The mere mention of The Demon Headmaster is enough to send a pleasing tingle down the spine of a generation of ’90s kids. Fans of the original, then, might approach the new reboot – which kicks off today (14th October) on the CBBC channel and BBC iPlayer – with a mixture of excitement and trepidation…
So it’s with great pleasure that RadioTimes.com can report that 2019’s revamp, spearheaded by The Worst Witch writer Emma Reeves, shows enough promise in its first episode to suggest it might be successful in pulling off the tricksy twofer of satisfying us big kids while also hooking (and terrifying) a new, younger age group.
Based on Demon Headmaster author Gillian Cross’s own soft reboot, the 2017 book Total Control, the new series follows the Warren siblings Lizzie (Ellie Botterill) and Tyler (Jordan Cramond). Having previously taken leave from Hazelbrook school after Lizzie got physical with a bully, the Warrens return to the UK following a spell in America, only to find that their once chaotic school has been totally transformed into a spotless academy where “every student is a star”.
An “inspirational” new Headmaster has “really turned [the] school around” is the maxim hypnotically repeated wherever Lizzie and Tyler go – but as you might expect, the Headmaster’s means and motivations are far from benign. Having stood up to one bully six months previous, spirited Lizzie now has to stand up to another, far more formidable tyrant…
It’s always a tough balance for a reboot or remake, updating for a modern audience without compromising what worked so well about the original, but on the evidence of its first episode, the new Demon Headmaster looks like it might just have pulled it off.
It replicates much of what was terrific about the original – playing into school kids’ concerns about feeling like an outsider, with genuinely great twists and an unnerving musical score (from composer Philip Curran, who also provides a new theme tune which includes hints of the haunting original).
Perhaps the one element that’s missing so far, and was one of the most appealing aspects of the original series, is the ‘gang’ aspect. What kid, reading Cross’s novels or watching the original TV adaptation, didn’t want to be a member of SPLAT, the group of students who united against the Headmaster? There are hints here, though, that something along these lines might be coming in future episodes, so fingers crossed.
Elsewhere, there are nods to this new series taking place in 2019, with references to social media, hashtags and overpriced hot chocolate. But the biggest and best modern twist is how this Demon Headmaster is getting political with a small p in tackling the academisation of schools.
As author Cross explained to the New Statesman two years back when Total Control was published: “Schools are so different now… I was quite interested in the pressure that there is now on children in school to succeed at things that they may not have any innate sympathy with. Their agendas are drawn up for them and they have to jump through hoops.”
It’s a twist that not only helps this revival avoid feeling like a simple retread of the old series, but also makes it feel thoroughly 2019.
The other big difference is, of course, the new cast – the young cast are uniformly impressive, with Botterill especially strong as no-nonsense, strong-willed Lizzie. And while it’s inevitably difficult to cast Terrence Hardiman out of your mind, Nicholas Gleaves quickly proves himself a worthy successor as the new Headmaster – his chilly performance chimes perfectly with the vibe of this new series, in that while there’s undoubtedly humour contained within, for the most part it plays admirably straight.
Very little here is tongue-in-cheek, with no comforting winks to the audience – kids, you suspect, will love the show for how little it panders and patronises.
And that goes for us too. Yes, one episode in and we’re fairly confident that, more than two decades on, we’re about to fall under the Demon Headmaster’s spell all over again…
The Demon Headmaster airs on the CBBC channel on Wednesdays at 5pm and is also available on the BBC iPlayer