Anglophiles, take note: This year marks more than the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Recently, I realized that 2017 also marks the 50th anniversary of two films that don’t have much in common with each other, except that they were filmed on location in London during the height of the “Swinging Sixties” era of fads in music, fashions, and lifestyles that came and went with the wind. One of these films, To Sir With Love, is a drama, and the other, Smashing Time, is a daffy, slapstick comedy. While the two obviously had very different goals when they were made, they’re still enjoyable today for what they brought to movie screens in 1967.
To Sir With Love, written and directed by James Clavell (based on E.R. Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel), stars Sidney Poitier as Mark Thackery, an engineer who lands a teach job in London’s East End, until something more suited to his skills comes along. He positively reeks of personal integrity in a hostile environment of rough, Cockney-speaking hooligans. And those are just the girls. The boys are jaded, angry, and definitely uninterested in actually learning anything in school. In his classroom, the articulate and patient Mark struggles to get a handle on what makes his students tick, and tries to teach them anything he can think of that might make an impression on them. Early failures, plus one or two tense confrontations, leave him discouraged. His weary fellow teachers look on with sympathy, but without much optimism that his efforts will succeed.
Then it dawns on Mark that conventional lessons and textbooks would be useless to his class, and what they really need is an education on how to enter the real world as mature, responsible adults. He insists that they address each other as “Mr.” and “Miss,” but, with some prodding, he also opens up a bit about himself and his early life, which they find intriguing. Seeing a glimmer of hope, gives them a cooking lesson, and arranges a field trip to an art museum. In perhaps the most beautiful sequence of the film, we’re treated to a photo montage of the students as they explore the museum and its classical art and sculptures. The images are accompanied by the famous “To Sir With Love” theme song (sung by Lulu, who plays one of the students). It’s an unforgettable scene.
There are setbacks in Mark’s growing relationship with his class, however, in addition to the awkward realization that one of his students, Pamela Dare (the charismatic Judy Geeson) is falling in love with him–and so is one of his teaching colleagues, Gillian (Suzy Kendall).
At semester’s end, Mark is offered a job as an engineer in an electronics firm, which he accepts, but he isn’t prepared for the heartfelt goodbye his once-rebellious students have prepared for him. The final scene…well, if you’ve seen the movie, you remember it. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for? It’s been out for fifty years!
Smashing Time, written by George Melly and directed by Desmond Davis, couldn’t be a more different film, yet it gives us another but cheerier helping of London in 1967, as seen through the eyes of adventurous extrovert Yvonne (Lynn Redgrave), and her put-upon best friend Brenda (Rita Tushingham), who have traveled from the north to seek fame and fortune, and all the city has to offer. Once there, they soon lose their money, get themselves hired and fired from a number of jobs, and encounter characters ranging from a snooty boutique owner, to a lecherous, middle-aged playboy (Ian Carmichael) who has Yvonne in his sights, until Brenda masterfully sabotages his attempted seduction. The girls also meet a slick manager (Jeremy Lloyd) who actually succeeds in turning tone-deaf Yvonne into a singing sensation.
Meanwhile, Brenda finds herself attracted to a young, arrogant, but successful fashion photographer Tom Wabe (Michael York), who is equally attracted to her, and quickly makes her a print and TV model, rivaling Yvonne’s own inexplicable popularity. The girl’s friendship then threatens to veer into a personal rivalry.
Along the way, we’re treated to a bit of music (sung by the girls), a good old-fashioned pie fight, a hilarious satire of the recording industry, and parody of the Candid Camera style of hidden-camera reality TV shows. Cramming so much into the film makes for a few uneven patches, and it’s all very silly, but mostly very funny, and the two leads are charming. Unlike her shy, frumpy title character in her film Georgy Girl the previous year, Redgrave barrels through Smashing Time like a bull in a china shop, with Tushingham equally wonderful as her sensible, eye-rolling foil. Their hijinx gives the film an undeniable energy. Plus, we even get to wander down the famously trendy Carnaby Street, set to Redgrave’s cheerful warbling on the soundtrack, giving us a glimpse of London’s symbol of pop culture among the “with it” young people at the time.
Seek out both of these films, and enjoy!
Until next Tuesday…