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To Sir, With Love

D: James Clavell / 105m

Cast: Sidney Poitier, Christian Roberts, Judy Geeson, Suzy Kendall, Lulu, Faith Brook, Patricia Routledge, Geoffrey Bayldon, Chris Chittell, Adrienne Posta, Edward Burnham, Anthony Villaroel, Rita Webb, Ann Bell

Having qualified as an engineer, British Guyana-born Mark Thackeray (Poitier) finds himself getting nowhere with job applications in his chosen field. Needing to make ends meet while he continues to look for an engineering post, he takes a position as a teacher at North Quay Secondary School in London’s tough East End. On his first day he’s warned that the children in his class will be unruly and will challenge his authority, and that their behaviour caused their previous teacher to resign. Further advised that they’re pupils that other schools have given up on, Thackeray begins to realise the task ahead of him.

The other teachers prove to be right. Led by Bert Denham (Roberts) and Pamela Dare (Geeson), the pupils in Thackeray’s class show a lack of interest, swear constantly, and are openly hostile and disrespectful. He retains a calm composure, however, and despite the pupils’ best efforts, manages to keep an uneasy control over them… until one morning when he arrives to discover that they’ve put a sanitary towel in the classroom grate and set it alight. Disgusted by this he tells the boys to get out and then rounds on the girls, lambasting them for their “sluttish” behaviour. Later, in the staff room, he rebukes himself for losing his temper, and for being so easily provoked by a bunch of “kids”. It’s then that he realises where he’s been going wrong.

He returns to the class and informs them that as they are all leaving school at the end of the term, and are going out into the world, he will now treat them as adults, and expect them to behave accordingly. The pupils, particularly the girls, are soon won over by this, and it’s not long before the boys are too; only Denham resists. He arranges an outing for them to the British History Museum and finds them all well-dressed and looking clean and tidy. The trip is a success, but things take a more serious turn when one of the class is bullied during a gym lesson. He suffers an injury and the rest of the boys round on the teacher; Potter (Chittell) picks up a piece of wood and threatens him with it. Thackeray is called to intervene, and manages to defuse the situation, but when he tells Potter that he should apologise for his actions, he begins to lose the respect he’s worked so hard to establish, and things begin to how they were when he first arrived.

To Sir, With Love - scene

Adapted by Clavell from E.R. Braithwaite’s semi-autobiographical 1959 novel, To Sir, With Love opens with Thackeray journeying to his new teaching post through London’s East End. These brief establishing shots plus a comic bus ride are used to show the kind of area he’s venturing into, a tough, run down borough where post-War renovations have yet to happen on the scale required. It’s a trenchant observation, and serves to illustrate the movie’s central message, one that will be more explicitly referred to later on. It could even be said that Thackeray is akin to Daniel entering the lion’s den, and such is the welcome from his fellow teachers, especially the cynical Weston (Bayldon), that his time at North Quay may turn out to be even less favourable.

And so we meet the pupils, and their rowdiness and lack of respect is explained away by virtue of their coming from broken or abusive homes (or both), and by the way in which they feel they’ve been let down by the adults around them. As they search for their own identities and place in the world, they make the same mistake that every confused or angry teenager makes: that soon they too will be adults and will have to face the same challenges every other adult has to deal with. It’s an obvious point, and the movie makes it very succinctly in a scene where Thackeray insists they all treat each other with respect. For the pupils to be treated this way is a revelation to them, and they begin to see advantages to their new behaviour, advantages that help them deal with each other and make sense of what’s expected of them. In essence, they can be whomever they want, and do whatever they want; all they have to do is believe in themselves (and this is the message our first sight of Thackeray travelling through the East End sets up for us: here’s a man of determination who has made something of himself).

By concentrating on Thackeray’s empowerment of his pupils, the social aspects of Braithwaite’s story are pushed to the background, and receive only occasional mentions – the girl who can’t come to school because her mother has just given birth and needs help at home, the boy whose mother dies but whose bi-racial background means the other pupils can’t be seen to take some flowers to his home – and this leaves the drama of the piece feeling slightly muted, as if Clavell has recognised the importance of including such issues but doesn’t feel comfortable in criticising them too loudly. The same is true of Pamela Dare’s obvious attraction for Thackeray, a strand that leads nowhere in dramatic terms but which does lead to a scene at the end where racial and social concerns, and awkward convention, are ignored in favour of a feelgood moment that doesn’t feel realistic at all.

To Sir, With Love - scene2

One area where the movie is successful is in its musical interludes, which give Lulu (making her movie debut) the kind of promotional boost that’s worth its weight in gold – her rendition of the title song stayed at Number 1 in the US pop charts for five weeks. As well as the songs there’s the inevitable moving and grooving that, viewed nearly fifty years later, looks embarrassing, but which also retains a charming naïvete. And it’s this naïvete that, ultimately, makes the movie work as well as it does, and has allowed it to remain such a firm favourite after all these years. It sets itself up as a searing indictment of the British class and education systems, but then changes tack as soon as it can to become an inspirational tract for the young and disaffected. From then on there are no problems that can’t be overcome, and no situations that won’t turn out for the best. It’s not real life, it’s a cannily produced and played wish fulfilment tale that steals up on its audience and leaves a warm, enjoyable glow in its wake.

Of course, the movie relies heavily on the presence of Poitier, his every feeling and emotion writ large on his surprisingly expressive face, and he’s quickly embedded as the movie’s heart and soul, leading the audience from scene to scene and showdown to showdown with such good nature and patience that his outburst over the burning sanitary towel is a welcome relief. Roberts is a sneering, dismissive Denham, all squared shoulders and challenging smirk. Geeson manages the impressive feat of being knowingly attractive and yet sexually reticent at the same time, as the script effectively neuters her to avoid any unpleasant complaints that it’s encouraging or supporting miscegenation. And there’s a raft of familiar British character actors in smaller roles that adds to the movie’s cosy, reassuring nature.

Clavell, an Australian who made his name writing big fat bestselling novels such as Tai-Pan and Shogun, directs with a firm understanding of what he wants from his own script, and doesn’t stray too far from its remit. He plays down the humour that arises in the classroom, making it seem more natural and less rehearsed, and wisely shoots Poitier in close up as often as he can. But he does dampen down the drama a little too often, leaving some scenes feeling under-developed, while others are focused on to the point where their importance feels forced. Thankfully, he’s aided by crisp, well-framed photography courtesy of Paul Beeson, and a fine, unintrusive score by Ron Grainer (who also composed the theme tune for Doctor Who).

Rating: 7/10 – well-loved and optimistic, To Sir, With Love has stood the test of time thanks to its effective performances and inherent charm; as a snapshot of a bygone era it’s not quite the social document it appears to be, but it has a freshness that hasn’t faded, and a winning feel to it that offsets the lack of depth.

The following trailer is from America, and is a priceless example of the way in which British movies were marketed at the time, and features a voice over that has to be heard to be believed.