Sidney Poitier: To Sir, with Love

The 1967 film, To Sir, with Love, is a classic British drama, based on the true story of a teacher tasked with educating a tough class in the East End of London. The plot charts his progress over the course of a year, as he gradually earns the students' respect and gives them hope for the future.

Sidney Poitier stars as young teacher Mark Thackeray, an immigrant and qualified engineer from British Guiana who can't find work. He takes the teaching job at North Quay Secondary School on a temporary basis, despite a warning from the head teacher that his predecessor resigned due to the pupils' antics.

He soon realises what a tough fight he has on his hands, as most of the pupils have been rejected by other schools, with North Quay becoming a dumping ground for the kids no-one else wants. They try to intimidate him by banging their hands on the desks initially, interrupting his train of thought. They also play pranks to annoy him.

Learning self-respect

Eventually, however, after trying various approaches to challenge their behaviour, he decides to treat them as adults. He insists the girls are addressed by their surname, prefixed with "Miss", to create self-respect and subsequently respect from others.

Instead of trying to teach them curriculum lessons, he allows them to discuss topics that are of interest, including what to expect when they leave school and how to apply for jobs. Eventually, his new approach works and all of the pupils begin to respect him and modify their conduct - except for the ringleader, Bert Denham.

He continues to needle Sir and finally, matters come to a head when Thackeray and Denham decide to meet in the boxing ring to fight out their differences. Denham thinks he's tough and that he'll win easily, but Thackeray has trained in boxing and knows all the right moves.

He beats Denham, finally winning his respect. Then, Thackeray offers him a job coaching the younger pupils in boxing the following year. Finally, every pupil has turned their life around and they realise it's all thanks to Sir.

End of term

The year ends with the school dance and in the final movie scene, the students present Thackeray with a heartfelt gift as a thank you for believing in them.

One of the pupils, Barbara Pegg, played by a young Lulu, sings a goodbye song to Sir, a moment that genuinely touches the young teacher - he has to leave the room briefly to recover his composure. In the interim, he had been offered an engineer's job and had planned to leave the school at the end of term.

However, after meeting some of his class for the following year, who are unruly and rude, he realises his vocation is in teaching, so he decides to rip up the engineering job offer in favour of staying on at North Quay.

Released by Columbia Pictures, To Sir, with Love was the third most-popular British film of the 1960s in the United States, beaten only by the two Bond films, Thunderball and Goldfinger.

Poitier's acting career

For Poitier, it was another in a succession of hit films that had begun with the American film noir, No Way Out, in 1950.

The actor was born in Miami, Florida, in 1927. His parents were farmers in the Bahamas (a British colony) on Cat Island. They regularly travelled to Miami to sell their produce and Sidney arrived two months early, during one of their trips. It took three months to nurse him to health, as he was so premature, he wasn't expected to survive.

He moved to New York at 16 and took a series of restaurant jobs, including dish-washing, before joining a theatre group and progressing into movies after learning his craft on the stage. Coincidentally, the role that made him famous was as a student in an unruly high school class in the 1955 film, Blackboard Jungle.

Now 91, Poitier has earned a host of awards, including a BAFTA Fellowship in 2016, Golden Globes, Academy and Grammy Awards, the American Film Industry's Lifetime Achievement Award, an Honorary Oscar, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Movie's origins

The movie version of To Sir, with Love was based on an autobiographical book of the same name by British Guyana-born author, Eustace Edward Braithwaite, who went by the pen-name, ER Braithwaite. He based the plot on his own experiences in an East End School.

However, the author began his teaching career after the second world war, in 1947 - 20 years earlier than the film's setting. It was reported that Braithwaite wasn't very happy with the way the film turned out. He was interviewed by the BBC and said everything that was portrayed in the film had happened in reality, but by the time the film makers had finished with it, it was different altogether.

He reminded director and producer James Cavell that it was a true story and not a fictional novel. However, according to Braithwaite, his pleas fell on deaf ears and the movie wasn't a true interpretation of events.

The tone of the book and the movie were similar: a reluctant teacher wins over a class of tough East End students. The famous boxing match actually happened, although in reality, it came at the start of Braithwaite's teaching career and was instrumental in winning over the class, rather than at the end to win over one pupil.

The reasoning for changing things up was that because the era of the film had been updated by 20 years from 1947 to 1967, there were bound to be differences.

ER Braithwaite continued writing and later in his career turned to social work and finding foster homes for children in London. He went on to become an international ambassador for Guyana in later life and also taught at New York University. He died in 2016, aged 104.


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