Overlooked & Underseen: To Sir, With Love (1967)
This movie has been a favorite of mine as far back as I can remember. I don’t know how I found out about it. I think I discovered it on TCM one day, who knows? What I do know, is that the film is definitely one of my “comfort films”; it’s one I can revisit again and again. Once, back in the 90s, I was at one of those restaurants where each booth had a different theme. We got sat at the Library Booth. I sat combing the shelves while waiting on our food and discovered a first edition copy of E.R. Braithwaite’s novel To Sir, With Love. You can be sure that book found its way into my purse.
Mark Thackeray (played by the most awesome Sidney Poitier) is an engineer by trade but cannot find a job in England so he answers an ad for a job at an “inner-city” London school. By all accounts, the man does not want to teach, he only takes the job as a stop gap until he can find a place in his chosen profession. While introducing himself to staff, he immediately comes up against the inherent racism that continues throughout his stay at the North Quay Secondary School. It’s going to be a long term.
The class he is taking over is basically full of ill-mannered, racist brats. Many of them are barely literate. He starts out by trying to teach them traditional subjects like Math and Geography but he doesn’t get anywhere. Eventually, he comes to the realization that the kids are going to be out of school in the next couple of months so he should be teaching them things they will need in the real world. Along the way, one of his students, Pam (Judy Geeson), gets a mad crush on Thackeray. I mean, who can blame her? “Sir” is smart, kind, treats her with respect and is way easy on the eyes. Over the course of the term, Sir hits several rough patches with the students. In the end, they all finally come around.
All through the term, Thackeray has been applying for engineering jobs. Toward the end of term, he gets and accepts a job. He lets everyone know he is leaving. They try and convince him to stay. His mind is made up, he never wanted to be a teacher, it was a just a job to him. Everyone can see what a difference he has made on his class in just those few short months. On the last day of school, his class throws a dance. In a scene that never fails to make me weepy, one of his students (Lulu) sings the title song to Sir as they present him with a thank you gift. He is overwhelmed by the emotion of it all. Maybe he does have what it takes to be a teacher after all.
As I’ve stated in this column previously, I love London in this time period. I love the music (here by The Mindbenders, Lulu, and Ron Grainer) and the clothes. I adore the song “To Sir, With Love” and will belt it out whenever it comes on the radio. Do I think for one minute this film is realistic? No, of course not. I don’t need that from every film. However, I will point out there are some issues in the film. Although it is prevalent throughout the film, the racism Thackeray has to endure day to day is barely addressed. It’s treated as though, whelp, it exists and there is nothing to be done about it. The female students are treated as if the only thing they need to worry about is getting married and knowing how to iron. “No one likes a slut for long” is one of the nuggets of wisdom imparted to them from Thackeray.
Poitier gives a wonderful performance as Thackeray. He is one of the teachers that only seems to appear in movies. I think few of us every encounter a “Sir” during their education, if you do, count yourself lucky. Some other familiar faces pop up in the film, too, including Patricia Routledge, Ann Bell, and Michael Des Barres. The direction is a bit clunky and if you hate the theme song, well, you get to hear it at least 3 times throughout the film.
I get that it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you should watch To Sir, With Love at least once if only to see Poitier at work. I’ve been sick for over a week now and this film fit in perfectly as part of my movie nourishment.