Review by Christopher G. Nuttall
The Demon Headmaster Series
“I think the Headmaster is a marvellous man and this is the best school I’ve ever been to”.
The Demon Headmaster and its sequels (five successors, one reboot) are not magic school stories in the classic sense, unlike Harry Potter or Schooled in Magic. There is one magician – or a mutant, depending on how you look at it – and a handful of people who have strange abilities of their own, but they don’t go to magic school and (apart from the titular character himself) have no real control over their abilities. And yet, I have chosen to review the books … because, in a way, they were amongst my favourites when I was a little boy.
The Demon Headmaster starts with Dinah Glass, a young genius-level orphan, being fostered by the Hunters and starting life at a brand new school. The school, however, is creepy; the children are incredibly well-behaved; they recite the same rote phrases whenever they’re asked about the school; and the headmaster himself is a deeply sinister figure. And, after Dinah meets the headmaster for the first time, she finds herself reciting the same rote phrases herself. She simply cannot stop herself. She eventually realises that the headmaster has hypnotised the entire school.
Unlike Dinah herself, her foster brothers – and a handful of friends – have a certain immunity to the hypnosis. This has made them pariahs in the school, but also forced them to band together to resist the headmaster. Together, they figure out that the headmaster intends to make his students win a TV contest, giving him the chance to make a speech to the entire country (this made more sense when the books were written, when there were only a handful of TV channels in Britain) and put everyone under his spell. Thankfully, through a combination of luck and bravery, Dinah and her friends manage to defeat the headmaster and force him to leave the school.
This doesn’t stop him from coming back, of course. In The Prime Minister’s Brain, the headmaster intends to hack the government’s computer and hypnotise the Prime Minster himself. In The Revenge of the Demon Headmaster, easily the least of the series, he intends to use hypnotised holidaymakers to produce junk and take over the world; in The Demon Headmaster Strikes Again he’s messing around with genetic engineering; in The Demon Headmaster Takes Over he’s duelling a supercomputer to take over the internet and, in Facing the Demon Headmaster, he’s made it deadly personal in devising a plot to take out Dinah herself. (Apparently, kidnapping and hypnotising her at leisure was too straightforward a scheme for him.) From these unpromising beginnings, Gillian Cross wove a nightmarish vision that kept me awake at nights.
The heart of the stories lies in the relationship between Dinah, her adopted siblings, and the rest of their little group. Dinah herself is very shy, when she first meets them; she is incredibly smart, smarter than even the headmaster himself, but she doesn’t use her intellect to lord it over them. She also has the weakness of being vulnerable to the headmaster’s power, unlike the others. It’s interesting to see how she manages to work around it to challenge the headmaster himself. In many ways, Dinah was the first true female heroine I liked.
The other characters are somewhat less well-defined (Dinah herself is the majority viewpoint character), but they have their moments. Her foster-brothers are decent people, once they warm up to her; her friends (some of whom don’t appear in every book) help fill in the holes in her story. The only weak characters are her foster-parents, who don’t seem to have a major role in the series. But then, adults rarely do in child-centred books.
But the core of the series lies in the headmaster himself. A nameless figure (as far as we know), so pale that some people speculated that he’s a vampire, with a tendency to devise madcap schemes to take over and reorganise the world. An adult would recognise that his early plans were utter madness, even in those days; a child wouldn’t see the weaknesses and believe, in earnest, that the headmaster could succeed. Indeed, most of his plans have a solid core of logic to them (his plan in The Revenge of the Demon Headmaster does not, which is probably why it was never adapted into a TV series) and they grow more terrifying as the series progresses. His plan in Facing the Demon Headmaster has a healthy dose of adult fear mixed in, although – as I noted above – there were plenty of simpler ways to remove Dinah from the gameboard that didn’t rely on her following a predictable path. And, in the end, random chance plays a major role in his defeats. This may be fridge brilliance, as randomness and disorderliness is the one thing the headmaster cannot abide.
In some ways, the headmaster himself is underused in the books. He is a constant presence in The Demon Headmaster, but his involvement in the later books is often concealed as the plot moves along until the main characters encounter him in person. Dinah and her friends really should start to suspect his involvement earlier, particularly when they encounter people reciting rote phrases whenever they’re asked delicate questions. It does sometimes become a plot point – his namelessness becomes a problem in one book – but otherwise it becomes a little odd as the series develops. Dinah never seems to go seeking out the headmaster until he’s impinged on her life.
It cannot be denied that the books read somewhat dated, today. The TV show that is the core of the headmaster’s plan in the first book would not be so universally beloved today, when viewer figures are more spread out over hundreds of possible channels (to say nothing of the internet). Technology advances in the books at pace with our world; Dinah doesn’t have a mobile phone in the first books, even though it would have solved the plot, but she owns one in Facing the Demon Headmaster. It’s easy to see the books as a glimpse into another world, one now surprisingly alien to us. And yet, it’s also easy to see ways the headmaster could turn the modern world to his advantage. What could he do with social media?
And yet, most of them still manage to hit the sweet spots. They have kid heroes who are not (particularly) annoying, who have strengths and weaknesses … they have moments of humour that appeal to both kids and adults … the solutions are logical, by and large, with a mixture of elements that make sense. And also, some moments of sadness that are a reflection of the real world. Dinah’s hope that she might have finally located her biological father in Facing the Demon Headmaster becomes a tearjerker when we discover that it’s part of the headmaster’s plot.
I was disappointed, I must admit, with the reboot of the series. Perhaps it was the simple fact that I have outgrown the series long ago – perhaps it was that I had no investment in the new characters – but I simply didn’t like Total Control. It was too … childish. Dinah appealed to me – I had a lot in common with her when I was a boy – in a way that the main characters of Total Control did not.
The BBC took the original books and worked them into a remarkably good – for its era – series on television, with Terrence Hardiman as The Demon Headmaster and Frances Amey as Dinah Glass/Hunter. In hindsight, it suffers from many of the same flaws as other child-led storylines; the main characters, being children, are not always very convincing actors and the adults come across as either grossly irresponsible (because it is harder to forget that the children are children when you see them on TV) or stupid. The Headmaster himself, by contrast, doesn’t have anything like as many issues – he’s genuinely creepy, made worse by the fact that (unlike many of the books) the headmaster is a visible figure from the start and the series spends as much time following him as it does the kids. And it avoided many of the main weaknesses of modern-day shows for children. There are no fight scenes that are obviously contrived.
Overall, I enjoyed these books when I was part of the target audience (young children, early teens). And that, I think, allows me to count them as a success.