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Wednesday May 22nd 2024

To Sir, With Love | 1967

To Sir With Love filming location: Johnson Street, London
To Sir, With Love location: ‘North Quay Secondary School’: Johnson Street, London

12 years after Sidney Poitier was the inner-city schoolkid given a chance in life by doggedly determined teacher Glenn Ford in rock'n'roll 50s landmark Blackboard Jungle, he steps up to the role of mentor to a new generation.

ER Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel is turned into a priceless Sixties time capsule capturing the fashions, music and attitudes of the decade. Unemployed Guyanan engineer Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) accepts a temporary post as teacher in a rough school in the East End of London and, not surprisingly, overcomes the initial racism of his charges to turn their lives around.

I’d love to know how a run-down inner-city school managed to book The Mindbenders for the end of term dance, though. I suppose when you have Lulu among your pupils, you can pull a few strings.

Shockingly, even in the Swinging London of 1967, the inter-racial affair between Thackeray and Gillian (Suzy Kendall) didn’t make it from book to screen.

Exterior locations were filmed in a vanished “Oh, cor blimey!” East End of terraced streets and fruit’n’veg markets around Wapping and Shadwell. The neighbourhood has not only been radically redeveloped, it’s far more ethnically diverse.

Additionally, the area was transformed completely in the Eighties when Rupert Murdoch controversially transferred his publishing empire from the traditional home of newspapers in Fleet Street to a compound which became known as ‘Fortress Wapping’.

Wapping station, on the East London line between Shadwell and Rotherhithe, remained pretty much as it is seen during the opening credits (except that the crumbling warehouses surrounding it are now smart loft apartments) until being given a major makeover in 2010.

This was once part of London’s industrial dockland, and many of the original docks survive – after various forms of gentrification. Running south from Tobacco Dock and the Ornamental Canal (which turns up in Bond movie The World Is Not Enough) is Reardon Street, where Thackeray alights from a bus on his way to the funeral of the mother of one of his pupils.

At the end of the street you can glimpse the spire of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s church of St George-in-the-East. It was at the school of St George-in-the-East that ER Braithwaite taught, and it was originally intended to film on the actual location. The story goes that the headmaster – who recalled the events portrayed somewhat differently – refused to allow the production on the premises.

Further east, near Shadwell station, is Juniper Street, the row of terraced houses south of Cable Street where the kids finally turn up for the funeral, which has been replaced by flats.

And another block to the east, the premises that became ‘North Quay Secondary School’ still stand on Johnson Street, E1, just north of Cable Street.

To Sir With Love filming location: Johnson Street, London
To Sir, With Love location: Jackson runs into the alley with his mum’s bagwash: Johnson Street, London

The school buildings have been redeveloped into flats, and are screened by an impenetrable wall of greenery. Pretty much unchanged are the houses opposite the school, the railway bridge alongside (which now carries the Docklands Light Railway) and the narrow alleyway which Jackson runs into with his mum’s bagwash – though now it’s gated.

For a break from the bleakness of their lives, Mr Thackeray takes the class on an outing to the Victoria And Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, SW7, the national museum of art and design where, in an inventive montage, the kids discover they have more in common with their forebears than they might have believed. The V&A doesn't appear often on-screen, but its Cast Court recently became a ‘Parisian’ museum in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.

The museum is part of the complex of cultural institutions established by Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, in South Kensington. Here you’ll find the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and – not far away – the Royal Albert Hall.

• Many thanks to Geoffrey Bayldon for help with this section.