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May 2015

To Sir, With Love

cast: Sidney Poitier, Christian Roberts, Judy Geeson, Suzy Kendall, and Lulu

director: James Clavell

101 minutes (PG) 1967
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Sony DVD Region 2

RATING: 7/10
review by Andrew Darlington

To Sir, With Love DVD
To Sir, With Love

The 1960s was the party decade. Everyone knows that. But it was also a time of protest and unrest. Not that To Sir, With Love was a vital subversive voice. But it was part of the process. A modest film with soft-core liberal intentions, it nonetheless caught the spirit of the times sufficient to be a considerable transatlantic success. It also ignited Lulu's only American #1 single, and only major American hit single, which was curiously relegated to 'B'-side status in the UK - where it reached a lowly #11 as the flip of Let's Pretend.

The film was based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Guyana-born writer Edward Ricardo 'ER' Braithwaite, recounting his work as teacher at the Greenslade Secondary School in the East End of London. The book had already been optioned by cine-realist director Joseph Janni, intending Harry Belafonte for the role. In his hands it might have been grittier. Despite such genuine roots in reality, it also slots into an established movie genre.

In 1955, Glenn Ford had played 'Richard Dadier' - a new teacher at inner-city North Manual High School in Blackboard Jungle. Based on Evan 'Ed McBain' Hunter's novel based on his own experiences in a delinquent Bronx school, there were further points of similarity. It was responsible for popularising Bill Haley and thee Comets' Rock Around The Clock to the US #1 spot - and a recurring hit around the world. And it was also significant as the first breakthrough role for a young Sidney Poitier, as troubled teen 'Gregory Miller'.

By 1967, Poitier was a big deal, the biggest box-office name of the year. His undeniably clean-cut good looks and controlled intensity made him the ideal 'acceptable' black actor. In Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967) he confronts and challenges middle-class liberalism as the new fiancé of white Joanna (Katherine Houghton), brought home to meet her parents - played by Hollywood veterans Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Earlier in the year, Poitier had played police detective Virgil Tibbs facing down institutionalised racism in In The Heat Of The Night (1967), employing his much-quoted line 'They call me Mister Tibbs!' memorably unleashed against slobby cop Rod Steiger.

Both films remain powerful dramas, but at the time of their release - against a backdrop of Black Power riots ripping American cities apart, anti-segregation marches and demonstrations met by vicious and murderous retaliation, they were charged with an edgy mainline currency. Poitier, an intelligent but essentially non-threatening screen presence was uncannily right for the moment, his easy charm robbing ammunition from any and all racist inclination.

To Sir, With Love provides a lighter tone. With one-time disruptive pupil 'Gregory Miller' of Blackboard Jungle trading places, to become the idealistic teacher at the dysfunctional North Quay Secondary School in the London Docks slum-land. The film begins with the red #15 East Ham Routemaster double-decker bus at Wapping tube station, it then drives across Tower Bridge to cruise past all the iconic swinging London tourist sites. Was there ever such a bus-route? It's doubtful. But it serves to fix the film firmly into context, with just the correct measure of kitchen-sink subtext to give it a socially-relevant spine. Character-actress Rita Webb (playing Mrs Joseph) sits behind the dignified Poitier on the bus. He manages a smile at their bantering innuendo aimed in his direction, "I hope he's well-sprung." Arriving at school, the first thing he sees is a boy smoking at the wooden partition that forms the outside toilet entrance.

Mark Thackeray (Poitier), from British Guyana via California is qualified as an engineer, and still answers job-applications in 'The Engineer' magazine, while filling in as a teacher. His race is not the focal issue; in fact his exoticism elevates him outside the rigid pupil-teacher interface. "You're like us, but you're not," ponders Lulu, "it's scary." Tellingly, the taunting racially-loaded snipes come from fellow teacher Theo Weston (Geoffrey Bayldon) who announces Thackeray in the staff room as the "new lamb to the slaughter," adding "or should I say black sheep." To the bitter disillusioned Weston the kids are "the great London unwashed... what they need is a bloody good hiding!"

Lulu, who largely plays herself, is included for her bubbly pop-appeal. She dances along to a record on the Bush record player, although it's her own song I Wish I Knew that's playing! But it's a giggly Judy Geeson - as 'Pamela Dare', who is more central to the unfolding story, in her first major film role. Thackeray meets Pamela when they accidentally collide in the school corridor. Soon, unsettled by Thackeray's unorthodox approach to teaching, "the little scrubber" develops a schoolgirl crush on him. Later, in response to his concern, she gets to mouth a clumsy teenage manifesto statement which sounds as natural as if it's paraphrased from some Sunday supplement style-feature on contraception, "we're the luckiest bunch of kids, the luckiest generation that's ever been, aren't we? We're the first to be really free to enjoy life if we want, without fear."

Most of the kids are rejects from other schools. Hoodlum pupil Bert Denham (Christian Roberts) reads soft-porn magazine 'Parade' in class - its title tactfully torn away. Future rock performer Michael Des Barres (as Williams) is the kid with a cool fringe who wears dark shades in class. They water-bomb Thackeray as he approaches the school, and sabotage his desk by half-sawing through the leg, so that it collapses when he sits down. Even Pamela tips her books on the floor in a deliberate act of dumb insolence. At first their behaviour drives Thackeray close to breaking point. Another teacher - Clinty Clintridge, is now recognisable as Patricia Routledge, TV's Mrs Hyacinth Bouquet (from Keeping Up Appearances, 1990–5)! It's she who makes the films well-intentioned liberal point that the kids are less 'devils incarnate' and more deprived and misunderstood, "from homes where a word is usually accompanied by a blow."

So he tears up the syllabus - obviously teachers had more freedom to improvise in those days, and he attempts to impose a respect-agenda. Weston predictably disparages his "experiment in culture for the masses," in which girls will be addressed as 'Miss', and boys by their surname. And subjects for classroom discussion will be "life, survival, death, sex, rebellion, marriage." They teach him rhyming slang, he teaches them cookery. Thackeray, with the help of Suzy Kendall as supportive young teacher 'Gillian Blanchard' even organises a museum outing, screened in a typically 1960s series of flash-stills of the kids playfully interposed with busts and exhibits. While in another fairly obvious sop to the teen-culture cinema-audience, a pupil complains about adults - "well, they've messed up the world, haven't they?" to which Sir responds "it's your duty to change the world," noting as example "take the Beatles - they started a huge social revolution."

But Thackeray's efforts are sabotaged by events. His allegiances are put to the test when a bullying gym teacher provokes a violent incident with his fat "pet whipping boy." Will Thackeray stand by the victimised pupil, or be loyal to the staff? When he opts to do right, yes, the boy was provoked but no, he should not have retaliated, it's seen as a betrayal. Then there's a racial sub-current when mixed-race pupil Seale's mother dies, and the girls can't risk being seen delivering the wreath the class has bought for him. And when Sir resists Pamela's overt sexual overtones, she storms out. "The adult approach hasn't worked," decides the head. And Thackeray receives acceptance of a Midlands engineering job, offering him a timely escape route.

Naturally, everything works out fine. In a physical confrontation, challenged into a boxing match, Thackeray takes out Denham with a single punch. But recognising his pugilistic skills he offers the boy a part-time teaching post as boxing instructor next term, instead of his intended career-path with a market 'barra' (barrow). Pamela's precocious sexuality turns out to be due to her concerned divorced mother having 'boyfriends'. She's unused to being treated with respect and dignity. And, in a scene targeted to tug at the heartstrings, when Thackeray arrives at Reardon Street for the Seales' funeral, he finds that all the kids have defied gossipy convention and turned up, too.

Then there's a final emotionally-intense sequence at the end of term dance. The Mindbenders play - as with Lulu, they're brought in to give the movie calculated pop-appeal. As Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders they'd broken through in October 1964 with their #5 hit cover of Major Lance's Um Um Um Um Um Um, then went one better when the follow-up - Game Of Love, also tops the US charts. It was assumed that when Wayne split away he'd progress to solo stardom, while his blandly-anonymous backing group would simply fade away. In fact, the opposite happened. He enjoyed a modest ripple with Pamela, Pamela, while the Mindbenders score massively with A Groovy Kind Of Love in January 1966, then with Ashes To Ashes. It's fair to say that To Sir, With Love constitutes the last gasp of their slight celebrity, until re-emerging in the 1970s reconfigured into 10cc.

Now, they play at the school hop, supposedly backing Lulu as she emotes the impassioned theme song, putting the film's moral into words in case it's not already been adequately spelled out - "as I leave, I know that I am leaving my best friend, a friend who taught me right from wrong, and weak from strong, that's a lot to learn." Mrs Bouquet - sorry, teacher Clintridge, pleads for Thackeray not to leave teaching. Even Weston grudgingly concedes he's done good. Sir dances with Pamela in a 'ladies choice' exchanging deep 'long last looks', and onetime antagonist Denham makes a respectful speech of thanks. Unable to respond, Thackeray returns pensively to the empty classroom, where a yob and a girl burst in defiantly; next term's new intake. He recognises the new challenge, and tears up the engineering job acceptance.

It didn't take writers John Esmonde and Bob Larbey long to latch onto the film's idea and turn it into the London Weekend TV-sitcom series Please Sir! - starring John Alderton as 'Mr Bernard Hedges', the new teacher at failed Fenn Street School. Plots revolving around the loveable losers of Class 5C ran from November 1968 to February 1972, clocking up 55 popular half-hour episodes strung across four seasons. Whatever social charge the film may once have embodied is by this stage totally diluted away.

Meanwhile, despite the success of a sequel They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970), it was precisely the cleanly-enunciated acceptability that made Poitier so perfect for such transitional race-movies that swiftly rendered him unfashionable with the onset of the harder blaxploitation genre. When it came to funk or street-cred he was a non-starter. Perhaps unwisely, Poitier returned to the role of Thackeray for an American TV-film To Sir, With Love II (1996), that starts with an East End leaving-party attended by Geeson and Lulu - also reprising their roles, before the action is transplanted to inner-city Chicago where Thackeray begins again. But there was still currency-value left in the theme for the big screen. It was not only renewed by Dangerous Minds (1995), with Michelle Pfeiffer as teacher 'LouAnne' at the largely African-American Parkmont High School, but it too spun off a #1 hit... in the shape of Gangsta's Paradise by Coolio.

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