‘If you’re curious about terror…’
Unman, Wittering and Zigo is a 1971 British macabre thriller film directed by John Mackenzie and co-produced and starring David Hemmings, Douglas Wilmer and Tony Haygarth. It was adapted by Simon Raven (Incense for the Damned/Bloodsuckers) from Giles Cooper’s 1950s radio play of the same title.
The notable cinematography was by Geoffrey Unsworth (Goodbye Gemini). The title refers to the final three names in a school class register, the latter of which is always declared ‘absent’.
John Ebony (Hemmings, post Blow-Up but pre-Deep Red) has quit his job in the world of advertising and has followed his ambition to be become a teacher, moving with his wife, Silvia (Carolyn Seymour) to a remote coastal Catholic all-boys boarding school to take up his first post.
A fish out of water in the stuffy, 17th Century walls of the school and the ancient, peculiar habits of the tweed-drenched old guard, he is allotted form Lower 5B whose previous teacher, Mr Pelham, he soon learns, fell to his death over a cliff whilst wandering too close to the edge during foggy conditions.
His first day sees some minor winding-up from the boys, mostly centred around the fact that Ebony is conducting class in a manner entirely different to Mr Pelham. Undeterred, Ebony ploughs on but when one day asserting his authority by threatening to keep the class back for a Saturday afternoon detention, one of the boys informs him that the previous teacher had also once attempted this which had been the catalyst to them murdering him.
The boys are convincing in their claims, describing in detail how they beat him and threw him off a cliff, whilst also having water-tight alibis. Spooked, Ebony approaches the be-caped headmaster (Douglas Wilmer, one of the cinemas great authority figure actors), who dismisses his concerns, reminding him how young boys can easily become hysterical and that such a tragic event as his accidental death is best quickly moved on from.
The relentless but slow and grinding bullying of the boys soon breaks Ebony who accepts their blackmail to allow them to do the bare minimum of work, pass their exams and also place regular bets on the horses on their behalf. When the school informs him that he will not be kept on beyond the end of the term, Ebony decides he has nothing to lose and sets out to discover who the ringleader who inspired the murder is and bring him to justice. The boys seek their revenge by turning their attention to his wife whose female charms reveal them to be every bit as violent and unhinged as he suspected.
Aside from the faultless cast (both adults and pupils are completely convincing in an entirely naturalistic way), the real star of the show here is the source material, the radio play skillfully written by Giles Cooper, a master of radio dramatisation, bringing both Day of the Triffids and Lord of the Flies to life on air. Sadly, Cooper died at the age of only 48, falling from a train whilst under the influence of alcohol.
Lord of the Flies is an obvious point of comparison, the barricaded world of the young students, with their organised hierarchy (with poor old ‘wet’ Wittering at the bottom) and very definite understandings of what is right and wrong being similar without being obvious. Likewise, the cottage dwelling of the Ebonys and their fresh-faced out-of-kilter standing in the school setting has echoes of Straw Dogs, not to mention the sexual attacks on Silvia by the boys.
Seen from Ebony’s point of view, it is unclear whether the boys really have murdered his predecessor or they are simply playing with him. The diegetic sounds of the classroom are instantly familiar to the viewer, uncomfortably so with a very sparingly used score to punctuate the more violent action.
Whilst the classroom and its fittings immediately bring back memories (where do you buy those long hooked poles you open and close high windows with?), the somewhat ripe names of the pupils (step forward Bungabine, Cloistermouth and Cuthbun) are jarringly odd and suggest an uncomfortable marriage with the glossy advertising background of Ebony. Beyond the listening but the unhelpful ear of fellow ‘youngster’ Farthingdale, the other teachers are pompous and aloof and largely conspicuous by their absence, adding to the claustrophobic atmosphere and the futility of Ebony’s rebellion against the status quo.
Directed by John Mackenzie, who will always be best remembered for the gangster classic The Long Good Friday, had a real skill for making everyday situations both reassuringly familiar yet skin-crawlingly sinister, perhaps best exemplified by his 1977 short film, Apaches, one of the most notorious of the British Public Information Films.
The film’s ending has a slight twist, a slightly unsatisfying one, slightly fluffed by a hurried pace to the climax. Regardless, Unman, Wittering and Zigo is not just a classic of 70’s British cinema but a classic of British cinema.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES and MANIA
Cast and characters:
- David Hemmings as John Ebony
- Douglas Wilmer as Headmaster
- Tony Haygarth as Cary Farthingale
- Carolyn Seymour as Silvia Ebony
- Hamilton Dyce as Mr Winstanley
- Barbara Lott as Mrs Winstanley
- Donald Gee as Stretton
- David Jackson as Clackworth
- Hubert Rees as Blisterine
- David Auker as Aggeridge
- Tom Morris as Ankerton
- Richard Gill as Borby
- Michael Kitchen as Bungabine
- Nicholas Hoye as Cloistermouth
- Tom Owen as Cuthbun
- Toby Simpson as Hogg
- James Wardroper as Lipstrob
- Clive Gray as Muffett
- Rodney Paulden as Munn Major
- Keith Janess as Orris
- Christopher Moran as Root
- Michael Cashman as Terhew
- Paul Aston as Trimble
- Michael Howe as Unman
- Colin Barrie as Wittering