Have you ever seen the actors from your favourite kids’ shows in your adult years? Did you recognise them? Did it end with a hilarious selfie or an autograph in the middle of King’s Cross Station? More importantly, have you ever come across an actor who played a scary character in your adult years?
As a child, I watched a range of popular series; ‘The Queen’s Nose’, ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark?’, ‘Goosebumps’, ‘Bernard’s Watch’ and… ‘The Demon Headmaster’…
I was incredibly unnerved by the eponymous horror in that latter show, so my experience of realising, half-way through a production of ‘The History Boys’ in 2010, that the headmaster seemed to be disconcertingly familiar remains one of the most surreal moments that I’ve experienced at the theatre… I was truly stunned by my own reaction. Why was I so astounded? Because I discovered just how deep the lasting impression made by one particular actor was, and just how powerful a great turn as a great villain can be.
‘The Demon Headmaster’ was a screen adaptation of Gillian Cross’ books about an evil headmaster who used his ability to hypnotise his pupils in a range of mildly threatening and always thrilling storylines. When watching the show as a child, I never once looked at the screen during the moments of hypnotism, signalled by the headmaster’s removal of his spectacles.
He would speak to the camera as if we as the audience were pupils at his tormented school and the screen would offer a backdrop of swirls and magical music. I tell you this because when, many years later, I realised that the actor in stage was in fact the very man who had forced me to watch a TV show through my fingers, and even kept me awake on occasion, I also simultaneously realised that I had finally, involuntarily, LOOKED INTO THE EYES OF THE DEMON HEADMASTER! There was a sharp intake of breath, a skip of a heartbeat and a good sixty seconds of eye darting discomfort before I realised of course that as a grown up, such irrational reactions are neither socially acceptable nor warranted.
Thankfully I saw this show pre-site, so the fact that I was somewhat unable to completely extricate the actor from the Demon Head role for the rest of the performance wasn’t too much of a problem, although I’m sure he must have played the role well. Seeing one of the scariest characters of my childhood re-imagined in a new (yet similar) role was obviously a little too challenging for my over-active imagination it would seem.
I accept that I have a vivid imagination which means that even at my age, horrors are off-limits and anything beyond a psychological thriller can still give me the Heebie jeebies. However, it still surprises me to think of my knee-jerk reaction to seeing the actor years later, when my brain should have long since re-organised that character into the ‘innocently threatening’ box of my childhood memories aisle.
How strange it was to discover the deep, lasting power of kids’ TV villains; I hadn’t seen the show in many years and yet here was a little bubble of laughable fear lying dormant at the back of my mind.
For me, it demonstrates once more the power and beauty of make-believe both on stage and screen; yes, it was momentary irrational and risible fear, but it was also undoubtedly exhilarating and deeply affecting; precisely what a good performance should aim to achieve.
To finish, allow me to share with you the following, vital information: it turns out that the actor is called Terrence Hardiman and he possesses absolutely no hypnotic power, if you can believe that. Nor does he terrorise little children, so I do feel a little guilty for the way my irrational mind treated him, but if nothing else, it’s a considerable compliment to say that the impression made on my young, impressionable mind by his superb embodiment of an evil character was strong enough to last for years and years.
I have since re-watched clips of ‘The Demon Headmaster’ on YouTube which has done a great job of disarming my attitude towards the man…so if I see him on a stage again, I shall simply mutter the childhish panto mantra and say ‘Ha ha ha, hee hee hee, silly old outdated villains don’t scare me!’