Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Violent Playground (1958)

Gerard Gardens, Liverpool: The location for  Violent Playground
 In the 1950s and early 1960s director Basil Dearden and producer Michael Relph were among the leading proponents of socially conscious British cinema. In 1950 they gave us The Blue Lamp, with its depiction of youth running wild. Two years later came I Believe in You, a story of probation officers trying to deal with juvenile delinquents. 1959’s Sapphire dealt with race-relations, Victim (1961) covered homosexuality whilst A Place to Go confronted unemployment and boredom in the East End of London.

In Violent Playground they returned to similar territory as explored in I Believe in You. Set in Liverpool, it tells the story of Detective Sergeant Jack Truman (Stanley Baker), a man with ten years of experience as a detective, who is transferred to work as a Juvenile Liaison officer.  
Stanley Baker
Naturally, he's an 'old school' copper who admits to his partner (played by John Slater) "I don't even like kids" and happily gives little kids a clip round the ear:
Brona & Fergal Boland with Stanley Baker

He is initially frustrated by the job but begins to change his opinion of the city’s population as he becomes close to a struggling family. The Murphys are an immigrant Irish family in which the hardworking Cathie (played by Anne Heywood) ...
Anne Heywood

... is struggling to bring up her young twin siblings (played by Brona & Fergal Boland) whose mother has run off to London whilst their father is away at sea:
Brona & Fergal Boland with Stanley Baker

She isn’t helped by her brother Johnnie (played by David McCallum) who, rather than working, hangs around the estate with his mates, a gang of rock n’ roll loving juvenile delinquents.
David McCallum

Among his followers are Tommy (played by 14 year old Fred Fowell, who later found fame as comedian Freddie Starr) and a 22 year old Melvyn Hayes, later to find fame as ‘Gloria’ in the TV series It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.

Melvyn Hayes (left), Freddie Starr (second from left) and David McCallum (right)

Fred Fowell aka comedian Freddie Starr
Melvyn Hayes

Others living on the estate include Alexander and his sister Primrose.
Michael Chow & Tsai Chin
Alexander was played by Michael Chow, an actor and owner of the ‘Mr Chow’s’ chain of restaurants, who later appeared in Lethal Weapon 4 and the Rush Hour films. In 1968 he married the model Grace Coddington, later to become the Creative Director of American Vogue.  Chow was later married to the 1980s model and jewellery designer Tina Chow. Primrose was played by Tsai Chin, Michael Chow’s real life sister. She appeared in a wide range of films, including The Inn of Sixth Happiness, The Yangtse Incident, Blow Up, You Only Live Twice, The Joy Luck Club and Casino Royale.

Sergeant Truman attempts to engage with Johnnie only to be torn between helping the family to keep the twins out of trouble and following his detective-instinct which makes Johnnie the prime suspect for a wave of arson attacks across the city. That he is also attracted to Cathie, and she to him despite his dislike of the police, only serves to make his decisions even more difficult.
Anne Heywood & Stanley Baker
Whilst Baker’s character is portrayed sympathetically, Dearden and Relph offer the viewer two other figures of authority who are shown as being more in touch with the community: the local headmaster, Mr Evans (played by Cliff Evans) and the family priest (played by Peter Cushing).  
Cliff Evans

Peter Cushing
The shadow of World War 2 hangs heavily over the film, from the wasteland of bomb sites that the local children play on, to the WW2 German submachine gun that ‘Slick’ (played by Sean Lynch) carries in a saxophone case. In the post-war years illegal firearms – mostly bought home as war trophies – were a significant factor in the increased use of firearms by criminals.
David McCallum

Whereas Johnnie’s use of the gun might seem extreme to a modern audience who might consider firearms as being a very modern problem, 1950s audiences would automatically have recognised the weapon as a German gun and understood how such a weapon could have found its ways into the hands of juvenile delinquents in Liverpool. In addition, the story of arson attacks on factories and warehouses involved scenes set in the burned out shells of industrial buildings. And, courtesy of the Luftwaffe, there were plenty of those available in Liverpool for the filmmakers to use as locations.


In many ways it is the city of Liverpool itself, and its population, that are the stars of the film. Many scenes are filmed in the streets with the extras appearing to be locals. Indeed, in one scene we see an ‘extra’ looking directly into the camera.
An extra (man on the right) stares directly into the camera
The flats in which the Murphy family reside (Gerard Gardens – demolished in the 1980s) are central to the film. A vast building, teeming with life, in which everyone seems to know each other, is daunting to the outsider, and where the detective is only safe to visit due to the protection of Johnnie.

Elsewhere the audience sees the Mersey Tunnel, the now-demolished elevated railway, the Anglican Cathedral and endless drab streets.
The Elevated Railway

Sean Lynch beneath the Elevated Railway

Stanley Baker & John Slater with the Anglican Cathedral in the background
That said, not all the street scenes were filmed in Liverpool. Peter Cushing’s church was actually filmed in London (using a church that had also appeared in The Blue Lamp), as were the scenes of the school which were filmed in Poplar.

St Mary's Church, Rowington Close, Paddington, London.

St Mary's Church, Rowington Close, Paddington, London.

St Mary & St Michael Catholic School, Sutton Street, Shadwell.

Sutton Street, Shadwell.

Sutton Street, Shadwell.
This being the late 1950s, rock n' roll music and dancing are central to the film: As this youngster tells the Detective Sergeant: "Mister, kids don't walk, they roll."

As for my favourite scene in the film, it has to be David McCallum’s dancing during a party in the family flat:

Shake it, Dave, Shake it!

If you want to see David's moves, the film is currently available here.


  1. Just saw David McCallum in "Violent Playground" at #ManFromUNCLE UK convention - thoughtful, disturbing, compelling.

    Thought I recognised the only actor with a scouse accent in the whole film - a young Fred Fowell before his name change to 'Freddie Starr' !

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