The latest underrated gem from Talking Pictures TV is the hardly ever talked about Eyewitness (1970) with a starry British cast of Mark Lester (Oliver!), the ever lovely Susan George (Straw Dogs et al), Jeremy Kemp (Z-Cars etc) and the very reliable Lionel Jefferies (wrote and directed The Railway Children).
Its history and origins are interesting as Eyewitness is principally based on the novel of the same name written under an alias by John Harris, who was better known as the author of The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1953) which was turned into the film starring Michael Redgrave and Dirk Bogarde the year after. However, the theme is an old one that goes back to Aesop’s Fable best known as The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
So, Mark Lester plays Ziggy a young boy who whilst living with his sister Pippa (Susan George) and grandfather (Lionel Jefferies) on a sun drenched unidentified island (filmed in Malta) witnesses the assassination of an African leader. In horror, Ziggy disappears whilst the assassin and accomplice run away and plan how to hunt down the only witness to the killing. Pippa by this time is comforted by a hunky new boyfriend called would you believe it -‘Tom Jones’ and played by Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1967) veteran Tony Bonner who seems to be channelling our own Paul Nicholas, so similar are they in appearance.
Whilst the police chief (Jeremy Kemp) declares martial law in order to hunt down the assassin(s), Ziggy returns home to Pippa, her new boyfriend, and their grandfather to work out what to do next. Pippa in particular knows that Ziggy spends most of his time telling ‘whoppers’ and she doesn’t trust his story of witnessing the killing. So, the scene is set for the police to try and capture the assassin and accomplices, who in turn want to silence Ziggy, whilst Pippa only really has eyes for Mr Jones.
Eyewitness is a surprising delight- it has the great benefit of an excellent pacey and at times, very funny, script by Ronald Harwood (who would go on to receive an Academy Award for the writing of the Roman Polanski film The Pianist (2002) ). It is always good to watch Susan George especially as in this film she is asked to do more than just wear a series of short skirts and pout – and to demonstrate some of her underrated acting chops. She and the director of Eyewitness (John Hough) would go on to work together on 1974’s Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. Listen out also for the music- co-ordinated by future film director Jonathan Demme who went on to win an Academy Award for Silence of the Lambs 21 years later.
However, the real star of Eyewitness is the incomparable Lionel Jefferies as the very military regimented grandfather (he himself was a proud holder of the ‘Burma Star’). His family have their dinners with him dressed in full Mess uniform. When interrupted by the police he remarks “It’s gala night in the Mess tonight- cold soup and burnt pud”! He has also not forgotten his military training as at one point he goes on a commando type raid and turns a handy paraffin lamp and bottle of Brandy into a Molotov cocktail.
So, Eyewitness gives us Susan George, Lionel Jefferies and sun drenched Malta – what’s not to like?