Inspired by a combination of Matilda: The Musical, which I saw at the Sunderland Empire a few weeks ago, and Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, I’ve been thinking about childhood books I read that were pleasingly, if perhaps unintentionally, critical of prevailing ideas about schooling and childhood. The first that sprang to mind was Gillian Cross’s The Demon Headmaster (1982). The premise is simple: a headmaster possesses the power to hypnotise (almost) anybody he can look straight in the eye, and keeps a school of children under his thrall so he can pursue his plans for world domination and the imposition of an orderly, perfect society. A small group of children are naturally resistant to hypnosis, and so form SPLAT (Society for the Protection of Our Lives Against Them. Could an acronym be more perfect?). However, when two of our protagonists, Lloyd and Harvey, meet their new foster sister, Dinah, they realise that despite her exceptional intelligence, she’s as easily hypnotised as the other children. Will Lloyd and Harvey be brought down by the ‘traitor’ in their midst, or does Dinah hold the key to their salvation?
A series of Demon Headmaster covers. L to R: The copy I first read from my school library; the copy I own; the weird modern cover, where the Headmaster looks like a Midwich Cuckoo.
The things I love about The Demon Headmaster are as follows:
- The demon headmaster, referred to only as the Headmaster in the book, teaches by hypnotising the children so they learn long chunks of lessons by heart, but we later find out that he’s also implanting instructions to his pupils so they can execute his future evil plans, which will be led by the prefects. School as a training ground for capitalist society, anyone? (Although it’s fair to say that the Headmaster’s future plans sound decidedly more quasi-communist than capitalist, unsurprisingly considering when this book was written.)
- The Headmaster also implants hypnotic commands so the children will recite rote answers when questioned by their parents about school. The best of these is what’s triggered whenever the Headmaster himself is mentioned: “I think the Headmaster is a marvellous man and this is the best school I’ve ever been to.” However, none of the parents notice how weirdly their children are behaving, nor do they listen to SPLAT’s protests that their peers are obviously hypnotised. Unintentionally, the book draws attention to the routine ignoring and belittling of children’s perspectives, especially their views regarding school.
- Dinah is a kind of character I’ve never encountered anywhere else; she’s incredibly bright but desperate to hide her intelligence, not because she fears being bullied but because she knows it will mark her out among the adults as weird and precocious. She also visibly struggles to not jump ahead of her peers too quickly for the sake of maintaining friendships. Precious few books deal with the particular trials of being a very bright child; there’s lots of narratives about ‘bookish’ children being bullied but it’s rare to find something that’s so clear about the other difficulties of being ‘ahead of one’s age’ (and indeed the ageism that’s inherent in that very assumption).
- SPLAT’s set of passwords is the Headmaster’s motto: ‘The man who can keep order can rule the world’ followed by their own response: ‘But the man who can bear disorder is truly free.’ So basically, they’re an anarchist collective bringing down a Stalin-like dictatorship. Excellent!
Still from the Demon Headmaster TV series: a perfectly cast Headmaster with his prefects.
The Demon Headmaster was followed up by two even better, if less subversive, sequels: The Prime Minister’s Brain and The Revenge of the Demon Headmaster, then a few other sequels that were decidedly sub-par, and seemingly tacked on after the books were made into a TV series (which was FAB, despite terrible child acting from everyone except Dinah and Rose, the female head prefect).
Can anyone think of other subversive school fiction like Matilda and The Demon Headmaster?