Violent Playground (1958) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

This story of juvenile delinquency in 1950s Liverpool was one of a series of topical dramas made by director Basil Dearden and producer Michael Relph from subjects ripped from the headlines. Since the 1940s they had alternated more commercial fare (including comedy vehicles for Peter Sellers and Benny Hill) with these properties that took on socially relevant themes with a (fairly) progressive outlook, shooting on location for a more realistic style. They employed box office stars like Dirk Bogarde and  John Mills as insurance and to further sweeten the pill often couched their social problem agenda with genre trappings. In the case of Violent Playground they got Stanley Baker to star as a cop and tarted up the plot with pyromania and a climax in which a gunman holds a class full of school children hostage.

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

“No longer will you be trying to lock people up. You will be trying to prevent children from being locked up.”

The Dearden-Relph social problem series, if one wanted to use the ‘high concept’ approach, could be summed up thematically as follows:

  • Frieda (1947) – prejudice is stirred up when an RAF man returns with his new bride, a German woman.
  • The Blue Lamp (1950) – a young criminal in London ultimately shoots and kills a kindly policeman
  • I Believe in You (1952) – the work of parole officers
  • The Gentle Gunman (1952) – an IRA man in London questions his views
  • Violent Playground (1958) – Juvenile delinquents in Liverpool graduate to murder
  • Sapphire (1959) – story of racial hatred in London
  • Victim (1961) – blackmail story about homosexuality, then still illegal in the UK
  • All Night Long (1962) – another racial drama, updating Othello for the jazz age
  • Life for Ruth (1962) – drama about medical ethics and religious tolerance when a pair of Jehovah’s witnesses refuse a blood transfusion for their sick child
  • A Place to Go (1963) – a London family gets caught up in  robbery in an attempt to get out of the poverty trap
  • The Mind Benders (1963) – mental conditioning and the limits of scientific experimentation

The Relph-Dearden partnership was forged at Ealing Studios, which during the war and immediately afterwards prided themselves on projecting a sense of British national unity. This comes through quite clearly in these later films too and one can see from even the cursory summary of their ‘social problem’ releases given above that the emphasis is predominantly on those marginalised in society and the impact on them of postwar privation and changes in Britain’s racial and social mix. In the case of Violent Playground, the setting is Liverpool’s deprived inner-city as experienced by the children of the dirt poor Murphy family. The mother’s remarried and the father is in prison, so it’s up to oldest daughter Cathie (Anne Heywood) to take care of her rebellious and charismatic teenage layabout brother Johnnie (David McCallum), who we first meet ominously stoning a poor innocent teddy bear, as well as the two young twins Patrick and Mary (played fetchingly by real-life siblings Fergal and Brona Boland) who are 7 going on 8. It is when the two get caught stealing that they attract the attention of the new Juvenile Liaison Officer, who is not all that happy with his new assignment:

“I don’t even like kids. I’m clumsy. I’m tactless. I’m brutal.”

Stanley Baker stars as Jack Truman, a CID detective investigating a series of fire attacks in the city who is suddenly transferred against his wishes to help deal with the burgeoning problem of young offenders – or rather, to try to stop them before they become repeat offenders. The Dearden and Relph films are classic examples of trying to have your cake and eat it – not just using popular genre and star names to bring audiences to watch difficult subjects, they also try to give the impression of neutrality by trying to show ‘both sides’ of every issue. However, they are usually loading their arguments, or at least are clearly doing so by modern standards, just as Truman’s motives becomes increasingly compromised by his attraction to Cathie.

“I never knew the police were such psychologists. But you forget God sergeant. He came before psychoanalysis “

Like Truman’s own feelings, this is a film that is often contradictory and sometimes even incoherent, following an emotional trajectory along a seemingly logical path, though these two aspects come continuously into conflict. It might seem peculiar that we should be doing this through Truman’s eyes as he is an automatic outsiderm but this is in part to provide reassurance for the more conventional cinema patrons, providing a recognisable movie identification fogure and also trying to give the impression that this story is not directly about them. More craftily though it also serves to slightly wrong foot and confound viewer expectations because ultimately Truman finds himself conflicted about what to do. Confronted with a situation where simply applying the law won’t really stop a cycle of criminality that has its roots buried too deep, he has to look elsewhere for answers, none of them easy.

Although an air of authenticity is provided by the use of real locations around Liverpool, hitherto largely unexplored  in the British cinema of the day, it is also typical of this film’s fairly didactic approach that almost none of the people there seem to be local, or anyway sporting what would be termed a ‘scouse’ accent. On the one hand the specific Liverpool setting is there to reassure some audience members that probably this kind of behaviour is only happening far away; on the other hand, the homogenised nature of the characters in fact tell us the opposite, that this is merely an example of a national phenomenon and could be taking place anywhere. The schoolmaster in fact is Welsh, the Murphy family Irish and all the cops basically use RP English. In addition the laundry boy at the heart of the criminal plot is Chinese and the priest is certainly not a local man either. One of the few truly authentic sounding characters is played by a young lad who would later grow up to be comedian Freddie Starr, who appears here credited as ‘Fred Fowell’, and is absolutely terrific, by far the best of the actors in McCallum’s gang (which also includes Melvyn Hayes, later to join Cliff Richard’s more benign screen crew) – quite rightly, his is the last face we see before the gang abandon Johnny to his solitary fate.

The young Freddie Starr in ‘Violent Playground’.

The Murphy clan have every reason to reject authority (well, apart from that of church of course, but more about that in a minute) and Truman to an extent has to bend to their will in the hope of being able to communicate with them meaningfully outside of his professional role. On the other hand, this ends up working to the advantage of the plot, albeit through some outrageous coincidences. That is to say, while Truman comes to understand the plight of the disadvantaged Murphy family and of those just like them and opts to try to help, it also turns out that Johnnie is the firebug that he has been looking for all along when at CID. In this case, the Lord really does seem to be moving in mysterious directions – and yes, God, she does make an appearance here, in the shape of the always wonderful Peter Cushing as Father Laidlaw. In many ways he is there to symbolise that sense of social cohesion that the filmmakers are suggestion is sometimes lacking and worth striving for. Johnnie certainly says to the padre that he feels completely disconnected from those around him, even the gang members, and just can’t seem to resolve his own conflict. The Murphy family may resent the police (Cathie never really stops covering up for her brother, even after he is responsible for at least one death), but hasn’t given up on the church – indeed Johnnie almost makes a clean breast of crimes to the priest but Truman inadvertently walks in on them and so sabotages the attempt.

Johnnie and his gang have been setting fires for the hell of it and to assuage a deep-rooted sense of powerlessness and inadequacy in a world from which they feel disenfranchised and to exact a measure of vengeance on those who ignore them, using a Chinese laundry van to make their getaway. When Johnnie is seen by Truman being humiliated after being refused entry at a fancy hotel, he realises where the next fire is likely to be. They lie in wait but Johnnie gets away after setting the fire – but when he takes the van he knocks down and kills his stooge at the laundry. Johnnie is handed a machine gun by one of his gang and goes on the run – ending up at his old school. Waking up when his brother and sister turn up for morning class, he shoots at the teacher and takes the kids hostage. This last part of the film is quite substantial, lasting about half an hour (the film in total runs a little over 100 minutes). It’s a nasty idea, taking a classroom of pre-teens hostage and the film goes right ahead and does something truly transgressive when Johnnie panics and shoots one of the children – we are told later that the child will survive, though its unclear how exactly. What’s interesting, regardless of the detail, is the way that once again a tribal sense re-asserts itself. The headmaster is against any police intervention even though Johnnie has already fired several shots and is now parading the hostage children to their parents. His allegiance is completely to the increasingly desperate Johnnie, who he sees as one of his own ‘flock’. The religious agenda of the film does keep coming back in – even at the end, when Cathie asks Truman what his father did, he answers that he was a shepherd.

“You wouldn’t really kills us, would you Johnnie?”

For all its preaching, this also wants to be a solid commercial proposition. Along with the such solid names as Baker and Cushing there is the combustible combo of teenagers and firepower to appeal to younger viewers; a ‘mother knows best’ philosophy to appeal to the parents. And to cap it all, in a clear attempt to imitate the successful use of Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ in The Blackboard Jungle, this film makes heavy use of its own rock ‘n roll song, the annoyingly catchy and relentlessly over-used ‘Play Rough’, with music my Philip Green, who also wrote the film’s score, lyrics by Paddy Roberts and sung by Johnny Luck. At its best it is used in a strange but quite powerful sequence in which Truman is invited up by Johnnie to his flat and discovers a party going on. Not exactly a cabalistic orgy, though the sequence concludes in a threatening manner as the gang muscles out Truman to the insistent strains of the song. it is meant to show us how powerful the yoof (sic), spurred on by music only they can understand, can potentially becomes. Here’s the clip from YouTube:

This is not the best of the Dearden-Relph social problem pictures, not by along chalk. That honour belongs to Victim, an equally contrived but much more successful broaching of a then taboo subject. But it does have the merit of being quite sincere in attempting to get a debate going about the sources of crime and the need to provide a better, more sustainable and nurturing environment for young people to grow up in. Yes, the script by James Kennaway tries to pack in too many stray elements and so ultimately seems to lack focus (much as would be the case with the other film he wrote for the team, The Mind Benders); and the assimilation of genre and topical references is very lumpy at times too; but the performances are generally powerful, even if the film doesn’t always seem certain of what it is striving for, and the use of location pretty impressive for its day. Well worth a look, especially now that it is easily available on DVD (in the UK).

DVD Availability: Recently released in the UK in a bare-bones but quite attractive edition. The titles are in mild widescreen and the rest of the film appears full screen in what seems like open matte – theatrically this would have been cropped to 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The image is occasionally a little faded in places but is sharp and largely free of debris.

[DVD is available from retail outlets and Moviemailall uncaptioned images from their site:]

Violent Playground (1958)
Director: Basil Dearden
Producer: Michael Relph
Screenplay: James Kennaway
Cinematography: Reginald H. Wyer (and Reg Johnson)
Art Direction: Maurice Carter
Music: Philip Green
Cast: Stanley Baker, David McCallum, Peter Cushing, Anne Heywood, John Slater, Clifford Evans, Melvyn Hayes, Freddie Starr

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Basil Dearden, Film Noir, Liverpool, Noir on Tuesday, Scene of the crime, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Violent Playground (1958) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

  1. Colin says:

    I still haven’t gotten round to watching this all the way through. My backlog is becoming ridiculous!
    I do like what they were trying to do with these films though i.e. introduce audiences to topics that they may otherwise have ignored or simply sighed and turned the page when they read about them in the papers. Making them over as genre pieces was always going to have mixed results but it’s understandable too that they wanted to make them as accessible as possible. I really liked The Gentle Gunman, though I suppose that partly down to the fact the background and themes were so familiar to me.

    Anyway, I’ll get back and comment further when I watch the movie through.

    • Cheers Colin – as reviews go this one is a bit all over the place to be honest as I kept changing my mind about it – for me its on the lower end of the Dearden-Relph pictures (I suspect its the religious angle that I founf slightly annoying as it really does feel jammed in) but full of fascinating detail. Be really interested to know what you make of it.

  2. These movies are all new to me. I’ll have to track them down! Excellent overview of the series!

    • Hello George, tahnks for the kind words. Victim is especially good and I think it’s the easiest to find probably – they do seem terribly outdated and parocial these days, but historically they are fascinaing nd Victim does still hold up too, thanks to excellent performances from Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms.

  3. idawson says:

    Never heard of this one myself. But Brit Noir is a relatively untouched subgenre in my film watching. Must catch up 🙂

    • Thanks for stopping by! If you want something a bit less serious and more straightforwardly ‘Brit Noir’ I would definitely recommend some of the films made by Hammer in the early 50s – I’ve reviewed a few of them here and nearly all of them are available on DVD too.

  4. Colin says:

    Just watched this tonight and here are my own thoughts. It’s generally a pretty good movie, but it could have used some editing and trimming in the early stages or mid section to tighten it up; it takes an awful long time to cut to the chase. When the final act arrives, it’s a traumatic and riveting one though. The filmmakers really pile on the emotional stress in those last thirty minutes.

    I think I’d have to disagree with your claims about the headmaster’s motivation though. As I saw it, he wasn’t as much concerned about Johnny’s welfare (at least no more than his characterization to that point suggested he should be) as he was about getting him off the premises to ensure the safety of the hostage kids.

    The religious angle, or the involvement of Cushing’s priest, wasn’t something I had any particular issue with. If you bear in mind that Irish families in the 50s, and much later than that to be honest, had an extremely close relationship with the church, then it makes sense. Irish communities, both immigrant and at home, had a deep rooted distrust of all representations of English authority, especially the police. Although it may appear contradictory to those who aren’t Irish, the Catholic Church was not viewed as an extension state authority but rather as the defenders of its members. As such, the characters turning to the church for guidance seems perfectly natural under the circumstances. The Catholic Church to 50s Irish communities was mmore of an anti-establishment institution – so there’s a logic in that, even if it’s of the contrary Irish type.

    No, I feel the biggest problem was the lack of focus in the script, as you pointed out. That and the fact that McCallum’s Johnny wasn’t a particularly sympathetic figure. Still, there are good performances from Baker, Cushing and Evans, and some nice cinematography in the latter stages. All in all, not bad.

    On the DVD, the transfer’s reasonable, though I do think the contrast could have been wound back a little – the whites seem a little blown at some points.

    • Thanks for that Colin, really good to have your input here. I think I gazumped your own review though!

      Obviously my sense of the Catholic church as an Italian brought up in the 60s and 70s is going to be a different from the one depicted here so I’m going to stay away from that whole side of things. You’re right that it is completely plausible in terms of the characters, no question from me about that – I was more put off by the fact that everyone else in the film gets potential blame for the situation (bad teaching, bad policemen) but the church is treated with kid gloves as if they have no role to play. Cushing is great, but he is set up as such an idealised figure that, in a film that purports to eschew facile stereotypes, it really tends to stick out. The character played by Freddie Starr seems much more plausible and real than any of the others frankly – I wanted to see what his home life was like.

      It’s really interesting what you say about the teacher because in the scene at the siege where he lays into the cops, saying he will blame them if anything goes wrong and not Johnnie, it seemed to me that he was re-iterating the view that all the kids were ‘his’ kids and that he felt a sentimental, emotional tie, that of a parent in essence; which allows him to be completely partisan and was thus, in that sense, abrogating the pragmatic / rational view that the police are forced to take in their ‘role’ in the situation, which is then reiterated in that speech near the end between Truman and Cathie. It’s not like the headmaster makes a single suggestion on how to resolve the situation – to me it seemed as though he just says, “If you touch my boy you’ll have me to answer to”. Now you’re making me think I should go and watch again though.

      But I’m probably coming at this from the wrong angle, comparing it to the Italian neo-realist cinema of the time rather than the tradition that Dearden and Relph really belonged to. This is a J. Arthur Rank movie after all.

      You’re right about the technical side of the presentation – they’ve done a reasonable job of scrubbing a preexisting video element but there are several instances of blooming whites and clearly they didn’t do a new film transfer.

      • Colin says:

        Yes, I guess there is a certain ambiguity to the headmaster; your own reasoning/clarification is logical too. Maybe I should watch again too!

        Just to refer back briefly to the Cushing part: I do take your point that, regardless of what the attitiudes of the characters themselves may have been, the filmmakers do cut the church a lot of slack. I wonder if that’s maybe a further instance of their determination to be as even-handed as possible.

        Whatever. Either in spite of or because of its faults, Violent Playground is actually quite a rich film that serves up a lot of food for thought. In that sense, it could probably be said that Dearden & Co achieved their goals.

        • Well exactly – here we are 55 years later and it is still interesting. LAso, I’m not sure it’s ambiguous – I think it’s a bit confused because as you also said the script as realised is certainly a bit wayward – the film is either too long or too lopsided though when you get to the final third it still seems to be cramming a lot in (the whole ‘betrayal’ scene with Cathie and Trueman doesn;t really feel adequarelt prepared for, as if there had originally been a dialogue betwen the two before she goes into the school that is now missing). There are also some very embarassing moments (especially at the beginning, like the ‘why don’t you wallop her’ dialogue and the dancing little boy) but its the style that tends to seem unsophisticated rather than the message. One imagines that a version made 3 or 4 years later by one of the ‘angry young men’ like Tony Richardson or Lindsay Anderson would have been very, very different in its treatment of problems at ground level though. Although my spam filter got rid of it, shortly after I posted this I got a ping regarding the reference to Life for Ruth with regard’s to its treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses on blood transfusion, which obviously remain a hot-button topic.

  5. Todd Mason says:

    And I’m still waiting to see (THESE ARE) THE DAMNED…

    • Hello Todd – Losey’s excursion into Hammer territory is certainly an unusual take on the JD genre! It is really fascinating to see how anxiety about so-called ‘youth in revolt’ in the 50s and 60s was expressed in small British films as different as Village of the Damned and the low-budget Donald Pleasence film The Wind of Change, all worth a look and not just for their historical or even sociological value. Quite quaint when compared with American counterparts, though when I saw Blue Denim a few years back I did seem to spend a lot of time guffawing at the sheer gaucheness of it!

  6. Rod Croft says:

    How-so-ever this film appears to viewers is sharply brought into focus by the views expressed by yourself and Colin, particularily in relation to the teacher, the Priest and the Church. What an interesting exchange ! Thank you both.

    In another place, I read a review of Ford’s “The Quiet Man” (1952). The reviewer considered Father Lonegan’s reaction to Mary Kate’s advice that she refused to “co-habit” with her husband, to be unbelievable. It is obvious that this reviewer was ” stuck in the present” and had no idea of the attitude of the Church, at that point in time; consequently his review was, in my opinion, fatally flawed. It is so important when reviewing films, to have regard to the time in which they were set and the attitudes prevailing at that time, what-so-ever is currently accepted.

    Thanks again!

    • Thanks for the feedback Rod, greatly appreciated – and I think you make a very important point. The fascination with this type film can be manifold but certainly resides in great part from the opportunity it provides to re-visit the specific time period but also to gauge how people react to it from today’s standpoint in terms of those themes, incidents and characters that remain still topical and controversial.

  7. Pingback: The Mind Benders (1963) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film | Tipping My Fedora

  8. Todd Mason says:

    Were you aware of this Criterion/Eclipse set?
    I certainly snapped it up after seeing ALL NIGHT LONG…

    • Thanks for that Todd – a bit on the expensive side for me (as an import it woul automatically incur about $20 in custom charges) and I already have Victim and All Night Long as individual UK releases – all good stuff though!

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