180. Spare the Rod (GB 1961)

Teacher tries to inspire unruly children in poverty stricken East End London

d. Leslie Norman

starring: Max Bygraves, Geoffrey Keen, Donald Pleasence, Eleanor Summerfield

supporting actor: Richard O'Sullivan

point of interest: Summerfield was married to verbose 'Good Old Days' host Leonard Sachs; Leslie Norman was bad tempered tv host Barry Norman's dad


A pre-cursor of 'To Sir With Love', 'Spare the Rod' was a labour of love for executive producer Bygraves who secured the rights for Michael Croft's novel in the late 50s. Bygraves plays ex-Navy man John Saunders whose first teaching job takes him to a Worrell Street School, a miserable instituition filled with delinquent teenagers and a largely sadistic, uncaring staff.

Saunders' care, understanding and enthusiasm wins over his factory fodder pupils and they begin to respond to his slightly unorthodox and not very convincing lessons. Unfortunately, society and fate conspire against him and, as is the norm in these type of 'school' films, it all ends in a riot and Max splits the scene having given it his best shot.

Max can't act, and his performance is only slightly superior to Mike Summerbee's in 'Escape to Victory', but his earnestness and obvious belief in the thematic concerns of his film just about compensate for his lack of acting talent. Pleasence is good (obviously) as the seedy, machiavellian headmaster and Keen gives the standout performance as the sadistic, bastard woodwork teacher.

O'Sullivan (bizarrely) is excellent as the omnipresent pupil who sees through the facade of the educational process. Mind you, I've always had a soft spot for Robin Tripp since seeing him score in a half time celebrity match at Brian Labone's testimonial in the early seventies. I believe Tony Blackburn had a soft spot for O'Sullivan, but that was probably a shallow grave he'd dug for him somewhere off the M1 after he'd found out that he'd been shagging his wife Tessa.

Director Norman creates a suitably shabby, grim atmosphere throughout and there's always a sense of doom hanging about the film. There are a number of excellent moments in the film, particularly when the children's gruesome home lives are being depicted. Best of all is when teacher Saunders is trying to lay down the law in his class and asks one of the scruffier children to remove the long gaberdine mac he insists on wearing. The lad refuses and Saunders forcibly removes the coat. Unfortunately, we find out that the boy's family is so poor that he only has one pair of kecks and the same kecks  are in the process of 'being mended'. There are only undies, socks and shoes beneath the lad's tattered jumper. Saunders is horrified that he has unwittingly humiliated the boy, and his sincere public apology constitutes Bygraves' best bit of acting in the film.

A good little film, despite its obvious limitations and very difficult to locate. I think I found it on Channel 5 at four o'clock in the morning after waking up early following an all day sesh on the ale.

I wonder if Barry Norman ever used this reviewing technique?