The Infinite Jukebox: Lulu’s ‘To Sir, With Love’

Sometimes I swear, I just don’t know. I am prepared to put my hand on my heart and challenge all-comers to say that this is not Lulu’s best song. Lulu. Little Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie of the Sixties, one of the bubbliest and brightest of girl singers, a favourite when it came to chucking in Golden Oldies on Radio 1 and I never heard this song, not until Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs and Michael Stipe of R.E.M. duetted on a live version of it for a bonus track on a CD single. And when I check out the reasons why I had never heard this song in Lulu’s own voice, I find that this is because, despite it being a rightful no. 1 in America, where it was her only Top Ten hit, here in Britain it was no more than a B-side. A B-side. To ‘Let’s Pretend’ which, let’s face it, isn’t fit to clean off its nail varnish.
‘To Sir, With Love’ wasn’t merely a song, it was the title song to the 1966 movie of the same name, in which Lulu starred as a cheeky schoolgirl alongside Sydney Poitier and Judy Geeson. Poitier played an American teacher, a black American teacher, coming to teach a class of unruly and undisciplined teenagers in an Inner London School. I have never seen the film but from what I know of the story, gleaned largely from Wikipedia, it seems to follow the fairly conventional path of the teacher being disregarded at first but gradually winning the kids around to responsible behaviour, learning and better future prospects.
At the end, having decided to resign, Poitier’s character reconsiders after learning that not only has his class come to respect him but they have come to love him, so he tears up his resignation letter and decides to stay on.
Perhaps the film is redeemed by its performances but to be truthful it’s outline has never inclined me to make the effort to see it. But the title song justifies the whole thing as far as I’m concerned.
It’s actually performed in the film at what I assume to be some kind of end-of-year do. It’s a tribute to Poitier’s character, a heartfelt thank you to him for the influence he has had upon the class. This is hardly a conventional subject to fit to a pop song, especially when, even in those more innocent days, the idea of a schoolgirl singing what is in one sense a love song to an adult teacher comes close to being very suspicious.
The song starts wistfully, deliberately harking to the singer’s youth, her schoolgirl days of telling tales and biting nails. She acknowledges that they are gone, but that in her mind they will live on, by implication for a long time. But there’s a reason why they’re gone and it’s not just the slow addition of the years, for there is someone who has been a marker, someone who has been responsible, someone who has taken her from crayons to perfume. How can she thank him for doing this? It isn’t easy but she’ll try…
And the song bursts into that big, sweeping chorus, that invokes something beyond and above, something impossible to complete, the legend-quest of fantasy brought down to earth but revived in a dirty little school: if he wanted the sky, I would write across the sky in letters that would soar a thousand foot high: To Sir, With Love.
There’s a little bit of awe wrapped up in that, that you would try to give what’s far too big to give to someone who wanted it, because they have been of supreme importance to you. Is this really about admiration, about respect, about gratitude for someone who has changed you, who has shown you how to grow?
That’s where the song shows its hand next. Lulu once again muses upon the change that is happening and which is about to be completed. The time has come, as time always comes. Books must be closed and last long looks come to an end. Leaving is at hand, but that leaving means saying goodbye to a best friend, a friend who has taught you right from wrong, weak from strong: what can she give him in return?
And it’s that chorus again, but this time she fantasises that it’s the moon he wants, and she’d try to produce that, but this time she can’t help but reveal her true feelings, to tell him that she would rather he let her give him her heart…
And if she sings like this, pleading, you start to wonder if he really can resist.
Psychologically, the song is an answer to Gary Puckett and The Union Gap’s ‘Young Girl’, seen this time from the position of the younger woman. Details shift slightly: the singer of ‘To Sir, With Love’ is not underage as is heavily implied in Puckett’s song, but instead she’s dealing with a person in an authority relationship to her so it’s the same thing from a different angle.
Whatever the sexual politics of the matter, which would have been ignored in the days of the film and the (non) – hit, the fact remains that this song has a brilliant, uplifting chorus, and that Lulu hits all the emotional notes perfectly. I still can’t understand why her record company decided not to release it as an A-side, because I remain convinced it would have been the biggest hit of her career, and maybe slowed her drift towards variety at a time when she had a very powerful pop presence to her.
And I’d have been familiar with the song for a very long time by now. Let’s face it, the Infinite Jukebox is about my selection of songs, so of necessity there’s a selfishness to everything. And I once too had someone, if they had asked for the sky, would have had me working out how to tear it down and wrap it all in a pink bow for her…

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