This summer, the fan favorite To Sir, with Love (1967, adapted and directed by James Clavell from educator E.R. Braithwaite's book) celebrated its 50th anniversary. That London-set, mod-centric touchstone was one of three huge screen successes that year for its star Sidney Poitier (the other two being In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner). Yesterday, Poitier’s second-billed, lovely and appealing co-star Judy Geeson turned 69, and the rough-edged but ultimately idealistic story of a novice teacher changing the lives of his lower-middle-class teenage students introduced a child actor already season in episodic British television to big-screen audiences all over the world at the ripe old age of 18. She was no quick pushover for this initially shaky authority figure who confronts surly rebelliousness with respect and decency, but through her plucky characterization of a co-ed who unexpectedly falls hard for her teacher, she became an audience favorite, and a surrogate for anybody who has ever been gobsmacked by the charisma of the peerless Poitier (with whom she became lifelong friends) or at least wanted to share a dance with him. Geeson would go to pair on screen effectively – and romantically – with other leading men such as Richard Morant and Michael Cadman across two seasons of the original Poldark series and Anthony Andrews in Danger UXB. But the platonic partnership with Poitier (briefly recreated in the 1996 TV-movie follow-up To Sir, with Love II) has the firmest hold on our collective consciousness this past half century.
That memory doesn’t eclipse her regular flow of solid screen ensemble work amid other top talents across the intervening decades in movies as diverse as Berserk! (1967), Prudence and the Pill (1968), Three into Two Won’t Go (1969), Brannigan (1975, as a capable comrade-in-arms policewoman alongside London visitor John Wayne), The Eagle Has Landed (1976) and the recent Lily Tomlin charmer Grandma (2015). There’s another riveting Geeson performance not to be overlooked in the distinguished company of her powerful male co-stars: her trusting, beleaguered Beryl Evans, the young wife of an illiterate, crushingly poor Welsh laborer (the great John Hurt) and future unwitting victim of serial predator John Christie (an astounding Richard Attenborough), in director Richard Fleischer’s grimly absorbing 10 Rillington Place (1971). It was taken from true events that rocked England and would lead to an overturning of that nation’s capital punishment laws when the real killer was later exposed only the hapless husband’s unjust conviction and execution for the murders of mother and child. In a 2016 interview revisiting the film after 35 years, Geeson would recall this project as “altogether a joy,…truthfully and honestly made, shown exactly as it happened” and a “raw” depiction of notorious events during the 1948-1953 period, when the country was picking up the pieces from the bleak years of World War II. Her heart-rending, lived-in performance as a mother in dire economic straits whose naïve choice to trust her sympathetic but secretly sinister landlord did not get the critical attention drawn by Attenborough and Hurt, but is every inch key to the sense of dread and subsequent moral outrage that this masterful thriller evokes. The Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays of To Sir, with Love and 10 Rillington Place feature the eloquent, no-nonsense Geeson offering perceptive stories in Audio Commentary chats with Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman (on Sir) and Lem Dobbs and Redman (Rillington) about these spellbinding screen experiences.