This is one of those films from my youth that has left an indelible, uncomfortable, mark even as a vague memory. Everything is wrong: a school laden down with so much repression disguised as discipline, “children” who behave like the worst kind of adults and yet whose self-justifications has the skewed logic of military dictatorship and a teacher undermined not just by his pupils but by the system he is there to perpetuate.
I can understand why David Hemmings was so keen to use this film to make a point but does its brutal depiction of public schooling gone very wrong stand up in these jaded, a-political times when decades of Thatcherite and centre-right politics have tended to undermine the left wing consensus. I hope so because, whilst public schools don’t necessarily make you into a bad person, strict, unbending ideologies can and the world is still full of them.
|The boys of 5B: Kitchen and Cashman at the back|
Taken as a lesson in how the individual can lose their moral identity in a collective, Unman, Wittering and Zigo still packs a powerful punch not unlike Lord of the Flies. Here the most ordered and disciplined of environments somehow turns into a murderous one and if you can’t trust the upper middle classes to be compassionate… who can you trust?
The story was based on a 1958 radio play by Giles Cooper who had attended Lancing school and who also sent his sons there: so he wasn’t necessarily anti private education… The film followed a TV adaptation and was well directed by John Mackenzie, he of The Long Good Friday, using locations around Llandudno including the Great Orme – an area I know very well.
|St. Tudno Church on the Great Orme|
The film starts on the Orme as a man tumbles helplessly to his doom down the rock face. He is a teacher at the local public school, Chantry, "founded in 1678..."
A short-term replacement arrives, John Ebony (David Hemmings) along with his wife Sylvia (Carolyn Seymour – who left such an impression on my teen self as Abbey in the original Survivors). Ebony has given up a career in advertising in order to fulfil his dream of being a teacher and both he and Sylvia already seem uncomfortably out of place: too urban and modern for such a traditional establishment.
|John meets the Head's indifference...|
John meets the Head (Douglas Wilmer) full of impenetrable certainty who hands him over to the mildly-rebellious art teacher Cary Farthingale (Tony Haygarth – another consistently excellent performer of the period) who hints that all may not be as it seems, at least educationally. He wants to escape but, like so many of the working populace, he’s still there.
|Tony Haygarth and David Hemmings|
It’s unusual for a master to be married but John is handed a run-down rustic cottage which he and Sylvia will have to re-decorate. He returns there for beans on toast after a not unexpectedly tough first day with his form – Class 5B.
|David Hemmings, some beans on toast and Carolyn Seymour - a grand night in!|
5B have a strange habit of completing each other’s sentences, and in this polite gestalt are also quite insistent on maintaining the routines of their deceased master right down to the jokes he would make during roll-call: they are creatures of disciplined in-discipline, rebels within the boundaries of their own cruelty.
Exasperated by their incessant challenges, John threatens to keep them behind on Saturday and is told that this is not a good idea… Why? “Because that’s why we killed him…” John refuses to take this seriously and even after confronting the boy who says it, fresh-faced Cloistermouth (Nicholas Hoye) lets him off – he’s just a 15-year old kid after all.
|Cloistermouth reveals all|
But the next day, 5B re-iterate their claims dispassionately explaining how the deed was done and why… John goes to the Head but he has no time for him and assumes he’s just struggling to control the class. It’s as if the school is against the outsider and he must prove his quality to them all: subservient yet disciplined: “obedience is the child of authority” as the school motto has it.
|5B try to intimidate their teacher|
The Ebony’s are invited to sherry with the head and Mr. Winstanley (Hamilton Dyce) a fearsome and drily-earnest senior master and his wife (Barbara Lott). They are part of the fabric of the school and Sylvia is all at sea in trying to make a connection with them and you’re right with her: you can understand John’s passion to teach but even Mr Chips would have said goodbye to this lot pretty quickly.
But John cares about his boys and ultimately wants to learn from them: what makes them the way they are? The class is made up of pupils with extreme upper middle class names – have you ever met a Clackworth a Blisterine or a Borby? The faces are mostly younger versions of well-known actors with Michael Kitchen as Bungabine and Michael Cashman as Terhew … all perform well and if anything viewing faces that you know better in maturity, adds to the strange feeling of boys acting as men acting as cold-blooded killers.
Once evidence has been provided of the murder, John has nowhere left to turn and he and the class arrange a modus vivendi to enable the smart ones to study as much as they need and for all to indulge in money-making schemes involving betting. John is trapped but still has a physical edge as he demonstrates against Terhew.
Meanwhile he neglects Sylvia as he increases his drinking time with Farthingale as they try to make sense of the situation… not just your usual after-work pub-grumbles.
The game is changed when the Head informs John that, as an old boy has now become available, they will not be offering him a full-time post… It’s the way the school works and John clearly never had the badge of belonging in the first place not being an “Old Chantonian”.
Spoilers: John now stops caring and spends lessons reading the paper. The brighter boys start to worry about their results whilst the more thuggish start to run wild. Without their teacher’s authority they are unable to self-govern and soon bullying is rife with Wittering the main butt.
The boys target Sylvia as a means of controlling John and, after an uncomfortable visit in which Terhew lacks the courage to physically threaten her; there is the film’s most alarming and uncomfortable moment when the boys lure her to the squash courts with the aim of raping her. This is not easy viewing but Sylvia stands her ground and turns the tables on her attackers – none of whom have the experience of courage to be the first.
Sylvia escapes and tells John but the following morning the boys arrive in a panic as Wittering, totally humiliated by the previous night’s events, has gone missing. The game is up…
In the end, John finds out who but not quite why the boys resorted to murder. They had been made into calculating sociopaths by a school worshiping its own culture of extreme obedience and loyalty. All other moral considerations cast aside, the collective good was all that mattered and sacrifices had to be made.
Hemmings is terrific as the jaded ad man looking for a new truth whilst Caroline Seymour shows what a nuanced and intelligent performer she is as their marriage is pushed apart under the strain of meeting this strange challenge. John needs to help the boys but after her courageous response to her attackers she is less willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Dusty verdict: Glad I didn’t go to public school… but this is a violent disturbance that can affect us all in the wrong circumstances. Unman, Wittering and Zigo’s strangeness lingers and reverberates – why do we go to war?
The film is available for download from Amazon Prime but the DVD is out of print. I think I might upgrade but this is one of those films, like Straw Dogs, that you steel yourself to watch: honest and unflinching.
|MR Hemmings and future Eastender, Mr Cashman|
|Sylvia faces down the boys|