Academy Award winner Sidney Poitier scored his first film success as a belligerent student in The Blackboard Jungle (1955).
In To Sir With Love, he returned to the classroom – but to the other side of the desk – to portray a novice teacher in charge of a rough and rowdy class of undisciplined working-class punks in this classic film that reflected some of the problems and fears of teens in the ’60s.
Poitier gives one of his finest performances as Mark Thackeray, an out-of-work engineer from Guyana who turns to teaching in London’s tough East End.
The graduating class, led by Denham (Christian Roberts), Pamela (the beautiful Judy Geeson in her major film debut) and Barbara (Scottish pop star Lulu), sets out to destroy Thackeray by breaking his spirit, as they did his predecessor.
But Thackeray, no stranger to hostility, meets the challenge by treating the students as young adults who will soon enter a workforce where they must stand or fall on their own.
The students are undisciplined “problem” youngsters who do not fit in with the normal school curriculum. They are in their final term – the last chance a teacher will get to impart any kind of lasting influence.
Thackeray tries to see past their unruly rebellious behaviour and treats them as young adults and not brats. Gradually, and after being forced to physically fight the class bully, he gives them a new outlook and awareness of their responsibility.
When offered an engineering job, Thackeray must decide if he wants to stay.
The warm, human story is sometimes dramatic, occasionally sad and often wildly funny. Its approach is modern and upbeat.
Making her screen debut, Lulu (The hippest 13-year-old ever to break the top 10 charts on both sides of the Atlantic) also sings the title song and a number of other great songs along with the band, The Mindbenders.
The photomontage sequence when the class visits the V&A and Natural History museums was highly innovative but born of necessity. The producers were denied permission to film in the museums, but still photography was approved.
Photographers Laurie Ridley and Dennis C Stone created the fabulous stills of the awe-struck and curious students, taking in much more in the photographs than could have been shown in a two-minute filmed clip.
If you look closely, you will notice that Potter (Chris Chittell) is absent in the excursion montage at the museums. He is seen before everyone boards the bus but didn’t actually go because Chittell – in real life – had a minor run-in concerning a motorcycle and disputed the police version of events. On the day of the museum shooting, he appeared in Crown Court to fight his case.
The film To Sir, With Love was based on an autobiographical novel of the same name, published in 1959 and written by E R Braithwaite, who went on to become the Ambassador for Guyana to the United Nations. Braithwaite died at the Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center in Rockville, Maryland, on 12 December 2016, aged 104.
An American made-for-TV sequel of sorts, To Sir With Love 2, was produced in 1996, moving the story to an inner-city school in Chicago with Poitier reprising his role.