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)
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