25 September 2023

To Sir, With Love – Complete Collection

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Reviewed by Rama Gaind.

Producer/director: James Clavell, Via Vision Entertainment.

Cast: Sydney Poitier, Christian Roberts, Judy Geeson, Suzy Kendall, Lulu.

Adapted from the 1959 autobiographical novel by E. R. Braithwaite, this British drama assertively deals with some pertinent social and racial issues in an inner city school. It’s a timeless classic.

Academy Award-winner Poitier gives one of his finest performances. He is dignified and suave and has the starring role as an unemployed black engineer who takes a job teaching an unruly class of white students in London’s East End.

By the end of the film Mark Thackeray has won over the undisciplined youngsters and has taught them to have self-respect. It’s all about survival skills in everyday life, learning right from wrong, taking pride in who you are and how you present yourself.

Thackeray finds out from staff of North Quay Secondary School that most of the pupils have been rejected from other schools, and their antics drove their last teacher to resign. The pupils live up to their reputation. Led by Bert Denham (Roberts) and Pamela Dare (Geeson), their antics develop from unruly behavior in class to offensive pranks.

Thackeray does everything in his power not to tersely reprimand the pupils, but their transformation is pleasing to watch after he changes his tactics – and starts treating them as adults. It’s a victory not only for ‘Sir’, but also a resounding win for the whole class.

This is a reality check in the tough neighbourhood. They transform from ‘weak to strong … learn a lot … as they give their heart to sir, with love’. Their education is a resounding success.

The 1967 movie saw singer Lulu making her film debut. She sang the film’s title song To Sir, With Love, which reached number one on the U.S. pop charts for five weeks and became Billboard magazine’s No. 1 pop single for that year.

Nearly three decades later, a made-for-television sequel, To Sir, with Love II was released in 1996. Poitier reprised his starring role, and this time goes to Chicago.

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, Poitier is joined in the cast by Daniel J. Travanti, Christian Payton, Dana Eskelson, Fernando Lopez and John Beasley.

Thackeray retires after 30 years as a teacher and returns to America, settling into what he imagines will be a quiet life in Chicago. That’s not to be as he discovers that John Adams High School is not unlike the one he left behind in London. It’s run down, lacks discipline and is in dire need of teachers who genuinely care about their students.

Thackeray soon finds himself teaching a history class to the toughest students he’s ever had to face. He intervenes in a couple of specific cases, lining up jobs and dispensing stimulating advice. Crisis comes when he refuses to divulge the name of a student whose gun he confiscates and hands over to police.

Poitier has a vibrant presence and it’s amazing to see how he livens up dialogue. “When we address someone with respect, we are more than likely to get respect,” he tells the class. “Please, thank you, excuse me – magical words, magical words.” There’s a subtle, inconspicuous poise in Poitier’s delivery. He embodies everything there is to know about ethics, esteem and reliability.

A brief subplot involves his ulterior motive for going to Chicago – to search for his first love – an American woman (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) he knew as a young man in Guyana. When he finds her, his response to their meeting is subdued – though charged with dignified passion.

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