BBC Radio 4 Extra, 18-19 May 2011
First broadcast in 2007, this adaptation had the unenviable task of trying
to compete with memories of the famous 1966 film starring Sidney Poitier with Lulu as one of the unruly school students.
A tale of everyday racism in early 1950s London, this partly autobiographical
story tells of Rick (Kwame Kwei Armah), a war hero born in British Guiana (now Guyana), who tries and fails to obtain
a job in engineering, and ends up teaching in a tough school in the East End. There he discovers to his cost just how prejudiced
people are against African-Caribbeans, even when they pretend to support him. Eventually he persuades his mostly
white class of students to visit a mixed-race family and give them a wreath following the death of the (white)
mother. While this act does not change people's attitudes, it nonetheless leaves Rick feeling slightly hopeful for the
To Sir with Love was an interesting companion-piece to Vivienne Franzmann's
Mogadishu, broadcast on Radio 3 on October 23, 2011. Franzmann looks at racism in a contemporary secondary school,
and suggests that it is often those teachers who profess to be 'liberal,' who end up being hurt, as they wilfully
refuse to understand how students of different ethnic backgrounds approach the entire experience of going to school. To
Sir with Love suggests that racism was rife in Britain in the early 1950s; Rick's colleague Weston (Simon Treves),
an ex-sergeant-major, continually describes Rick as "one of you people," as if Rick originated from another
planet. In another telling scene Rick went to a fancy restaurant with his white girlfriend Gillian Blanchard (Sasha Bihar),
and had onion soup deliberately spilt over him by the waiter. Rick's response to such humiliations was generally
passive, as he believed that aggression would not help him in the least. Such stoicism stands in stark
contrast to Franzmann's characters, the majority of whom lash out first, and ask questions later. They are no longer
prepared to sit back and endure the daily humiliations of a racist society.
Williams' adaptation of To Sir With Love deliberately contrasted Rick's
reactions to any given situation with those of the white characters surrounding him. Rick remained largely optimistic,
even when faced with a class of tough students. He admired the naive beliefs of his head teacher Mr. Florian (Sam Dale),
who insisted on giving the students the freedom of self-expression in the hope that they might acquire some sense
of maturity. However both Rick's and Florian's hopes were often dashed, as the students revealed just how much their
views had been shaped by racism. Even at the end, when they went to visit the mixed-race household, I wondered whether they
were not just trying to please Rick, rather than learning something about themselves and their prejudices.
Sometimes this adaptation was a little hazy on its period detail; it was evidently
set in 1952 at the time of the Coronation, but it made references to Rick and his class going to see Laurence Olivier perform
Hamlet at the Old Vic. While Olivier had filmed Hamlet in 1948, he had not performed at the Old Vic since
1944, when he co-directed a highly successful season with Ralph Richardson and John Burrell. Apart from these objections,
this adaptation was nonetheless spell-binding, if somewhat depressing, prompting us to consider whether the minority experience
of living in London has really changed over the past six decades.