The Demon Headmaster: agitprop for kids
It is a cliché, when discussing children's media, to vaunt its supposed maturity in comparison to its adult counterpart. Obviously, the 2019 CBBC television version of The Demon Headmaster, created by Emma Reeves from the books by Gillian Cross, is firmly pitched at children rather than adult leftist bloggers. It is, after all, a show about plucky kids whose school is controlled by an evil hypnotist with plans to take over the country - or, at least, the country's schools.
But once we observe that this version of the Demon Headmaster is heading up a new academy chain, drenched in PR-speak and private sector involvement, and patrolled by a fleet of surveillance drones, it is clear that the show is informed by a wider political context. By the time a protagonist is snapped out of her hypnosis with a thinly-veiled Extinction Rebellion logo, declares "to each according to their needs," and is met with "Warning! Unsustainable market model!" by a passing drone, the show's political stance is screamingly clear. It is also clear that you are watching a work of genius.
From a production standpoint, the 2019 Demon Headmaster is superlative children's television. Emma Reeves et al's scripting is precise and satisfying, with each half-hour episode introducing a new facet of the demonic school, creating engaging sub-plots for individual characters, and developing the wider scenario. Our young protagonists, Lizzie, Tyler, Ethan, Angelika, and Blake, are engaging and well-drawn, with interpersonal differences as well as differences in approach and priorities which lead to natural conflicts even as they all pursue the same goals.
The details of the Headmaster's regime are appealingly nasty and distressingly plausible. In the first episode we are introduced to Hazelbrook Academy, where "every student is a star." The Headmaster has created what Reeves calls "a mindless, slogan-chanting cult of loyalty," with a pseudo-police force of student "welcomers" and regular addresses via Orwellian television screens. Philip Curran's unsettling, synth-driven score creates an atmosphere of cold wrongness throughout the series, and directors John McKay and Jonathan Fox Bassett make effective use of locations, frequently shooting the school's towering glass edifices from low angles, the protagonists dwarfed by these remorseless embodiments the Headmaster's regime.
The Headmaster himself is a thoroughly ghoulish figure. Flanked by teachers and "welcomers," he is frequently shown giving aggressive speeches like an Ofsted-approved dictator. However, for all his steeliness, there is something unearthly about him. Scenes will play out in a seemingly innocuous manner, only for him to suddenly appear, as if teleporting to wherever there is trouble in the school. Actor Nicholas Gleaves towers over the younger cast members, and the direction takes frequent advantage of this, having him speak from elevated stages or filming him from the neck downwards, the protagonists gazing up into an inscrutable face.
Gleaves' performance is perhaps the scariest element of the show. His Headmaster radiates a barely suppressed rage, and seems liable to explode into violence at any moment. His oft-repeated slogans ("Control. Command. Conquer." "Routine. Order. Restraint.") are overtly fascistic, despite (or because of) their obvious debt to corporate motivational speaking. In an interview with Sci-Fi Bulletin, Gleaves compares the Headmaster with the definitive hero of British children's television:
"I think this is the heart of the character we’ve created: he is a dark Doctor Who. He’s the polar opposite of a life-giving, enabling magician; he’s a dark magician that will take absolutely every attribute you have and bend it for his own selfish means... That character really does live in the psyche of every school child. There is a dark judge and a person at the back of every kid’s brain that is telling them what to do and is downright unfair."
All of this is grist to the show's political concerns, chief among which are the failings of academy schools. In 2010 the Conservative-led coalition government passed a new Academies Act, which enabled all state schools in England to become academies.
The law allowed central government to fund schools directly rather than through local authorities, which in turn meant schools were beholden to fewer regulations around curriculum and staffing. In practice, this meant taking oversight away from local authorities, staff, and parents, and giving it to what Michael Rosen has called "an archipelago of individuals, trusts, charities, educational institutions and companies". Academy chains, single organisations managing multiple schools, proliferated in the new system, and by the start of 2019 nearly half of all state-educated pupils in England went to academy schools.
The academy system has come in for harsh criticism over the past decade. Some have called the removal of local authority control undemocratic; others have pointed out the heightened expense of academy schools compared to those overseen by local authorities. More garish, and thus better suited to children's shows about magical supervillains, have been the stories of corruption and mismanagement. The lack of oversight from local authorities and staff has led to inordinate amounts of power being concentrated in the hands of head teachers and chief executives. Many used their schools to further their own private business interests, or else simply pocketed public money, as consultancy fees or even outright fraud.
Prominent examples include Sir Greg Martin, who as head of the Durand Academy in London earned over £400,000 a year from business assets on the school site, including a dating agency; and Sajid Raza, Shabana Hussain, and Daud Khan, who defrauded the government out of £150,000 while setting up the Kings Science Academy in Bradford. There have also been a number of scandals around academy chains, such as the Bright Tribe Trust, which allegedly received government grants for building work that was never completed, and was subsequently referred to the City of London's fraud squad. It’s small wonder that in 2017 Gillian Cross told the New Statesman that "obviously the Headmaster would love to have an academy chain".
Cross was speaking to the New Statesman about her new book, Total Control, a reboot of the Demon Headmaster book series after 15 years, and the primary inspiration for the 2019 television version. Described as "a tale of dystopian academisation," the book was inspired by Cross's "conversations with teachers, parents and pupils over the years," which made her "furious about the government’s interference in our education system."
In Total Control, Hazelbrook Academy is characterised by a kind of market-centric philistinism. The school has a coffee bar, maintained by the deputy head's daughter Angelika at a profit ("'You mean — it's like a business?' Tyler said. 'In school?'"). This aspect is maintained in the show, where we are explicitly told that the hypnotised Angelika is "making a massive profit off the school". This observation echoes David Harvey's characterisation of neoliberalism as the "monetisation of everything". The market-dominated worldview of Hazelbrook is shown to actively impede the protagonists' education, most chillingly when the Headmaster hypnotises Lizzie into saying that "Reading has nothing to do with pleasure." For Cross, the neoliberal focus on commerce at the expense of personal development or imagination, enabled by a corrupt and profit-driven institutional structure, is at the heart of the Headmaster's evil: "He [the Demon Headmaster] has the possibility of turning out the workforce that the country requires, which he sees as blatantly the purpose of education."
The 2019 show seizes on this aspect of the novel, and explicitly ties it to the development of academy chains under Conservative-led governments. A pivotal scene comes in episode four, where the gang eavesdrops on a meeting between the headmaster and a set of "academy sponsors." The Headmaster states that:
"This is the system we want to roll out to other schools as we launch the Hazelbrook academy chain... Whatever your business model requires, Hazelbrook can provide it. From a simple janitor to a rocket scientist. Our system ensures a supply of motivated, contented workers, who will obey your commands without question."
It’s all fairly blunt, but the brilliance of this scene is in what it doesn't do. It is established in episode one that the Headmaster only hypnotises people when he takes off his glasses. In this scene, although he is visibly tempted when one investor asks an awkward question, his glasses stay resolutely on. The businessmen buy into a system for producing hypnotised worker drones entirely on its own merits. As Angelika puts it, "I guess some people don't need to be hypnotised." This is clearly a scene written with an awareness of the larger debate surrounding academy chains, but Reeves describes the refinement of this scene to focus on the capitalist worldview more broadly:
"... it was always in the script that the Headmaster doesn’t need to hypnotise the Academy Sponsors, but in the original draft they were simply in it for the money – they were excited by the Headmaster’s promise of exclusive supply deals with every school in Britain. After discussions at the page turn, we added an additional motivation – they were still interested in money, but in the final draft the Headmaster promises to supply his capitalist allies with contented, obedient workers who will be perfectly trained in the exact numbers to match skills gaps, and who will always obey orders."
Where Total Control leaves much of its political critique to implication, the show is appealingly upfront in its repudiation of the neoliberal academy chain.
As well as addressing the problems head-on, the 2019 Demon Headmaster is appealingly direct in its proposed solutions. Earlier in episode four, we see Angelika's aforementioned deprogramming. Rooting through her purse, she happens upon an old badge for a protest group called "Defiance Against Destruction," with a logo clearly modelled on the one for Extinction Rebellion. She has flashbacks to her pre-Headmaster life as an environmental protester, including a Pride flag emblazoned with the word "RESIST" and a sign saying "I'm with her" alongside a picture of planet Earth. The idea of environmentalism and LGBTQ+ political struggle as the key to overcoming the Headmaster's indoctrination is intensely appealing, and is underlined when Angelika identifies the Headmaster's drone as a "tool of the oppressor."
The contemporary political references come to a head later in the episode, as the Headmaster meets a group of protesters, one of whom throws a milkshake at him. According to Reeves:
"The original script for this scene called for the protesting mob to throw the traditional eggs and flour at the Headmaster – but as we entered production, throwing milkshakes became the fashionable way to challenge fascists, so the scene was amended accordingly."
There is an insistence throughout the show on its applicability to contemporary politics. We are not merely shown our heroes resisting an authoritarian teacher; we are invited to contextualise it in the political struggle going on outside our windows. For a children's programme to openly advocate political protest in 2019 is both unexpectedly radical and an unalloyed public good.
However, from here the show takes a less exciting turn. Episode six has the gang investigating the Headmaster online, and discovering a mysterious abandoned school hiding the key to a grander conspiracy. The show eventually reveals itself to be a stealth sequel to the original Demon Headmaster novels and their previous TV adaptation from the late 1990s. The former hero, Dinah Hunter, returns as an adult MI6 agent, and in the final episode Gleaves' Headmaster becomes an overt stooge to Terrence Hardiman's original, who turns out to have been secretly behind everything.
While the later episodes are fun, with an effective escalation of tension as Dinah approaches and then betrays the gang, the continuity parade bears a faint whiff of disappointment. It works dramatically; the reveal that Lizzie and Tyler's mother is one of the original Headmaster's victims/accomplices is one of the show's most effective gut punches. It even works within the wider political critique; neoliberalism is largely a product of the 1980s and 90s, so to have our protagonists haunted by the pop culture of that period is clever in the abstract. But fundamentally, the show is more interesting when it's about rebelling against drab market authoritarianism by connecting with larger contemporary social movements than when it's about being a sequel to a twenty-four-year-old piece of television most of the target audience won't have seen.
Continuity aside, it is gratifying to see a children's programme so unapologetically political. It's the kind of programme only the BBC could produce, a last gasp of public service drama from an increasingly beleaguered and underfunded corporation. Mark Fisher observed the irony that the neoliberal free market for television has generally lagged behind the supposed dinosaurs of the post-war consensus:
"It is another irony that capitalism's 'society of risk' is much less likely to take this kind of risk... It was the public service-oriented BBC and Channel 4 that perplexed and delighted me with the likes of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, Pinter plays and Tarkovsky seasons... Such innovations are unthinkable now that the public has been displaced by the consumer."
You would never find a show like this on Disney+. If the BBC can still produce the occasional Demon Headmaster, it might just be worth keeping. Certainly, the private sector cannot be relied upon to produce children's drama of this quality.
The final episode feels particularly pointed. The gang manage to disrupt the Headmaster's plan to hypnotise the nation via a news broadcast, by hijacking the signal with a message of their own:
"Mums, dads, guardians, whoever you are, please listen to your children. And if you don't have any kids, listen to someone else's. Also, look at the people in charge, and ask yourself: do they really know better than us? Look into their eyes. Do you really think they care?"
Watching this episode in June 2020, as an openly mendacious government relaxed lockdown despite its own scientists warning it was unsafe, this hit particularly close to home. Especially in an episode first broadcast a mere four days after that government was elected by a landslide.
The Demon Headmaster is not, in itself, a political solution. It will not undo the damage that the Conservative Party and decades of neoliberalism have done to education, the media, or the world as a whole. However, it might just encourage a few kids to be that bit more distrustful of authority. To question the men in sharp suits who view them as future workers and nothing more. To fight back, with milkshakes or otherwise, against creeping fascism. Alone it's not enough, but it is worth celebrating, and the message sent is clear: do try this at home, kids. Before it's too late.
William Shaw's writing has appeared in The Oxford Culture Review and Doctor Who Magazine. His first book, The Black Archive #42: The Rings of Akhaten, about Doctor Who and the legacy of New Atheism, is available now from Obverse Books. You can find him online here, or on Twitter @Will_S_7.