Dedicating a post to say goodbye to a Sir with love…
The class of 1967 learn about life, love, being an adult and much more from their replacement teacher Mark Thackeray in one of Sidney Poitier’s most famous roles.
To Sir, with Love (1967) ORIGINAL TRAILER [HD 1080p], HD Retro Trailers
When it comes to inspiring role models in the movies you need a trailblazing innovator. Nobody embodies that part more than the black Bahamian-American actor, Sidney Poitier. Or to be accurate Sir Sidney Poitier – as he’s been known since 1974 – and this man was also a movie director, an ambassador and the first black man to win the Best Actor Oscar at the Academy Awards. This award was just one of many well-deserved accolades presented to him over his lifetime and his entertainment career.
I was devastated to hear of his passing recently. I knew him as an actor who brought quiet, calm and measured performances to many of his movies. This actor was born in America and his roles in a number of films explored issues surrounding race and race relations to cinema-goers around the world. These films included A Patch of Blue (1965), To Sir, with Love (1967), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and In the Heat of the Night (1967).
Just choosing just one film from his outstanding filmography to tribute him with was the most difficult of choices. I’ve reviewed him already as both a kindly psychiatrist in the TV Movie David and Lisa (1998). And in a much-loved romantic drama, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, where Poitier played a caring Black American doctor who has recently become engaged to the idealistic daughter of white middle-class parents played by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in this then-controversial American film.
For this post, I am reflecting on his sterling performance with another film from this year, To Sir, with Love. The opening credits show Poitier as mild-mannered and polite, Mark Thackeray catching a bus for his first day at work and his journey to work is seen with a montage of 1960s London sights.
Thackeray is an unemployed Black American engineer and an immigrant from British Guiana. He has taken a job at an East London secondary school as a replacement teacher. He has no teaching experience and is one of just a few male teachers at the school. He is told that the kids at this school often come from troubled homes and difficult social backgrounds.
Another male teacher, Mr Theo Weston (Geoffrey Bayldon) seems quite critical and cynical in this career. The jaded Weston tells this new teacher that he’s like a “lamb to the slaughter” as he has inherited the most disruptive class in the school. He then tells him sardonically that their last teacher resigned. Weston is implied to be slightly racist as he says Thackeray is more like a “black sheep” and here Thackeray quietly and calmly corrects him on this behaviour.
In contrast, the female teachers welcome Thackeray and these women seem more understanding about the why behind their kids’ behaviours. He gets helpful tips from both the headteacher, Miss Evans (Faith Brook) and Clinty Clintridge (Patricia Routledge). He is introduced to the other new teacher, Miss Gillian Blanchard (Suzy Kendall) who has also recently started at the school. Gillian confides she’s nervous and says she has very little teaching experience. The two new teachers instantly bond.
Thackeray discovers that he’s been put in charge of a class who are in their final year and are unruly and often behave childishly. At first, his class challenged and pushed the boundaries with him. After a distasteful prank, Thackeray loses his temper with the girls. He then challenges these young women on their sexual behaviours, encourages them to be polite and tells them to treat each other with respect. He encourages the boys to behave in the same way and to be courteous to the girls.
He gets the kids to get actively involved in discussions on adult topics that they will encounter after leaving school – such as sex and marriage – rather than use textbooks. Using these unique techniques he slowly wins over the class and the kids grow to trust and like him. Over time, he gets them to behave like adults and to treat him and their classmates with polite respect. A marked change is seen in the kids’ behaviour, and both his fellow teachers and the kids’ parents praise him for this believing him a natural teacher.
Thackeray also wins the approval from the board to take the kids on a successful trip to a museum, teaches the kids’ survival skills such as cooking and successfully enrols the other staff members to support him in these tasks. He also teaches the kids responsibility for their actions, to be there for each other and he challenges them in their racial attitudes.
However, he still faces unexpected challenges. One of the girls Pamela (Judy Geeson) develops a crush on him. A young man, Bert Denham continues to assert himself and challenge this teacher’s authority… Also not all the teachers are consistent in using Thackeray’s effective techniques with the class when they teach these pupils and this clash in differences leads to near violence…
Poitier is mesmerising in this role as this innovative, caring and understanding teacher. He is a perfect and credible casting after seeing his roles playing characters with similar personalities. In his character, Poitier not only taught his class but the world through insights gained through this movie. This teacher easily identified and learned from his and his kids’ strengths and weaknesses and treated them as his peers. This teacher character also paved the way for other films where teachers won their classes’ respect through their understanding and mutual support.
For this role, it is a warmly told story. Poitier complements his character in a natural and warm way. He has a lovely on-screen genuine rapport with both the young and older cast and this was felt just watching their natural responses to his character. This is authentically seen in both their characters and in pertinent plotlines. He is seen as a teacher first and then a black character, where this issue is brought up sensitively and appropriately in the script but is not dwelled on or made an issue of.
Many critics felt this plot was unrealistic and made sentimental. But I disagree and concur with the Wikipedia entry HERE quotes from the Virgin Film Guide who advocates that in his character;
“He manages to come across as a real person, while simultaneously embodying everything there is to know about morality, respect and integrity.”
This quote sums up wonderfully, just how I perceived Mr Poitier to be as a person In Poitier’s always insightful and strong performances he brought out this character’s engaging, charismatic and honest humanity in a natural and convincing manner.
Finally, to quote that film title song, To Sir, With Love as sung by Lulu, a wee famous Scottish singer. Lulu also stars as one of the kids in the film and then she belts out in the heartwarming montage as Poitier takes the kids to the museum and later in the film.
Those heartwarming lyrics of this song could now be a tribute to this actor himself, who in so many of his characters taught us like a
… friend who taught me right from wrong. And weak from strong.
These attributes are seen and felt through watching many of Poitier’s sterling portrayals. His wonderful, characters often made you or encouraged the world to think differently. To rephrase a line from this song once more…
“in my mind, I know Sidney Poitier will still live on and on…”