Nick Thomas speaks with actors Christian Roberts and Judy Geeson, who played Denham and Pamela Dare in the film.
By Nick Thomas | originally published 2017
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, 2017. The title song, by Lulu, became the top U.S. pop single in 1967.
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 (as character Mark Thackeray) 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 did a reading for director James Clavell and it turned out to be a wonderful experience acting with Sidney, Lulu and Judy.”
One scene remains especially notable for Roberts.
“I had a boxing scene with Sidney and it was great landing a few punches on this distinguished Hollywood actor,” he laughed. “I had done some boxing at school so felt I knew what I was doing. Sidney was very good with all the young actors and we admired him immensely.”
While popular with audiences, some critics noted the film diverged from the book becoming overly sentimental and lacking realism. Even author Braithwaite was critical.
“He actually visited the set one day, chatting to us, and seemed like a good guy,” said Roberts. “But after the film was made he said it didn’t depict the same experience he described in the book.”
Nevertheless, the film was a success.
“Columbia delayed its release in America because they were worried Americans wouldn’t understand the Cockney lingo, but it soon took off, grossing over $40 million dollars in the first year. It only cost around $600,000 to make.”
Although Robert’s film career also took off after “To Sir, with Love,” he eventually concentrated mostly on theater.
“For about 5 years I was getting good film parts and worked with people like Bette Davis and Olivia De Havilland. Then Bob Fosse tested me for a part in ‘Cabaret’ which would have launched my film career further, but Michael York got the role.”
Roberts 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 after winning awards at independent film festivals in LA and the UK.
Interestingly, both Roberts and co-star Judy Geeson followed up “To Sir, with Love” with roles in different films alongside legendary Hollywood rivals.
“I followed it with ‘The Anniversary’ playing Bette Davis’s son,” explained Roberts, and Davis’s reputation as a perfectionist on the set was evident.
“She didn’t like the first director and got him fired saying ‘He’s making me follow the camera when the camera should be following me.’ But she worked well with the actors because she knew she had to relate to us in scenes. She was also a favorite actress of my mother who was thrilled when I invited her to have lunch with Bette Davis!”
Judy Geeson followed up “To Sir, with Love” with the horror thriller “Berserk” in which she played Joan Crawford’s daughter.
“There was a sense of drama and tragedy about her, but she was totally professional and we remained friends,” said the British actress from Los Angeles, where she has lived since 1984. Geeson went on to appear in numerous TV shows and films, including more horror movies.
“I never planned out my career and just took the best job available,” she explained. “In fact, I’m not really a horror fan at all. Even when I go to horror film conventions, the majority of people still come to visit me because of ‘To Sir, with Love.’”
Like Roberts, she has fond memories of the production. “It was the most important film I made and Columbia put me under contract.”
While she shared many scenes with Poitier, she says their dance towards to 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. Jimmy Clavell encouraged us to do what we thought we should be doing in the moment and would shoot the rehearsals. 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, too, went on to work with big stars like Richard Attenborough and John Wayne.
“I really loved him (Wayne) to pieces,” said Geeson who worked with both actors in 1975’s “Brannigan,” also filmed in the UK.
“I remember John Wayne asking me where he could buy a good steak and I told him about my butcher. One Saturday he just turned up saying something like ‘My good friend Judy told me to come.’ The next time I went in they told me they wished I had warned them so they could have tidied up the place. They couldn’t believe John Wayne had just walked into their shop, but that’s the kind of guy he was.”
Geeson also co-starred with Attenborough (and John Hurt) in the crime biography “10 Rillington Place” (1971).
“Dickie – everyone called him that – played the serial killer and I was hired as Beryl, one of his victims, because they thought I looked like the real Beryl. We shot outside the real house where the crimes were committed and the interior shots were in the house next door. I adored working with Dickie and John and think it was one of the best films I ever made.”
As for Poitier, Geeson ranks him highly, too.
“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. We’ve kept in touch through mutual friends all these years.”
Remarkably, says Geeson, Poitier had been trying to make “To Sir, with Love” for years.
“It’s now a classic but Sidney couldn’t find anyone to back it. Somehow he got together with Jimmy Clavell and they went to Columbia, accepting a small fee but taking shares in the profits which was brilliant because they made a fortune from its success.”
Today, Geeson considers the film a period piece. “You couldn’t make it the same today because people just don’t behave like that now.”
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.