The film was made after the novel by E.R. Braithwaite, which describes (presumably) his own experiences with racial and social issues in British society.

It tells the story of a highly trained and competent engineer from British Guyana who, upon arriving in England to look for a job, is astonished and appalled to find that people categorically refuse to hire him because he's black. Eventually, he takes a job as a school teacher in London's East End. The reader is amused to find that the value judgements on race the author finds so unheard of are perfectly normal to him when used on class.

In my translated copy, the original title reads: "TO SIR - WITH LOVE".

The crowded red double-decker bus inched its way through the snarl of traffic in Aldgate. It was almost as if it was reluctant to get rid of the overload of noisy, earthy charwomen it had collected on its run through the city—- thick-armed, bovine women, huge-breasted, with heavy bodies irrevocably distorted by frequent childbearing, faces pink and slightly damp from their early labours, the warm May morning and their own energy.... The women carried large heavy shopping bags, and in the ripe mixture of odours which accompanied them, the predominant one hinted at a good haul of fish or fishy things. They reminded me somehow of the peasants in a book by Steinbeck: they were of the city, but they dressed like peasants, they looked like peasants, and they talked like peasants.

The Book

To Sir, With Love
Author: E.R. Braithwaite
First Published: 1959
ISBN 0745122086

The book has been published as both a memoir and a novel; I’m uncertain how much has been fictionalized. In any case, author E.R. Braithwaite recounts the story of Ricardo Braithwaite, born in British Guyana. He arrived in England in 1939 to pursue his engineering studies, but soon enlisted in the Royal Air Force. During World War II, he found acceptance from his fellow soldiers and grateful members of the public.

After the war, his situation changes. His formal qualifications land him many job interviews, but prospective employees change their minds when they see that he is Black. He applies for a job teaching in London's East End, and finds himself taking over a class of troubled teens whose previous instructor quit.

Braithwaite faces many challenges. Students do not respect adult authority, though at least he fares no worse than the others because of his colour. A male student tries to goad him into a fight during Phys Ed. A girl burns a used menstrual product in his classroom's stove. We quickly understand, of course, that these are not bad children, but poor, often hungry survivors of the Blitz. Braithwaite gradually wins the respect of his charges. He treats them as "adults," after a fashion, and requires they treat each other in class with the formal courtesies that would have been expected in the workplace at that time. While demanding a level of decorum, he addresses social and personal issues along with the established curriculum.

Several incidents bring them closer together: a female student's problems with her mother and her own crush-cum-subsitute-father-search, a male student's injury by a bullying teacher. Perhaps most significant is the funeral of a student's mother. The student is of mixed race, and his female friends, in particular, initially refuse to attend because they fear the local gossip that would follow if they entered a "Negro" household.

The issue of racism does not disappear, but it never dominates the book. Race plays a more significant role in Braithwaite's relationships with other adults. He must deal with inappropriate comments from the staff asshat. The attitudes of the general public, meanwhile, challenge his nascent relationship with a young female teacher. The adult clashes, he ultimately concludes, are "of no great importance, so long as" their "repercussions did not enter the classrooms. It was the children, not the teachers, who mattered" (137).

Braithwaite can seem self-aggrandizing and self-righteous. While he condemns racism for the dangerous nonsense it is, his own attitudes can be classist and sexist. A devout believer in the best of the British Empire, he enters the East End like a Victorian explorer some dark edge of the map, certain he must tame and convert the savages. This attitude, however, is hardly unusual among teachers. He allows that his own views can be flawed; he recognizes his tendency to judge quickly, especially when angered. Most importantly, he understands that youth need to make the transition into adulthood and personal responsibility, soon and quickly. We can quibble with the expectations his society has for men and women, but his intentions are noble. I found many of his attitudes less patronizing than those implicit in a culture which infantilizes everyone under the age of eighteen.

Less impressive examples of the "inspirational teacher" genre exist, and this book retains its charm, though it has become something of a period piece.

The Movie

A story as fresh as the girls in their minis... And as tough as the kids from London's East End!

Director: James Clavell
Writers: E.R. Braithwaite, James Clavell

Sidney Poitier as Mark Thackeray
Christian Roberts as Denham
Judy Geeson as Pamela Dare
Suzy Kendall as Gillian Blanchard
Lulu as Barbara "Babs" Pegg
Geoffrey Bayldon as Weston
Edward Burnham as Florian
Gareth Robinson as Tich
Anthony Villaroel as Seales
Robert Shepherd as "Fats"

The 1967 hit film follows the plot of the novel closely, and includes significant portions of original dialogue. The central character's name has been changed, and chapters dealing with his background did not make it into the script. The movie only suggests his relationship with his colleague, Gillian. His relationship with the children, not the teachers, is what matters.

The story has been updated to the 1960s, and this defines the movie. To Sir, With Love remains in people's minds a film of the Swingin' Sixties, with its mini-skirted schoolgirls, groovy fashions, topical 60s references, and hit parade theme song. The film also has a certain contrived 60s attitude. "Sir" dumps the text books into the garbage and insists he’ll teach the students about life. In the novel, he maintained the curriculum, while incorporating issues relevant to their lives.

Sidney Poitier's charismatic performance as Mark Thackeray rises above an occasionally hokey script. The young actors who play the students are not at Poitier's level, but they turn in credible performances. Most memorable are Judy Geeson as Pamela Dare and teen pop singer Lulu as "Babs."

To Sir, With Love sentimentalizes an already sentimental novel, but it also contains some issues that seemed gritty in a teen film of the time, such as moderately rough language, crude class behavior, and a mother with a sleepover boyfriend. Attraction across racial lines the film depicts without the hysteria that accompanied the subject in America; a student's crush on her teacher it also handles in a matter-of-fact manner. The notorious scene with the stove makes it into the movie, and may be the first reference to a feminine hygiene product in a mainstream film.

To Sir, With Love had a low budget, and it shows. Sets have been kept to a minimum. A montage of still photographs represents a field trip. The students wear the same costumes for much of the school year. The film became a huge hit despite these shortcomings. It remains popular because of its feel-good message, strong central performance, and nostalgic 60s vibe.

The Song

If you wanted the sky I would write across the sky
In letters that would soar a thousand feet high
To sir, with love.

Don Black and Mark London wrote the film's eponymous theme song. It appears as the title theme, and Lulu sings a reprise in the film's concluding scene. Although Lulu’s cover of "Shout" remained a bigger hit in Great Britain, "To Sir, With Love" became her signature song elsewhere in the world, impossible to avoid on late 60s radio. One of her greatest hits collections was entitled From Crayons to Perfume for a line from the song.

Many artists have covered it since, including Jann Arden, Susanna Hoffs, Luvplanet and 10,000 Maniacs. Most famously, the Maniacs' Natalie Merchant and REM's Michael Stipe performed it at Bill Clinton's inaugural ball.

Crayons to Perfume

  • The film adaptation of Blackboard Jungle (1955) told a similar story of an idealistic teacher trying to win over the class at a tough school. Sidney Poitier appears as one of the students.
  • A two-part 1969 episode of Get Smart bore the parodic title, "To Sire, with Love." The "sire" was the king of a small country, and the show did not otherwise reference the film or book. Jay Sandrich directed one of the two parts.
  • Jay Sandrich tried to adapt To Sir, With Love to television in 1974. The comedy/drama failed.
  • A sequel to the original movie, To Sir, With Love II appeared on television in 1996. Poitier reprises his role, while Geeson and Lulu make appearances. In this story, Thackeray retires after a quarter-century at his East End school, but then decides to take a position at a tough, inner-city school in Chicago.
  • Perhaps the oddest bit of trivia concerns the movie's release on double-sided DVD. One side had the movie in fullscreen, the other, in widescreen. However, many copies inexplicably featured only the fullscreen of the film; the widescreen side featured Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla. The company has offered no explanation, except to say that this is an error.
  • A Korean-made horror movie from 2006 received the English title, To Sir, With Love. Doubtless, this has caused some confusion.

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