Sunday, 12 April 2015

Violent Playground (1958)



Violent Playground is a 1958 Basil Dearden film clearly influenced by the rock and roll social issue films from the States such as Blackboard Jungle. The film focuses on a Liverpool street gang led by Johnny Murphy (David McCallum) who come under suspicion by Stanley Baker's local Juvenile Liaison Officer Sergeant Truman for a spate of arson across the city, but his investigation is somewhat complicated by his growing romantic feelings for Johnny's sister (Anne Heywood)



In his seminal book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Stanley Cohen investigates the way in which the media and the establishment are able to define a group as a threat to societal values and interests, leading to the titular 'moral panic' that marginalises and vilifies such groups in the popular imagination. He did this by specifically looking at the screaming headlines that occurred as a result of the Bank Holiday fights between the Mods and Rockers, defined as riotous unnatural behaviour at the time but actually the cost and nature of damages that fateful weekend are on record as being little different to previous Bank Holidays. The political powers and mass media whipped up a frenzy concerning dangerous youths and, in Violent Playground, it's clear to see the start of this in one particularly unintentionally hilarious scene which depicts rock and roll music as a negative, somewhat satanic influence upon McCallum and his fellow Teds. Stumbling upon them dancing to their dansette record player, Baker is silently horrified to see them writhe wildly about before dissolving into a trance like state as they approach him with menace. It's utterly ridiculous - Baker's reaction is as if he's seen some Black Mass in which McCallum is simultaneously fucking and stabbing a pig rather than cutting a rug in the most embarrassing of fashions. Watching it now from a 21st century perspective it's odd to see rock and roll music portrayed as evil, whilst Baker's 'nice guy' cop offers up the marital advice of "Why don't you wallop her?"



Cringeworthy moments aside, Violent Playground still has much fun to offer as well as providing key roles for Chinese and black actors, a rarity at the time and further proof of Dearden's progressive style in British cinema. Unfortunately, despite filming extensively around Liverpool, Dearden doesn't seem as interested in depicting genuine Liverpudlians on screen and only a young Freddie Starr as one of Johnny's admiring acolytes delivers an authentic scouse accent in the whole production. It's a film full of familiar faces, headed up by Stanley Baker delivering a reliable if somewhat dull performance (I think Baker was always better suited to toughs on the wrong side of the law - except for his star turn as a Manchester detective in the excellent Hell Is A City) and his relationship with Heywood is somewhat anemic, struggling with some truly cliched dialogue - even for 1958. Peter Cushing also pops up as the parish priest but he offers a strange softly spoken monotonous delivery that makes you long for McCallum to turn into a vampire just to give him the chance to wield a crucifix in his direction and liven his role up a bit. 


Violent Playground isn't one of Dearden's best and it failed to make McCallum Britain's answer to James Dean or Brando, but a below average Dearden is better than others firing on all cylinders. It does have some suitably tense moments particularly in its climactic (though rather drawn out) finale which features him holding the pupils of Scotland Road Primary (in reality a school in London!) hostage with a tommy gun. It gains personal interest for anyone familiar with Liverpool - such as myself - and affords us a chance to compare and contrast the cityscape then and now and feel strangely nostalgic for the likes of Gerard Gardens, now long demolished.

Gerard Gardens in Violent Playground


And in 1987, just prior to demolition - note the graffiti

6 comments:

  1. Amazing that building is gone now, but here in Croydon they are busy demolishing the very 1960s council offices. I liked this Dearden film a lot, when I got the dvd recently - I had been catching up with Anne Heywood movies - (check out I WANT WHAT I WANT where she is a transexual! where she is too pretty to be a convincing man, but then her real name is Violet Pretty, and she was a beauty queen) . The movie has a great cast of regulars, Baker is terrific as usual - don't expect it to ever show on TV with that school siege at the end!

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    1. Absolutely! I remember this film from my childhood in the 80s so it definitely appeared on TV then, but since the likes of Dunblane and Columbine and tragically so many others in the US too, the chances of this film appearing on TV now are nil. I must look out for I Want What I Want now! Thanks :)

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  2. I found this film strangely compelling, if a little awkward. I've just recently watched this and for me it made a bigger impression after watching, certainly a film I'll pay more attention to on second watch. I always find it interesting to look at cities how they were compared to "modernisation".

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    1. Compelling but a little awkward, yup I think that sums it up perfectly!

      I do hate how some buildings/examples of 60s architecture are now being demolished because they are deemed 'ugly'. These buildings are the history of the next generation and it's a shame they are being robbed of them.

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  3. When you have a spare moment try my recent comments on how London is changing and becoming the unaffordable city of the future .... unless you are Chinese or a foreign national who can afford these prices .....
    http://osullivan60.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/the-streets-of-london.html

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  4. The stuff about the evils of rock and roll reminds me of the notorious episode of QUINCY M.E. where the crusading pathologist discovers the terrifying effect of the thoroughly evil 'Punk Rock Music' on a group of very, very elderly teenagers.

    I saw this donkey's years ago, and remember being rather surprised at the casting of McCallum as a juvenile delinquent. The overwhelming quality that he tended to radiate as an adult was an icy intelligence (Joanna Lumley said that he always came across in person as a rather serious headmaster). You can never really believe that he would slide out of control.

    Big fan of Cushing. He was a huge star on TV, but until he was embraced by Hammer the British film industry always cast him in roles that came about fourth or fifth in the cast list. The mainstream didn't always appreciate his star quality,

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