Director – John Mackenzie, Screenplay – Simon Raven, Based on the Play by Giles Cooper, Producer – Gareth Wigan, Photography – Geoffrey Unsworth, Music – Michael J. Lewis, Art Direction – William McCrow. Production Company – Mediarts/David Hemmings.
David Hemmings (John Ebony), Carolyn Seymour (Silvia Ebony), Anthony Haygarth (Cary Farthingale), Michael Cashman (Terhew), Nicholas Hoye (Cloistermouth), James Wardroper (Lipstrob), Colin Barrie (Wittering), Michael Howe (Unman), Douglas Wilmer (Headmaster)
John Ebony takes up a position as a teacher at Chantry boys’ boarding school where he is assigned charge of Form 5B. He learns that Pelham, the previous teacher, fells from the nearby clifftops, apparently having lost his way in the fog. When Ebony threatens to keep the class in over a half-holiday unless they quieten down, the boys say that that would not be a good idea. When he asks what they mean, the boys imply that Pelham’s fall from the cliffs was not an accident – that they were forced to kill him when he tried to keep them in detention. Ebony reacts in disbelief but the boys taunt him with evidence that may or may not be proof of their having murdered Pelham and with each offering up an alibi for the other so that Ebony is unable to work out who among the group is the guilty party.
The boys’ boarding school thriller has almost become a mini-genre of its own. The contrasting mix of stern authoritarianism on one hand and youthful defiance on the other has contributed to a number of psycho-thrillers that play on these tensions. Aside from Unman, Wittering and Zigo, we have also had Child’s Play (1972), Absolution (1981) and Like Minds (2006), none of which were widely seen when they came out. There have also been other films like Zero De Conduite (1933) and If… (1968) that play on these same themes and turn the conflict into a fantasy of rebellion.
While the title the makes the film sound more like a law firm than a thriller – perhaps the very reason for the film’s obscurity – the little known Unman, Wittering and Zigo is a rather effective psycho-thriller. (The title incidentally refers to the last three names on the class’s roll call). Adapted from a play originally written for BBC radio in 1958, the film has a wonderfully creepy and literate plot. This quickly turns into a superbly written game of doubts and taunts, where all manner of threats hide inside subtly loaded words.
Director John McKenzie mounts one genuinely frightening scene with Carolyn Seymour being pursued in a darkened gymnasium by about two dozen boys with flashlights. The only part of the film that fails to fully convince is in the ending – it seems unlikely that the boys would come to ask help of David Hemmings in the knowledge that he would surely use this to expose them. Other than that, Unman, Wittering and Zigo is a film deservous of greater recognition than it has received to date.
At the time, David Hemmings had become a star as a result of the hit Blow Up (1966) and acted as the executive producer of Unman, Wittering and Zigo. His clear interest in pushing the film aside, David Hemmings is probably wrong for the central role of the teacher. Hemmings was never an actor of great subtly and depth and seems to play here either only by raising his voice or eyebrows in lieu of expressing anything. However, Carolyn Seymour is good – she an intelligent, alert actress who plays her part as Hemmings’ wife with a catching hint of cynicism.
Unman, Wittering and Zigo was the second film from Scottish director John MacKenzie. MacKenzie later went on to thrillers like The Long Goodbye (1980), The Honorary Consul (1983) and The Fourth Protocol (1987). His one other ventures into genre material were the cross-historical Red Shift (1978) and the yachtboard psycho-thriller Voyage (1993).
Clip from the film here