The Demon Headmaster interview: what the cast got up to after school

We talk to the cast of The Demon Headmaster 20 years on…

Those specs, the voice, that stare – for a generation of children in the UK, there was nothing quite as scary in the afternoons as The Demon Headmaster. First appearing in the children’s book of the same name by Gillian Cross in 1982, the character is now indelibly linked with the CBBC TV series which ran from 1996-1998. We spoke to the Demon Headmaster himself Terrence Hardiman, and Frances Amey who played his nemesis, child genius Dinah Hunter, to learn more.

The series crested a wave of quality Children’s BBC supernatural dramas like Dark Season, Century Falls and Earthfasts. The scripts were adapted from Cross’s books by Helen Cresswell, who had also written the wildly successful 1991 version of Five Children And It, as well as adapting her own novel Moondial in 1988. The producer-director was Roger Singleton-Turner.

Cast as the terrifying Demon Headmaster was Terrence Hardiman, who was perhaps best known at that time for playing Reinhardt in Secret Army. “I had worked with the director-producer years before on some children’s drama. So, I knew him and he knew me, and obviously he thought that I was a good idea for the part. They got in touch and said ‘the problem is, it’s working with children!’. I said ‘yes? What does that matter?’. They said ‘well some actors don’t like to’ and I said ‘if they’re good actors, I don’t care what their age is!’ They said they were going to send me the scripts, which they did, and I sat in the garden – I remember this vividly, sitting in a little bower area which I have at the bottom of the garden, and the wife fed me with a bit of coffee now and again, and I ploughed through them. I thought ‘this is lovely, a pantomimic figure, nasty fellow’ but lovely, who wouldn’t want to play something like this? I knew once I’d finished reading it that I would want to do it. Why not? You don’t have to be a murderer to play Macbeth, and you don’t have to be a megalomaniac who wants to rule the world to play the Demon Headmaster!”

Was there any special preparation to perfect the hypnotic stare? “I didn’t do any particular exercise… The whole business of staring, I mean, it’s just a concentration thing, isn’t it? I do have a slightly frightening look occasionally,” he laughs. ‘”I can’t help it, that’s built in! When I was a school kid, I remember that my parents went to a parents’ evening, and my teacher said ‘oh yes, Terrence Hardiman, the boy with the soulful look!’. I thought ‘what on earth does that mean?!’ It just really means that when my face is in repose it either looks a bit threatening or a bit sad! So I was able to use just the natural thing that happens with my face, I suppose.”

Opposing him was Dinah, played by Frances Amey. ‘I was very new at [acting school] Anna Sher, and I was really in the right place at the right time. I’d just joined, I had no friends, and I was a bit of a fish out of water. In the audition I was wearing my Sunday best, you know, black and white kilt, and patent black shoes, very 90s! You had to go along and say your name and what you wanted to be when you grow up. There were people going, ‘oh, I want to be a star,’ all sorts of cool things, and I said, ‘my name is Frances Amey and I wanted to be a dentist’. It was just all a bit odd! But they called me down to the green room and then we did a reading of the script. I really enjoyed doing that. Didn’t think anything more of it, and then got a call back. I think in total there were three auditions. I only really remember that first one.”

What was it like working with Terrence Hardiman? “It was very interesting how friendly he is and how terrifying he is. To know both of those two Terrys was really cool, because he was really quite frightening when you were actually acting with him but he’s the greatest, loveliest guy. We knew him as the friendliest, father-figure kind of guy.”

Supporting Dinah were the members of SPLAT (Society for the Protection of our Lives Against Them), including her foster brothers Lloyd and Harvey Hunter (Gunnar Cauthery and Thomas Szekeres). Only Fools And Horses star Tessa Peake-Jones played Mrs Hunter. “Very relaxed, you know, zero airs and graces,” Amey remembers. “Never was there any attitude from anyone of, ‘this is a filming set!’ or anything, it was just very, very professional but very relaxed, and Tessa was absolutely like that. I just very quickly became proud that she was my mum!”

All episodes of the show were directed by Roger Singleton-Turner. “He’s really an incredible man,” says Amey. “So caring and kind and thoughtful, so respectful of us as performers, as artists. Not in an annoying way, or a kind of cheesy way – I didn’t even think of myself in that way, but he did and that was really amazing. He definitely allowed us to explore our characters ourselves, and I think you can really see that through the series. I think even from Series 1 to Series 2 the performances are just so much more natural, more developed.” 

The first series is split into two sets of three episodes, with the second set adapting the second novel, The Prime Minister’s Brain. The third book, The Revenge Of The Demon Headmaster, was not adapted and the second series was instead an adaptation of the fourth book, The Demon Headmaster Strikes Again, which sees the Demon Head engaged in a nefarious plot involving cloning, creepy creeper and giant wasps.

The second series afforded Amey the chance to play Eve, the half-lizard Dinah clone. “The make-up was really fun for Eve. Each scale was individually placed on each day and painted around with face paints. Yeah, just playing your own evil twin is extremely cool!”

The third series was based on the fifth novel, The Demon Headmaster Takes Over. This time, an amnesiac Headmaster ends up as the director of a computer research establishment, intent on gaining all human knowledge via the sentient Hyperbrain computer.

“I think the third series was quite different,” says Amey, “There was a kind of level of sophistication to it that I think had been just budding in the other series. There was more of a kind of, ‘right, we have to raise our game now in terms of types of conversations we’re having, can’t mess around and be so juvenile as we used to be.’ I think that was a different atmosphere in the third series.”

The huge success of the show did have an effect on the lives of the actors. “There was a period,” remembers Amey, “where you’d be walking down the street or going in to McDonald’s and people would immediately start asking for autographs. It was quite weird, but people are very, very friendly, so it was really nice. It was like we were all excited – they were excited this was happening, I was pleased that people liked the show. So there was nothing ever annoying, or intimidating or tiring about that element.”

“A lot of people still remember it,” says Hardiman. “Whereas it used to be children stopping me and asking me things about it, or laughing, saying what they thought about the series, now it’s grown-up people with children of that age. One guy who lives near us here, BIG fellow, one day came across the road to me and I thought, ‘oh my goodness, what’s he going to do?’ and he said ‘’ere, you used to frighten me when I was a kid!’ I stared up at this six-foot-six fellow and I said, ‘well, I think you’re going to frighten me even more!’. We’ve had a laugh since, so it’s alright. 

There was also the issue of typecasting: “Naturally that tied me to that sort of role for a while, or no roles at all! I didn’t do any telly for a while, I didn’t do any filming for a while, but I was doing a lot of voice work. I was doing a lot of audiobooks, which I’ve been doing for years now, and I like that. So that was where I went while I was offscreen as it were! Then things moved in different ways and I got different things…but in a way you have to be forgotten for a while, after you’ve been associated with a particular part.”

Hardiman went on to appear in shows like The Worst Witch, Urban Gothic, and Doctor Who, and most recently The Crown. Amey, on the other hand, mostly moved away from acting following the series. ‘The Demon Headmaster was the formative experience of my young life, without a doubt. But I think more in that it introduced me to Dinah, rather than acting in a way. That’s really what I’ve taken away from it. I consider her very much a mentor, or she was to me at that time, in terms of thinking about how to be a good person. I do still like acting. It’s something that I like as a sideline, but it’s not something that I want to pursue to try and make my living. Dinah was just the best part there was. My career peaked at the beginning, age 10! That’s just the way it is.”

There would be a subsequent novel, Facing The Demon Headmaster, which sees the protagonists dealing with a mysterious masked DJ with an oddly familiar manager. Would they ever consider returning to their roles? “I can’t believe it!” says Amey. “Let’s make it!”

Hardiman is a little more reticent: “I’m now too old to play it, I think… but one never says never! As Sean Connery once said, didn’t he? Never say never! But I cannot see any possibility of it happening, and if they wanted to redo it, reboot it, I’m sure they would get another actor.” What about if it were possible to make an audio version of the final book? “I’d certainly do that if asked!” says Hardiman, enthusiastically. “I’ve still got the voice, I think, and I wouldn’t have to stare at the microphone and frighten it!”

The series is out now on DVD. Will it continue to still stand up 20 years later? “I think the stories will,” says Hardiman. “The technology will look odd! I remember on one of the series I had to do a scene where I phoned Frances Amey’s mother, and they said, ‘here you are, it’s a mobile phone,’ and I’d never seen a mobile phone before! I said, ‘well, what do I do? I’ve got to make it look as if I know what I’m doing!’ I had no idea how this thing worked! It didn’t have to work practically but it had to look as if I knew what I was doing! I hope it still does but you never know… The equipment’s going to look a bit clunky and old-fashioned now.”

How would the Demon Headmaster deal with kids of today with their iPhones? “Probably in exactly the same way! First of all, he’d probably confiscate them, he’d probably adapt them so that they only answered according to what he wanted them to hear!” Hardiman laughs. “Thinking off the top of my head…”

The Demon Headmaster: The Complete Series is out now on DVD. Get all the latest sci-fi news with every issue of SciFiNow.