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To Sir, with Love

To Sir, with Love (1967) is a British film starring Sidney Poitier that deals with social and racial issues in an inner city school. James Clavell both directed and wrote the film's screenplay, based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by E. R. Braithwaite.

The film's title song "To Sir, with Love", sung by Lulu, reached number one on the U.S. pop charts. The movie ranked number 27 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the 50 Best High School Movies A television movie sequel, To Sir, with Love II, was released in 1996.

Cultural impact

The film is in a now well-established genre in which an idealistic teacher is confronted with a class of cynical teenagers, disengaged from conventional schooling. The first such film was Blackboard Jungle in 1955 -- in which, incidentally, Poitier played a disruptive pupil. The present film makes a departure in that it sets Poitier, a black teacher, in a predominantly white London school. The film touches on racial issues but concentrates on the usual tropes of teenage angst and inspirational leadership. The film portrays a sanitised and fictional Swinging London. Issues of sexual infatuation between a pupil and teacher were rather less sensitive in the 1960s than they were to become in the 21st century, as evidenced by the rather provocative strapline A story as fresh as the girls in their minis.

Subsequent films that explored the inspirational teacher drama theme include: The Principal (1987), Stand and Deliver (1988), Lean on Me and Dead Poets Society (both in 1989), Dangerous Minds (1995), Music of the Heart (1999), Take the Lead (2006), and Freedom Writers (2007), as well as Sister Act 2.

Plot summary

Braithwaite's name is changed to Mark Thackeray. As the movie opens, Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) is beginning his teaching position at a tough London high school. He comes from British Guyana via the United States, and holds a degree in Communication Engineering. He has applied unsuccessfully for numerous engineering positions, and is taking this job to make ends meet while he continues to look for a job in his field.

The staff offer varying opinions about students at this tough school. Mr. Weston (Geoffrey Bayldon) is openly contemptuous of them. Gillian Blanchard (Suzy Kendall) is admittedly afraid of them. Deputy Head Evans (Faith Brook) warns that while they are mostly good kids, they come from rough homes, and excel at riding roughshod over teachers. Headmaster Florian (Edward Burnham) explains that they are principally rejects from other schools. The audience is informed that their antics drove their last teacher to resign.

The students more than live up to their reputation. Led by Bert Denham (Christian Roberts), and Pamela Dare (Judy Geeson), the pupils are an unruly mob who view the classroom as their domain, not Thackeray's. A 'battle of wills' ensues - Thackeray tries to establish order, and the students resist his authority. (One student, portrayed by Michael Des Barres in his acting debut, even wears sunglasses right in the classroom; Thackeray keeps taking them off for him.) As the students' antics progress from simple disruptive behavior, to embarrassing Thackeray by rigging his desk to collapse, his calm manner and resistance to baiting earn him some early respect with the class.

One fateful day, a water balloon dropped from the window of his classroom narrowly misses Thackeray as he enters the building. In the classroom, he discovers something; presumably a sanitary pad, burning in the grate. He finally loses his composure, ordering the boys out of the classroom and berating the girls for their disgusting behavior. Fearing he's made a fool of himself, he retreats to the staff room, expressing his dismay that he has been so easily manipulated by 'these kids' - then realizes that treating them as kids is precisely the mistake he has been making with his students.

Thackeray returns to the classroom to outline a new approach and set some ground rules. The students will be leaving school soon, and will enter a society where neither sluts nor hooligans prosper. Therefore, he will treat them as adults, and allow them to decide what topics they wish to study. He emphasizes this by throwing out all the textbooks, and insisting that they will be expected to use proper forms of address (both toward him and amongst themselves) and to take pride in their appearance and deportment.

Denham continues to bait Thackeray, but the rest of the class is won over. Although Thackeray's humble background is quite like their own, he's made a success of himself by cultivating his language and dress. The students especially excited when he suggests that they should go on a class outing to the museum. The Headmaster approves the outing, and Thackeray arrives on the morning of the trip to find a classroom of well-dressed, well-scrubbed students. The outing is depicted as a photo montage of happy, wondrous students having the time of their lives.

But as their classroom environment approaches perfection, the outside world infringes, threatening to derail everything.

Their gym teacher, Mr. Bell (Dervis Ward), insists that 'Fats' Buckley (Roger Shepherd) participate in vaulting, despite his classmates' objections. The vault collapses under Buckley's weight, and Potter (Christopher Chittell) threatens Bell with the vault's broken leg. Thackeray is called to defuse the situation. In class, he demands that Potts should apologize for the incident, pointing out that if a knife or gun was available, things could have been much worse. Potts only agrees when Denham points out that Potts will need Thackeray's recommendation for a job interview when school ends.

Thackeray has obviously lost the support of much of the class, especially the boys. They refuse to invite him to the class dance. When Seales' (Anthony Villaroel) mother dies, the class takes up a collection for a wreath, but refuses to accept Thackeray's donation. The girls still seem to respect him, though. It is clear they feel uncomfortable delivering the wreath personally (due to racial issues), but Pamela offers to take the flowers to the funeral, over Denham's objection.

Thackeray finally receives a job offer, while the Headmaster advises him that he feels 'the adult approach' has failed, that class outings are canceled, and that Thackeray will take over the boys' gym classes.

Pamela's mother comes to speak with Thackeray, concerned that Pamela is staying out late and might be getting into trouble. When Thackeray speaks with Pamela, she insists her mother does not care about her, and that the presence of male callers at her mother's house excuses her actions. Thackeray maintains that Pamela still owes her mother respect, and she accuses him of being 'just one of them'. She won't be taking the flowers to the funeral, either. Thackeray's split with the class is complete - now they all hate him.

In gym, Denham insists they have a boxing class, beginning with him and Thackeray. Thackeray reluctantly agrees. Despite getting in some early blows, Denham is disabled when Thackeray knocks the wind out of him. Although he was trying to hurt Thackeray, Denham is surprised that Thackeray did not capitalise on his advantage. For his part, Thackeray admits that he understands the apparent unfairness of his decisions. Denham is clearly impressed, and expresses his admiration for Thackeray to his fellow students. He is later greeted warmly by his students, including Denham and Pamela, when he arrives at Seales' mother's funeral.

By winning Denham over, Thackeray wins over the rest of the class, too. He is invited to the class dance, and when he shows up at the Seales funeral, is greeted by the entire class, who have come to pay their respects.

At the dance, all has clearly worked out well. Weston admits that Thackeray is really quite a gifted teacher, and should reconsider leaving. The Deputy Head concurs, suggesting that he should go to another school, if nothing else. Barbara Pegg (Lulu) announces a 'ladies' choice' dance, and Pamela singles out Thackeray as her partner. Denham announces that the class has 'something special' for Thackeray, and they present him with a pewter mug, while Lulu sings the movie theme. Thackeray is too moved for words, and retires to his classroom.

Two young students storm into the classroom, mocking his gift and joking that they'll be in his class next year. When they leave, Thackeray rises, ponders his situation, then retrieves the job offer from his pocket. He tears the offer up and throws it in the wastebasket.

Social Issues

Given the neighbourhood depicted and the issues involved, the film might have been much more violent, and the students' language much more obscene. Obviously, the language and situations were considerably sanitized for audiences of 1967. Indeed, the book on which the film is based contains explicit language on a number of occasions.

Most of the students' language consists of milder oaths than their East End subjects would actually use. There's plenty of 'bleedins', but nothing worse.

Street life in the East End at the time was often quite brutal, and it's likely the students' home lives were also occasionally violent. While some allusion is made to harsh upbringings, street violence is not even mentioned.

The object of Thackeray's disgust, burning in the grate, is not identified in the movie. In the book, however, it is identified as a used sanitary napkin.

Racial Issues

Thackeray is very over-qualified for this teaching position. He's spent eighteen months applying for engineering jobs, with no luck. He doesn't explicitly state that race has played a role in his lack of job offers, but does admit to the Headmaster that he has taken this position for 'reasons', and it's clear from other references in the film that race plays a role in British society.

Weston makes repeated references to Thackeray's ethnicity. He refers to him as a 'black sheep', and suggests that he might deal with the students using 'black magic' or 'voodoo'. There's no telling, really, whether this is intentional racism, or whether he's simply playing Devil's advocate. It's interesting that he's even more contemptuous of the students. By the end of the film, however, it's clear that he respects not only Thackeray, but the students as well.

Seales tells Thackeray that he hates his father because of what he did to his mother. He points out that his mother is 'English', while his father is just like Thackeray - that is, black. He insinuates that marrying his mother is the worst thing his father could have done to her.

After Seales' mother dies, the rest of the class decides to mail a wreath to the funeral. When asked by Thackeray why they don't deliver it personally, they admit that it would cause a large amount of gossip if they were seen entering a black man's home (though they also insist that they mean no offense to Thackery by this).

When Denham tries to embarrass Thackeray in class, he questions him about television footage featuring 'black women dancing around with no tops on'. Obviously, he considers race an obvious subject for scorn.

A tin can was thrown in the direction of Pamela Dare but Thackeray deflects it. Upon noticing that he is cut, Potts exclaims that Thackeray's blood is, in fact red and Pamela shoots back, "what were you expecting Pinhead, ink?"

Through all of this, Thackeray remains quite dignified, and even seems a bit surprised, at times. He seems more determined to overcome prejudice than to express bitterness about it. Perhaps this is presented as a tie-in with the students, who face similar social prejudice because of their backgrounds and upbringing.

Quotes

  • Theo Weston (fellow teacher, to Thackeray): Ah, so you're the new lamb for the slaughter - or should I say, black sheep?

(Thackray's verbal lashing at the girls when they burn a sanitary napkin in the classroom grate)

  • Thackeray: I am sick of your foul language, your crude behaviour and your sluttish manner. There are certain things a decent woman keeps private, and only a filthy slut would have done this ... and those who stood by and encouraged her are just as bad. I don't care who's responsible - you're all to blame. Now, I am going to leave this room for five minutes by which time that disgusting object had better be removed and the windows opened to clear away the stench. If you must play these filthy games, DO THEM IN YOUR HOMES! - and not in my classroom!

(Thackeray and Denham (after the 'boxing match' in gym class))

  • Denham: How many times did you hit me?
  • Thackeray: Once ... I'm sorry about that, I didn't mean to hurt you. I just lost my temper.
  • Denham: But I was meaning to hurt you!
  • Thackeray: You did ... you're pretty good.
  • Denham: Yeah, well, why didn't you hit me again, eh? Why didn't you fight? You had me easy! I've been after you since you got here. ... Hey, are you afraid of something?
  • Thackeray: Hitting you wouldn't have solved very much, would it?
  • Denham: 's'truth, I don't understand you at all.

....

  • Denham: You was wrong about Potts.
  • Thackeray: Yes ... from his point of view, at his age ... I was.
  • Denham: The girls was right about the gossip, and all.
  • Thackeray: From their point of view.
  • Denham: Well, what other point is there, eh?
  • Thackeray: You're going to have to figure that one out for yourself, Denham.

(Thackeray and Pamela Dare (after their dance))

  • Pamela: Thank you
  • Thackeray: Thank you.
  • Pamela: Can I come and see you sometimes? You know ... next term?
  • Thackeray: I won't be here.
  • Pamela: Oh ...
  • Thackeray: Everybody's got to move on. I'm glad I met you, though. You've helped me a lot.
  • Pamela: We were lucky to have you.
  • Thackeray: The whole world's waiting for you ... you're a smasher!
  • Pamela: Thanks ... ... ... bye.

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