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 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 Moviemail – all uncaptioned images from their site: www.moviemail-online.co.uk/film/dvd/Violent-Playground]
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