speaking to RadioTimes.com, Reeves (The Worst Witch, Eve) insisted that she was also incredibly excited to “bring a new audience into the Headmaster’s world” with a show based on original author Gillian Cross’s 2017 book ‘Total Control’.

“There’s enormous trepidation obviously, it goes hand-in-hand with the excitement,” Reeves said. “I know if I’m a really huge fan of a book, it can be very hard for an adaptation to please me.

‘But the trepidation was lessened a bit by the fact that this was a new book that hadn’t been adapted before – and apart from the character of the Headmaster having a similar modus operandi to the ’80s and ’90s books, there are no obvious links, so I felt that it was an opportunity for us to work how the continuity does come together.”

She continued: “I felt that we could bring in the sensibility of what people loved about the ’80s books and ’90s series. But certainly I wouldn’t say it’s not intimidating!”

The new Demon Headmaster series brings the evil antics of its title villain bang up to date, with a plot that sees the Headmaster assume control of an Academy school. Portrayed in the ’90s series by Terrence Hardiman, the character is now played by Bodyguard actor Nicholas Gleaves.

“Quite a few actors came in to read – some really great actors,” Reeves says of casting the pivotal role. “But I think we were all very keen on Nick from the start.”

“I see the Demon Headmaster as a dark magician,” Gleaves tells us. “He’s like the opposite of Doctor Who – Doctor Who is a force for good and community and freeing the individual and going around the galaxies fighting evil, and the Demon Headmaster is the polar opposite of that.

The Demon Headmaster reboot
BBC / Robert Periera Hind

“All he wants to do is control every single aspect of your life and make you do exactly what he wants under his idea of what perfection is, at the cost of individuality, or creativity. Any kind of impingement he wouldn’t like, he would zap that out of you with his hypnosis!”

The Doctor Who comparison is especially fitting given that Reeves got some advice on how to revamp a beloved TV classic from someone who has previous in that area – Russell T Davies.

“When I told him about it, he said, ‘Make it scary! Make it dark!’,” Reeves reveals. “And I said, ‘I certainly will, as much as CBBC will let me!’.”

New characters – strong-willed schoolgirl Lizzie Warren (Ellie Botterill) and her pals – go up against the Headmaster in the new series, though Reeves told us that there’s “absolutely no reason why we couldn’t see [more] characters from the old show re-emerging”.

She and her writing team have already pitched a second series of The Demon Headmaster to CBBC, one which Reeves tells us would continue to use elements from ‘Total Control’, adapt parts of Gillian Cross’ sequel book ‘Mortal Danger’ and potentially take the show into totally uncharted territory too.

The Demon Headmaster (Nicholas Gleaves)

“We’re very much thinking ‘What happens to these characters next?’ and taking some elements of ‘Mortal Danger’ and also just seeing what else might happen!”

For his part, Reeves says he’d “love to” play the wicked Headmaster again. “He’s a bit like that Terminator that won’t die – he gets back up again!

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“With the world of communications and how it is intrinsic to our every waking moment, there’s a lot of ways to hypnotise and I think if he was to ever get hold of a base of communication, then it would be terrifying as to what he could do. I think that’s why the series has a future, because there could be no stopping him if he were to get hold of what he ultimately wants…”

New episodes of The Demon Headmaster premiere on the CBBC channel on Wednesdays at 5pm – the first five episodes are available to watch now on BBC iPlayer