The New York Times is reporting this evening that E.R. (Edward Ricardo) Braithwaite, the Guyanese author, educator and diplomat whose years teaching in London’s East End inspired the international best-seller “To Sir, With Love” and the popular Sidney Poitier movie of the same name, has died at age 104.
Braithwaite’s companion, Ginette Ast, confirmed the news, saying that he became sick on Monday and died at the Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center in Rockville, Maryland.
Schooled in Guyana, the U.S. and Britain, Braithwaite wrote several fiction and nonfiction books, often focusing on racism and class, and the contrast between first world and colonial cultures.
He also served in the 1960s as the newly independent Guyana’s first representative at the United Nations and later was ambassador to Venezuela. On his 100th birthday, he received an honorary medal from his native country for lifetime achievement.
Guyana President David Granger on Tuesday remembered Braithwaite as “an eminent Guyanese and distinguished diplomat.”
Braithwaite’s 1959 novel, “To Sir With Love” (his first and most famous book) was adapted for the screen in 1967 and starred Sidney Poitier in a post-war London tale of social and racial strife in an inner-city school.
In the book, relieved of war duty, Guyanese engineer Ricky Braithwaite returns to a cold welcome in a Britain that has turned its back on the black men and women who fought alongside them in the war. He takes a job as a teacher at an unconventional school in the East End, where he faces a class of unruly white working class kids who test him to his limits. But in the space of one year, their lives are transformed under his guidance, and his own future is turned upside down when he falls in love with a white fellow-teacher.
James Clavell directed the 1967 film based on the book. He also wrote the screenplay, adapting from Braithwaite’s semi-autobiographical novel, as Ricky Braithwaite became Mark Thackeray, as played by Poitier.
It was the 8th highest grossing picture of 1967 in the USA, despite being a British production with just one American star in it – Poitier. It speaks to his popularity at the time.
Twelve years earlier, Poitier co-starred in the somewhat similar “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), also a story about a new teacher at odds with the juvenile delinquents who make up his class (one of them being a younger Poitier). In “To Sir With Love” the student becomed the teacher. Sort of…
The title song, performed on screen and on record by Lulu, became a No. 1 hit.
Braithwaite didn’t love the movie. He criticized writer/director Clavell for downplaying the author’s interracial romance with a fellow (white) teacher, and said Poitier’s performance was too thin and jovial.
“The movie made it look like fun and games,” Braithwaite later said about the film.
Unfortunately he won’t get to see the upcoming remake that the BBC announced a year ago – a 90-minute adaptation of “To Sir With Love” by award-winning British-Pakistani playwright, screenwriter, and filmmaker Hanif Kureishi, produced by Rainmark Films.
“E.R. Brathwaite’s ‘To Sir With Love,’ written and set in London’s East End at the end of the 1950s, is a moving, tough and informative story about an intelligent man whose only hope of work – since he is black – is to become a teacher,” said Kureishi when the project was first announced. “As a young man in the 1960s, [it] was the only novel I was aware of which dealt with the subject of race in Britain, and I hope this dramatization provides a vivid portrayal, particularly for the young, of how Britain has changed since then, and how it has remained the same.”
The BBC announced the project in September 2015 but no word yet on its progress and when it can be expected.
Tracey Scoffield is executive producing the film for Rainmark Films, along with Lucy Richer for the BBC.
At 104 years old, Braithwaite certainly lived a very long life; may his soul rest in peace.
Watch a trailer for the 1967 “To Sir With Love” film starring Sidney Poitier: