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11.02.19
From Crayons to Perfume.

Over the years I have bumped into many a famous face on my travels and only on a very few occasions have I really wanted a photo taken with any of them. Not really my thing. However, one PR work day I found myself at Lords, the cricket ground, of all places and I bumped into one of my all-time favourites. This time, I was straight over, shoving my phone to a mate urging him to get a snap.

The (un) lucky recipient of my attention was one Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie, or Lulu to you.  I’m not entirely sure when my fixation on her began, but, two projects of hers are immediately in my mind when I think of her. One is the song ‘The Boat That I Row’ her song from 1967. I knew the song as a kid and then re-discovered it a few years later when I was part of the Mono Media DJ collective and one of our team, Claire, used to drop this tune in the middle of her set. It always seemed to work, especially when followed by ‘Glass Onion’ by The Beatles. Certainly TBTIR, along with another of Lulu’s, ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ are firm favourites in my record collection.

Then, the other pointer for me would have to be the film ‘To Sir With Love.’ I watched recently and yes certain elements of it are now dated and not very PC with some frankly clunky dialogue, but it is still a film I find thoroughly enjoyable and, its got Rita Webb in it!

I guess that in 1967 this would have been a fairly radical film in a way, having to deal with issues that were only beginning to be featured and discussed in mainstream cinema in the UK. It was based on the 1959 autobiographical novel of the same name, by author and diplomat E.R. Braithwaite, and adapted for the screen by James Clavell.

The main star of the film was Sidney Poitier, a huge name at the time and alongside him, it featured Suzy Kendall, Judy Geeson and of course Lulu making her big screen debut. Lulu’s song from the film, with lyrics by Don Black, and also called ‘To Sir With Love’, ended up number one on the Billboard charts for five weeks, though bizarrely was only released as a B-side here in the UK.

Columbia Pictures came up with a modest budget of $700,000.00 for the film, which was less than Poitier was getting personally per film by then, which was reported to be on a million per project. However he agreed to make the film for ‘scale’, basically the minimum money available, but he did so with the proviso of a ‘back end’ deal in place, which would pay handsomely if the film did well at the box office. More of that in a bit.

Poitier played Mark Thackeray, coming to the UK, via his homeland of British Guiana and a spell working in menial jobs in California. In reality, he wanted to become an engineer, but finding employment in that industry tough, he turns to teaching and ended up in a rough tough East End school.

He inherited the worst class in the school. Full of kids who have no real interest in education, and all preparing to leave to get the first job they can. He is confronted then by ill-discipline, a total lack of respect, and terrible attitudes.

At first, he finds himself at a loss of how to turn the situation around, but slowly he stops treating the class as ‘kids’ and adopts a new policy of treating them as young adults and slowly they begin to respond, well, most of them do. He takes them to a museum, which opens them up to culture, something, that they haven’t experienced before.

Of course, there are a few hiccups along the way, but after beating the class bully in a boxing match, Thackeray wins the class over after suddenly finding himself rejected due to an incident with a pupil and another teacher.

Race and class are very much at the heart of the film, and by and large, both are handled fairly sensitively. Certainly, I found the message on both subjects, to be a positive one by the end of its 105 minutes.

Thackeray then receives a job offer in engineering and is all set to take it, despite being urged to stay and ‘continue to make a difference’ by fellow teacher and potential love interest Gillian, played by Suzy Kendall.

His disruptive class buy him a gift as they hold their farewell dance in the school, with the band of choice on the night being The Mindbenders. Thackeray is genuinely moved by the gesture.

As he sits and ponders the gift, two unruly ‘youths’ rush in and alert him that they will be in his class next year. He is at first taken aback, but then tears up his job offer and returns to the class dance and you just know he’ll be back at the school for the next intake.

It is said that E.R. Braithwaite himself was not that impressed by the film, perhaps feeling it had been ‘showbizzed.’ His book is certainly a more serious study of the problems he faced in the 1940s where he actually set the story. Of course, the film takes place in the ‘Swinging 60s’ which is a far different ‘scene’ altogether.

Never mind the author though, because the public loved it. Despite some poor reviews, one calling it ‘tepid tripe’, it’s box office takings of over $40 million made it the 3rd most popular film of the 1960s, sitting only behind the James Bond duo of ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘Thunderball’ in first and second.

Yes you did read that right. $40 million.

I just hope E.R. Braithwaite was on a good percentage deal. That would have cheered him up.

The Mumper of SE5