Author's school reunion ; TO SIR, WITH LOVE Theatre RoyalER Braithwaite's 1959 autobiographical novel, To Sir, With Love went on to become a beloved - but not by Mr Braithwaite - film starring Sidney Poitier. As a stage adaptation comes to Nottingham, Al Senter finds Mr Braithwaite in a reflective mood
SITTING in a Northampton hotel, the morning after his rousing appearance on the stage of the town's Royal and Derngate Theatre at the triumphant opening of To Sir, With Love, author ER Braithwaite was looking understandably shell-shocked.
After all, it is not every 101-year-old who can cause a standing ovation simply by showing his face in public.
Seldom has the traditional cry from the audience of Author! Author! been so pleasingly and dramatically answered.
It was a nice experience, he says with a smile. But I needed to be reminded of so much, which is a function of age, I suppose. Normally I don't think about my time in the East End and watching the play last night, the events it describes all seem a bit unreal to me now. In fact, I had to strain myself to imagine myself in that situation. It must be a bizarre experience to see events from your distant past recreated on a stage and find yourself lionised by a theatre full of strangers. Mr Braithwaite comes across as a modest man, uneasy in the limelight, whose instinct is to downplay his story and his achievements. He insists that his exploits in the classroom were entirely random, caused by his inability to find the work for which he was qualified.
I chanced upon education; it was like an accident that happened to me, he says. Those kids in the East End made a great impression on me. They seemed so infused with life.
Nearly seven decades after his unexpected debut in the teaching profession, Mr.
Braithwaite has vivid memories of the slow and painful process involved in connecting with his ill-disciplined charges.
I don't know if I changed any lives or not but something did happen between them and me, which was quite gratifying. However, one of the strange things about life is how often circumstances repeat themselves. I'd be walking to work and people would come up to me and say 'Hiya, Sir!' There came a point when I was 'Sir' to the parents as well as to their children.
As we see in the play, Rick, for all his initial doubts, comes to accept many of the headmaster's liberal, child-centred ideas about education. This accurately reflects the particular personality of the man, says Mr Braithwaite.
He was as inspirational as he appears in the play and he meant more to the children than they realised, he says. He somehow inserted himself into their lives. I'd be teaching and the door would open and there was his face. He'd say 'Good job!' and then he'd vanish. On reflection, I can see now that he was well before his time, far ahead of other people in education.
The book was published in 1959, after Mr. Braithwaite had left the school described in its pages.
Despite Mr. Braithwaite's modest assessment of the appeal of his story, Hollywood had no such doubts.
I was not involved in the making of the film at all, he emphasises. A man (James Clavell, the writer/director of the 1967 movie version) came and talked to me about the film rights and I could see that he was not concerned at all with my interests. He made it seem as if the book and the proposed film of it were totally separate. When Clavell wrote the screenplay, he wrote his view of the book, which was very different from mine. When I saw the film, I was not impressed. Something had been lost in the transition from book to film.
For all of Mr Braithwaite's reservations, the film, starring the charismatic Sidney Poitier, was a considerable success, boosted by Lulu's theme song which soared to the top of the American charts.
Great age is said to bring wisdom, serenity and happiness. Would Mr. Braithwaite agree? These are qualities, he says dryly, which have escaped me.
To Sir, With Love is on from Tuesday to Saturday at the Theatre Royal.
Showtimes are 7.30pm with a Wednesday and Thursday 2pm matinee and a Saturday 2.30pm matinee. Tickets are Pounds 14 to Pounds 27.50 and can be bouigt from trch.co.uk, 0115 989 5555 or from the Theatre Royal box office.
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