As you might guess from my nom-de-plume, ‘Unman, Wittering and Zigo’ is a great favourite of mine and, indeed, it has an awful lot going for it: great cast, oblique, unusual script, an interesting location and a pleasantly ambiguous ending. It’s a small film in terms of scope and execution, but it's hugely effective.
The fantastic David Hemmings plays John Ebony, an inexperienced school teacher who snags a temporary job in a prestigious boys school in an isolated part of Devon, replacing a teacher who has died suddenly and under mysterious circumstances. According to the boys in the class, however, there is no mystery: the man was murdered, by them, and, if Ebony doesn’t watch his step, they’ll kill him too.
It’s a great opening gambit, and although the film doesn’t quite keep the tension up as much as it could, it positively smoulders with repressed emotion, suppressed violence and crazy hormones, culminating in a suspenseful and unpleasant sequence where Ebony’s attractive wife is menaced with gang rape by twenty over excited youths dressed in shorts.
The boys, class 5B, are very well played by slightly over age but convincingly spotty and smackable young actors, some of whom (Michael Kitchen, Michael Cashman, Tom Owen) went on to some degree of recognition. The performances are uniformly excellent, actually, from Hemmings’ sulky and immature teacher to Douglas Wilmer’s splendidly vague Headmaster and Caroline Seymour as Ebony’s neglected wife. A special commendation goes to Tony Haygarth’s amusing and likeable turn as Cary Farthingale, a cynical art teacher who drinks like a fish and genuinely doesn’t give a shit.
A fascinating study of the complex politics and savagery of the mob (not to mention the fear adults regard the coming generation with – here, perhaps, justified) , ‘Unman, Wittering and Zigo’ is apparently still shown in schools to aid pupils study of Giles Cooper’s original play, which makes it even harder to understand why it is not on DVD, although can watch the whole thing on YouTube here if you are so inclined.