To Sir, With Love (1967)

RIP, Sidney Poitier.

When I heard the news of Sidney Poitier’s death (on January 6th, 2022), one of the first thoughts that came to me was: what a sad coincidence, that the last English-language film I’d reviewed on this blog was one of his (The Bedford Incident). Then, the realization that, in so many years of blogging, while I’ve watched and/or reviewed several films of Poitier’s (including the wonderful Lilies of the Field, for which he won an Academy Award; The Long Ships; The Defiant Ones), I’ve never seen a few of his most iconic films, such as In The Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and A Raisin in The Sun.

I will watch those sometime, sooner or later; but for now, to commemorate the life and career of one of my favourite actors, I decided to rewatch a film I haven’t seen in several decades. The film that’s probably the one with which most Indians (at least) associate Poitier, about a school teacher who manages to change the lives of the disturbed and insecure students he has to teach.

To Sir, With Love begins with British Guiana-born Mark Thackeray making his way to the London Docks area, where he finally arrives at his destination: a shabby school named North Quay. Just as Thackeray goes through the gate, a teenager emerges from the makeshift toilet nearby. Cigarette dangling from his lower lip, he looks insolently at Thackeray, asks (in a rather indistinct drawl) what Thackeray wants, and subsequently goes his way. Not a promising start to this job, Thackeray’s first.

As it turns out, from various conversations over the next few scenes, Thackeray is a qualified engineer, and has been driven to taking up this job as a teacher only after several unsuccessful attempts at finding work as an engineer. A man who has no experience teaching: how will he manage here, in this school? From that brief meeting outside the toilet in the yard, to a quick glimpse inside a noisy classroom, Thackeray has got at least a hint of just how unruly these ‘kids’ (as everybody calls them) can be.

In the staff room, Thackeray soon meets the other teachers, and gets further insights into the school, the students, and the teachers. Theo Weston (Geoffrey Bayldon), for instance, is utterly cynical and of the opinion that nothing will improve these students. They’re from the dregs of society, the very worst, and nothing anybody does will be able to stop them getting out of school only to take up a life of crime or poverty or both.

Another teacher, also new, is Gillian Blanchard (Suzy Kendall), and she is frankly and self-admittedly terrified of the students.

A couple of the others, however, are rather more matter of fact, more open to regarding the students as neither hellions nor future criminals. There is Grace Evans (Faith Brook), for instance, who is not only welcoming and kind, but who also shows, not only now but later in the story too, a sound and level-headed wisdom of the sort that understands human nature and knows how to deal with it.

In the meantime, though, Thackeray must learn to deal with the students in his charge. These young people come from very poor backgrounds, as the head master Florian (Edward Burnham) explains. He seems to be somewhat resigned to doing what they must to get this lot through school and out; do nothing to rock the boat, but do nothing to make a difference, seems to be the motto here.

And, as soon as he enters his classroom, Thackeray realizes just what he’s let himself in for. This group of teenagers seems to be uniformly slovenly, foul-mouthed, and rough. They are brazen in the way they lounge around in class, either slouching or sitting back insolently. They jeer, they pass provoking comments, they make it clear to Thackeray that they don’t care.

Denham (Christian Roberts) is the worst of the lot: hard-eyed, insolent, refusing to be cowed down by the fact that Thackeray is a teacher and deserving of respect.

And there’s the somewhat surprising Pamela Dare (Judy Geeson), who can be as rough and slatternly as any of her classmates, but when asked to read, can also stand up and read—impeccably, without a trace of a Cockney accent—from a book.

Swiftly, too, Thackeray begins to see the nuances of their behaviour towards both him and towards others. Seales (Anthony Villaroel), for example, is of part African heritage, part Caucasian, and though his classmates pass racist remarks, they seem convinced that they’re not offensive, that Seales doesn’t mind. But this racism, also flung in Thackeray’s face every now and then, is wearing away at Seales, to the extent that he bitterly resents his father’s African ethnicity.

Plus, Thackeray discovers the problems these young people have, the burdens they must bear even while still not ‘adults’: the families who depend upon them to babysit, to run errands, to help out at work and so on.

As the days pass, things go from bad to worse. Thackeray isn’t just baited with words and expressions; pranks, increasingly in-your-face, increasingly shocking and even disgusting, are directed at him. Till when will Thackeray withstand it all? Till when he be patient? Will he ever be able to make a difference? How will he even set about making a difference?

A perennial favourite, this is one of those films that shows how a good teacher can make a difference. In fact, if you look at it closely, To Sir, With Love isn’t just about good teaching; it’s also about growing up, about a coming of age. About the dignity of labour, and about according dignity to people. It’s about how people, when you treat them with respect and dignity, will more often than not, try to show themselves worthy of that respect and dignity.

What I liked about this film:

The overall theme, the story, the acting, everything. All of it comes together to make a memorable and ultimately heart-warming film about human dignity and warmth, resilience and even hope against a backdrop of poverty and sleaze. Thackeray is himself an example of a man who lives in somewhat (relatively) genteel poverty but manages to not let it get him down, to not coarsen him or make him anything but a gentleman—and this is the lesson he endeavours to pass on.

Among the many things good about this film, three in particular stand out for me:

One, the tiny details which help create the entire picture. Not everything, for instance, that Thackeray discovers about his students, comes to him through either his interactions with them or through his conversations with other teachers. Even as he goes to a nearby market to buy oranges, or to just walk through on the way to the bus stop, he passes local people: his student’s parents, for example—and their way of talking, the roughness and sometimes casual racism, gives Thackeray (though he never says it, and it is never explicitly stated) perhaps an idea of why his students are the way they are.

This continues through much of the film, even minor interactions helping put together a more composite picture of why Denham, Dare, Pegg (Barbara ‘Babs’ Pegg, played by Lulu) and Seales are the way they are. Director (and scriptwriter) James Clavell did a brilliant job here.

Then, of course: the main reason for this review, Sidney Poitier as Thackeray. A fine performance, restrained and nuanced and so good. Thackeray tries to be the teacher he thinks the students need: at times unflinching and stoic, at times letting his sense of humour shine through. The guide and mentor, the sensitive father figure—but at the same time, you can see the difficulty even he faces at times. The anger and frustration, the sense of futility. The awkwardness, at times.

And Poitier does it all wonderfully. He is Thackeray.

Last, but not least, the title song. I first heard To sir, with love ages ago, long before I watched the film, and I’ve been in love with it ever since. Lulu’s rendition is fantastic, the way her voice soars, the way it dips and caresses the words… superb.

There’s nothing about this film I didn’t like. It still ranks, despite films like Jagriti and Taare Zameen Par, as a ‘good teacher’ film in a class of its own.

Thank you for the cinema, Mr Poitier.

26 thoughts on “To Sir, With Love (1967)

  1. This has been an all time favourite , go-for-comfort-watching film.
    And the title song has been used multiple times in life for teachers :)
    (I think it was a perennial Teacher’s day favourite)
    But tell me where did you watch it ??
    I have been looking so hard for this since the day Mr. Poitier passed on…

  2. I also need to rewatch this movie. I heard about this movie from my uncle who went “ga ga “about the film and Poitier’s performance.. Read the story as a Reader’s digest condensed book.
    I caught up with the movie later and loved it immensely. Braithwaite felt that the makers had chickened out by not showing the mixed race romance. I don’t remember that part but as I had mentioned Reader’s Digest does sanitize stuff.
    May be I will do both read the book and watch the movie and then do what you do best “Comparisons and comparisons” in my head.
    Poitier was the early pioneer who made things a tad easy for the likes of Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman , Samuel L Jackson et al.
    There is one movie that I want to forget but cannot do so.The Jackal . If you have not watched it ,don’t go anywhere near it else you will be scratching your head wondering, like me ,what made him do that role and what was he doing in that movie anyway.

    Birthday Greetings Madhulika ! Hope things change for the better and with omicron variant Covid bids us adieu. It has been there too long already!

    • I must read ER Braithwaite’s book… sometime. I currently have so many books lined up to read, I don’t know when I’m ever going to get through them! But yes, if you do get around to doing a comparison, please try, if possible, to come back here and tell me about it. Would love to know your take on how the movie compares to the book.

      Thank you so much for the birthday greetings! And amen to that hope. It has certainly be too long we’ve had to cope with Covid… it’s time it was gone for good.

  3. Rest in peace, Sidney Poitier. I first watched To Sir, With Love when I was 9 or 10. I had no inkling of the race relations in the US then so much of the casual racism went over my head. Only the rudeness/meanness made sense to me. Even so, it was a powerful film and a masterful performance. Again, I wouldn’t have known a great performance then if it had hit me on the head, but Poitier’s teacher and the film stayed with me long after I watched it. That’s how much it affected me. His death leaves me with a quiet sadness, not the kind that makes me weep but the sort that makes you feel like someone kind has been taken away and left a vacuum behind.

    I will highly recommend In the Heat of the Night – I saw it quite recently (hadn’t watched it before) and with a modern perspective of the rise of racism in the US, felt the film all the more keenly.

    Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a perennial favourite. :) I haven’t watched A Raisin in the Sun but I didn’t like the play on which it is based. Which is not to say you may not like the movie.

    Thanks for this review, Madhu.

    • I too watched To Sir, With Love when I was too young to really understand the nuances – for me, I think the tone of the students, the very visible disrespect, in their expressions and their body language, had more of an impact back then (especially given that here in India we were always taught to treat teachers with a huge amount of respect). Watching it now was certainly a much more fulfilling and thought-provoking experience than it had been when I was a child.

      I must watch Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner! And if you didn’t like the play on which A Raisin in the Sun was based, I think I can safely assume I wouldn’t much care for the movie! And I have better things to do with all the limited time I have (WDIGTT?!) than to spend it on watching movies I am likely not to like.

  4. Sidney Poitier was just such a class act – in every role that he did. I have unfortunately watched VERY few of his films – I think I saw “To Sir with Love” as a child, but frankly do not remember the details. So this week, I am planning to embark on watching a lot of his films maybe in the order that they were released. Which means, I will finally get to watch “Guess Who is Coming to Dinner” and “Defiant Ones” and “Separate But Equal” and “Deadly Pursuit”. I enjoyed “The Wilby Conspiracy” even though it it not necessarily a great film – but will watch it again.
    Of the trilogy where he played Virgil Tibbs, I have watched the superb “In the Heat of the Night” and “They Call me Mr Tibbs” but not the “The Organization”.
    How long this effort will take – that remains to be seen :-)

    • Oooh, that sounds like a very formidable list of movies to watch! I think the only one there I have seen (yes, I haven’t seen all those many Poitier films after all) is The Defiant Ones.

      If, in all the films you watch, you come across some which you would recommend, please do let me know, too! I’d welcome any suggestions.

  5. Madhu, I think we had a long blog or Facebook conversation about Lulu and maybe Sidney Poitier before, but I just can’t find it now. :)

    Anyway, I would like (once again) to recommend the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle, in which Sidney Poitier made his breakthrough performance as a student in a(nother) tough school. The beleaguered teacher this time was played by Glenn Ford, and Vic Morrow put in a fantastic performance as the villainous gang leader. (Sidney Poitier was the tough kid who turned out to be good and noble underneath – of course.) The school was in the U.S., the student body was all male, and compared to these students, the ones in To Sir, with Love were quite genteel. (It was pretty violent for its time.) But there were very close parallels in the classroom situations, too. And Blackboard Jungle also had a great soundtrack. In fact, I understand that this was the movie that made “Rock Around the Clock” a hit. And there was other classic rock’n’roll and beat-era jazz scattered throughout.

    On a personal note, when I was growing up, my mother was a teacher in the South Bronx at the height of the area’s notorious days, in the 1970s. She kind of prided herself on being able to educate these kids and, I think, boasted a bit too much about it. (I also went to some schools in the Bronx during the 1970s that were not the best social environments, and I got bullied and beaten up a bunch. I didn’t experience that in high school, because I was able to go to a refuge for nerds called the Bronx High School of Science. But junior high was a bit like Blackboard Jungle, though it was in a somewhat “better” neighborhood than the South Bronx (being in the North Bronx).)

    Anyway, I think my mother really related to the teachers played by Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier, and that’s why my whole family had to watch both films with her. She was also a big Anglophile, so To Sir, with Love had just the right combination of different elements; we were basically forced to watch it multiple times.

    Sidney Poitier gave a great performance in that film. But for me, I have to admit, the highlight was always Lulu.

    I just re-watched it fairly recently (meaning within the past few years), finding the whole film on regular English-language YouTube (though it’s since been taken down). It was a nice film, but, as I think I mentioned elsewhere, I personally could not relate to the idea of having a teacher for whom I could feel such gratitude. I also didn’t really see that kind of devotion by students develop for any teacher in any classroom that I experienced (though my mother would swear that this was exactly how some of her students felt about her).

    If I have any emotional attachment to To Sir, with Love, it’s more out of nostalgia, brought out most by the music and styles. I became a Lulu fan, enjoying everything from her version of “Shout” (her first hit) to her cover of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.”

    I also follow Lulu’s page on Facebook. So, in closing, I thought I might offer this link that I found there to an interview with Lulu (in Variety) about working with both Sidney Poitier and David Bowie:

    https://variety.com/2022/film/news/lulu-sidney-poitier-david-bowie-1235151596/

    • Richard, thank you for that very interesting insight into your mother’s teaching career in the Bronx, and your memories – that was so insightful! I agree with you about not having too many teachers one could look back on with that sort of gratitude. For me, most of my teachers throughout school (and later college too) were obviously those who thought of the job as just a job: to teach us the syllabus and be done with it. Nothing beyond that, and (sadly, all too often) even that wasn’t done properly. I remember many teachers who couldn’t be bothered that most of the class couldn’t understand what was being taught.

      Thank you, also, for reminding me of Blackboard Jungle. I did remember you mentioning it during that Facebook conversation we had, though (ugh!) I’d forgotten which film it was, only that Glenn Ford starred in it. This time, I’m going to go bookmark it before I forget all over again.

      That interview with Lulu was good, wasn’t it? :-) I stumbled on it the other day, and enjoyed it a lot.

  6. Oh ! What a film and what a performance by the entire cast headed by Sidney Poitier!
    I had seen this film at a theatre in Mumbai in the late 60’s and; although I was too young to grasp the whole film at that time, this wonderful poem recited by the students remained etched in my memory. I have recited it myself in many of the farewell functions later on. I cannot resist the temptation to repeat it here :

    Those schoolgirl days of telling tales and biting nails are gone
    But in my mind I know they will still live on and on
    But how do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume?
    It isn’t easy, but I’ll try

    If you wanted the sky I would write across the sky in letters
    That would soar a thousand feet high ‘To Sir, With Love’

    The time has come for closing books and long last looks must end
    And 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, but what can I give you in return?

    If you wanted the moon I would try to make a star
    But I would rather you let me give my heart ‘To Sir, With Love’
    Writer/s: DON BLACK, MARK LONDON

    I shall certainly see the movie again. It resides in my heart !

  7. Hi! Madhu,
    Your review of the movie brings across more nuances that I recall from my viewing which is somewhat hazy in view of the time elapsed.
    I saw “To Sir, With Love” a couple of decades or more back but I do remember I had seen it after I had read the book written by E R Braithwaite. I loved the book. To me , the movie seemed to be somewhat pared-down and flat compared to the book.
    One of the issues that stood out for me- I do not know why the name of Poitier’s character was changed in the movie. In the book, the name creates a notable scene in the first few pages for revealing the racism of white-collared British.
    I saw In The Heat Of Night in the past decade and the movie was very good. Racism was dealt with in this movie too and from a different perspective – adults and professionals on the same side but with different mindsets.
    Regds
    Uday

    • Uday, you have really inspired to get hold of the book. I was wondering how it would compare with the film, though I must admit that countless previous experiences have taught me that books are invariably better than the films. And anyway, when it comes to issues – racism, bigotry, sexism, etc – books are mostly far more hard-hitting and daring than films. Particularly when it comes to films made back then.

  8. This movie deeply influenced me in becoming a Medical Teacher and to influence young lives( hopefully for the better). Jagriti I remember for a patriotic song ( I think it was sung by the lesser known AB …Aao bacchon tumne dikhaye). Thank You for reviewing it and remembering Poitier!
    Nitin

  9. I read the book when I was 9 or 10, and then reread it frequently until I finished school.
    I found it strangely touching (and perhaps a bit unbelievable) that a teacher could arouse such strong feelings of gratitude — another comment above says the same. At that age 10-17, the hope and optimism it held out was very comforting. Then I forgot all about the book, and re-read it more recently when my son had it in his 12th grade assigned reading. I find it less unbelievable now! Strong influences can happen this way.

    The nuances of race discrimination are brought out very well in the book. I haven’t seen the movie, and maybe now I will. The impact of visual imagery can be much much more powerful, so big things strike bigger and small nuances often get lost. But your review says they are brought out well, so that’s very promising. I wouldn’t be surprised if the book and the movie highlight different complementary aspects of the situation.

    • I must read the book sooner rather than later! Several people have mentioned it in the comments here, and it’s been encouraging me to read it. Thank you for your insight into that – very helpful. It might help me to see the movie in a different light, too, I’m guessing.

  10. Madhu,
    I don’t know where you first saw ‘To Sir With Love’. I first saw the movie, and would you believe it, on DD Metro? They had started this additional channel for content that may not go with the general populace on DD National. And ‘Guess Who is Coming to Dinner Tonight’, too, was there. Later I saw Sidney Poitier’s third great movie ‘In the Heat of the Night’ in the US. And all the three came in the same year! The famous one liner of Sidney Poitier in ‘In the Heat of the Night’ became a film title ‘They Call Me Mr Tibbs!’ later.

    Having seen his most famous films (and recently, ‘A Patch of Blue’), if I have to name one film I most associate him with, or am most fascinated by, is ‘Guess Who is Coming to Dinner’. And why defer watching it to ‘sometime’, I have sent you its link. With DD background, I would feel most Indians would likewise associate Sidney Poitier with GWICTD. Those were really gorgeous days, DD with two channels was able to show classic Hollywood, Satyajit Ray, KL Saigal’s movies, great plays of Habib Tanvar, Mohan Rakesh, adaptations from Gogol, Chekhov, Ibsen etc. – the best of classics, art, literature, culture and music.

    TSWL is a great film no doubt. It is fascinating to see Sidney Poitier make the wild students grow into ‘adults’ and ‘Gentlemen’ and ‘Ladies’ to the disbelief of his other co-teachers. Compared to his other films I have mentioned, colour was most understated in this. One subtle scene was when he rushes in to control the students to save the white sports coach from physical harm (by white boys!). There were some other scenes too where race was depicted in a very subtle manner.

    Colour and bigotry was most in your face in the ‘In the Heat of The Night’. You felt like banging the head of Rod Steiger as the racist, bigoted white cop. That earned him the Best Actor Award (and not the Best Supporting Actor or the Best Actor in a Negative Role?) in the Oscars.

    In GWICTD, race is the core issue when the life-long liberal, Spencer Tracy finds that his own darling daughter has fallen in unshakeable love with a coloured man. The daughter is astonished that this could even be an issue with the Daddy. ‘You know, It is a different matter when something like this happens in your own home.’ The entire film is a series of discussions between different dyads, triads and finally the long monologue by Spencer Tracy when he summons everyone to assemble before they proceed for dinner. Sidney Poitier deserved the Oscars for the Best Actor, but surprisingly he was not even nominated. Race was upfront, there were also many scenes when it was very subtle.

    The Raj Kiran-Dipti Naval starrer ‘Hip Hip Hurray’ inspired from To Sir was a lovely little film with football as the backdrop. It is sad this this film is now not known much, Raj Kiran passed away in the US, unsung, unknown, and in very miserable conditions. The film is not available on the YouTube. I wish someone could review it someday.
    AK

      • Hmm. I’m not sure. I have seen that one, but too far back to remember much beyond the fact that Bindu’s character tries to frame Vinod Khanna in a case of sexual harassment? But yes, I do remember him being the professor who sets out to improve these wild young students, so there is definitely some inspiration there.

    • Thank you so much for that detailed and interesting analysis/review of these films – and for sending me the link to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. I look forward to watching that, as well as In The Heat of the Night.

      I remember the name of Hip Hip Hurray, but I don’t think I ever watched it. If I had, I’m sure I would have noticed the similarity to To Sir, With Love. But your referring to that film reminded me of another Raj Kiran film that I like: the relatively little-known Maan-Abhimaan, which is one of those rare examples of a Hindi film that manages to show love growing in a believable sort of way, slowly and not helped along by lots of songs.

      I think I too watched To Sir, With Love on DD Metro. That channel was such a welcome change from the comparative sameness of the DD National Channel.

  11. Read the post with the comments (and your respective responses). The movie appears to be a must watch and the book appears to be a must read. Who doesn’t love to be associated with an ideal and empathetic teacher ? The comments took me down my memory lane of watching Jagriti (1954), Imtihaan (1974), Maan Abhimaan (1980) and Hip Hip Hurray (1984). Hearty thanks to you for everything and RIP, Sidney Poitier.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.