Unman, Wittering and Zigo

Dir: John Mackenzie, 1971


Rarely seen and seldom remembered, John MacKenzie’s film adaptation of Giles Cooper’s 1958 radio play is a mixed bag of results. The premise is interesting. It’s the execution that’s the problem.

John Ebony (David Hemmings) is the new teacher of form 5B, taking over from Mr. Pelham who died after falling from a cliff.

A Catholic all boys school, Chantry is home to antiquated ways and idiosyncrasies.

However, Ebony is informed by the pupils that they were responsible for his predecessor’s death. Frightened, the new teacher gives them everything they want in an attempt to avoid the same fate as Pelham.

Unman, Wittering and Zigo is not a masterpiece by any stretch. It’s a slow burner with a disappointing pay off.

The film doesn’t know what it is. Is it a horror? Drama? Thriller? Are we meant to be taken in by its psychological elements? Or, like Lindsay Anderson’s if…., a commentary on the state of education and outdated institutions?

Hemmings does, reasonably, well in an undemanding role. Likeable with a charming exterior, the late actor is an amiable screen presence, giving a touch of humanity and down to earth attitude in a world wrought with class status, elitism and fear.

The pupils are unable to, convincingly, emit a sense of dread or offer any chills. Instead, their portrayal and characterisation is irksome and wooden.

Long and drawn out, the film has very little atmosphere or anything of any, genuine, interest to keep you engaged.

Strangely, distributors Paramount Pictures have, for all intents and purposes, buried the film, denying it a home video release of any kind. Television showings have been minimal, with broadcasts not even a handful of times.

In some ways, the contemporary reaction and fascination with Unman, Wittering and Zigo echoes that of Ken Russell’s The Devils. Also released in 1971, Russell’s film has a very chequered history of censorship all around the world, with bans and heavy cuts applied to it. The distributors of that film, Warner Bros., have flat out refused to release the uncut version on the grounds of offence and religious sensibilities.

Although The Devils is readily available, it is only in the censored UK theatrical version. The denial of availability has created a history of wonder and obsession that only adds to the reputation. This is why Unman, Wittering and Zigo is widely sought after and causes much talk and debate. Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (both, also, 1971) had the same reaction due to the unavailability to UK audiences. Clearly, 1971 was a dodgy year for cinema.

With the unattainable status of both films, public want and curiosity is at a high and will remain that way until the films are easily accessible.

Unfortunately, like Russell’s movie, the background and mystery that surrounds Mackenzie’s 1971 feature, is more interesting and fun than the thing itself.
Watch it just to say you’ve seen it, but don’t get your hopes up and expect a masterpiece.


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