Remembering “To Sir, with Love” at 50
By Nick Thomas
Hollywood has depicted the enduring battle between teachers and rebellious high school students for decades. One of the most popular portrayals was the British production “To Sir, with Love” which premiered in the U.S. 50 years ago on June 14.
Based on the autobiographical novel by Guyana-born E. R. Braithwaite, the film loosely recounts his own teaching experiences in a working-class London neighborhood. Braithwaite is portrayed by Sidney Poitier who attempts to tame defiant East End inner-city students led by the undisciplined Pamela Dare (played by Judy Geeson) and class lout Denham (played by Christian Roberts).
“It was my first film fresh out of drama school,” recalled Roberts from London. “I had a boxing scene with Sidney and it was great landing a few punches on this distinguished Hollywood actor! Sidney was very good with all the young actors and we admired him immensely.”
Although Robert’s film career took off after “To Sir, with Love,” he eventually focused mostly on theater. He published his autobiography “Thank God I’m not Famous: The Life of Christian Charles Roberts” earlier this year and produced “A Caribbean Dream” which premieres in London in June.
Like Roberts, Judy Geeson has fond memories of “To Sir, with Love.”
“It was the most important film I made and Columbia put me under contract,” said the British actress from Los Angeles where she has lived since 1984.
She says her dance with Poitier towards the conclusion was especially memorable.
“I was not a dancer at all so Sidney and I rehearsed a lot. In fact, we didn’t really know what we were going to do. Like so much of the film, the director just wanted us to be ourselves. We even wore our own clothes with the wardrobe department adding a belt or pair of shoes here and there. We had little make-up on, just enough to make sure our noses didn’t shine!”
Geeson remains full of praise for Poitier.
“He took the time to get to know all the young actors and hung out with us,” she recalled. “Sometimes we would all go out as a group on a Friday night. And I would go over to his hotel so we could rehearse our scenes together. He was just the coolest guy and treated us with the utmost respect.”
While popular with audiences, some critics noted the film diverged from the book becoming overly sentimental and lacking realism.
“You couldn’t make it the same today because people just don’t behave like that,” said Geeson. Nevertheless, with its sober themes of racial and social issues, both Roberts and Geeson agree that the film is still relevant.
“Sidney made two other significant films in 1967 – ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ and ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ which all dealt with race relations at the time,” said Roberts. “We can still learn from them today with so much racism about.”
“I think the legacy of ‘To Sir, with Love’ is that one person can make a difference in the lives of others,” adds Geeson. “We can all make a difference if we try.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 600 magazines and newspapers. See http://www.tinseltowntalks.com.