Sunday, 23 August 2020

The pool of life… Violent Playground (1958)

In Mathew Street, just past The White Star pub and before you come to The Grapes, Eric’s , the rebuilt Cavern and that statue of Cilla, there’s a quote from psychologist Carl Gustav Jung underneath a small bust saying that Liverpool was the “Pool of Life”. Jung had never been to the city and yet he had a vivid dream about it in 1927 which stuck, like so many other myths and legends, largely because the locals wanted it to and, as it turns out, it was true. This is a city where all is possible if unlikely.

Back in the late 1950’s Liverpool was on the turn, still carrying the scars of World War Two and starting the nosedive that would see it’s population halve in my lifetime. By the time of this film my Dad was still a policeman there and I couldn’t help thinking of how he’d deal with some of the situations Stanley Baker encounters as Juvenile Liaison Officer, Sergeant Truman. Probably, and I can’t be certain on this, but I’m pretty sure that David McCallum’s delinquent Johnny Murphy would have dealt with a little more direct and tougher love.

My Dad’s no longer around but I can see him wince at some of the situations and dialogue in Violent Playground, especially those Baker has to say. He’s a well-regarded bobby who, for some reason, is sent to work in youth liaison, and then proceeds to go a little quiet and thoughtful. I’m not arguing for a tougher stance but for whatever reason, Baker seems to have his hands tied by the role and just lets too much go, not that he doesn't deliver his usual high-quality of performance.

Stanley Baker just ahead of the 27 on Stanley Road

Clearly the main objective for the film was to highlight social issues rather than to necessarily offer solutions and I supposed Baker’s cop can’t very well stand in the way of this by solving the situation through the usually-expected mix of moral certainty and physical bravery, but there are ways and ways.

Another issue is with McCallum’s part, his Johnnie is a mix of rebel without a cause and yet still an intelligent young man who seems determined to deny himself the escape route his athletic abilities might allow as well as the consolations of faith and the support of his family's priest, played by Peter Cushing . He’s cock of the thirties council block where he lives but he can’t seem to convert this into a successful "business" enterprise in spite of the loyalty of young Tommy played by Freddie Starr, just about the only one authentic of accent and attitude! Still, Melvyn Hayes is in the gang, what are you gonna do?!

Melvyn and the gang get told to lay off Primrose and Alexander

Liverpool was and is a hard city but even in the playground in the middle of Gerard Gardens does indeed look violent, as Johnnies' boys hang around and a heirarchy built through delivering on threats is maintained. Gerard Gardens is just off Scotland Road, near where my mum first lived and where my Grandad used to cycle up and down collecting the insurance pennies when times got tougher pre-war.

Stanley Baker’s Detective Sergeant Jack Truman is clearly a good policeman beginning to intuitively piece together a pattern for the Firefly arson attacks in the city, when he’s inexplicably placed into crime prevention with the Juvenile Liaison team. His first “case” is to intervene when two young scallywags get caught robbing from Lipton’s’, a minor incident but he walks them back to where they live at Gerrard Gardens only to find their older sister is disarmingly attractive Catherine 'Cathie' Murphy (Anne Heywood) whilst their older brother is the cool nihilistic Johnny (McCallum).

Stanley Baker and the rather nice Anne Heywood

As Jack leaves the estate, he sees Johnnie’s power over the other youths and two Chinese youngsters do anything to avoid conflict as the boys push people around (yes, even Mr Hayes!). The theory of crime prevention is to catch them young, as with Johnny’s sister and brother, but with the future all sown up by a choice of low-paid drudgery or unemployment and crime, it’s a tough cycle to crack. Cathie is the moral centre of the household and is a good catholic girl who also wants to protect her family, which leads her to be suspicious of Jack who is simply spellbound…

It’s a situation we’ve seen many times since and so perhaps I shouldn't be so hard on the film. Johnny has the choice of keeping his ill-gotten social standing or trying to go straight. He’s torn and his residual faith has him almost convinced by Peter Cushing’s Priest, but in a superbly visceral performance, McCallum convinces in his inability to escape the fate marked out for him. One moment he's showing his talent as a runner for sports teacher Mr Heaven (Clifford Evans) and a few hours later he and Jack return to his flat to find the gang all there, making a mess. Johnny decides to revert to type and leads them into a threatening dance towards Jack.

The impressive Freddie Starr aka Fred Fowell

As Jack tries to help his siblings he starts to fall for Chrissie and this perhaps alienates Johnny even more, he starts to think big and looks for a way to really make his mark. But the danger here is what if his febrile plans fail, what will he do then. Baker even though subdued, is playing a quitter man than usual and one who is trying to find a way into trust. This will be sorely tested.

No spoilers, but whatever happens at the end the film does hold up hope, if not for all the characters but certainly some and even Jack and Chrissie: both win our sympathy in the end and deserve a break!

Keep on runnin' Johnnie!

Dusty Verdict: Over-mannered and predictable perhaps but there are some good performances here and this is a tale which has only got more relevant. Freddie Starr’s loyal teen is a sign of things to come once drugs turned city centres into even harsher environments for violence and destitution.

BFI Screen online wrote that, "it's hard to deny its rousing effectiveness as a high-powered melodrama…” whilst TV Guide noted, "A tautly scripted effort is given a realistic bent through the atmospheric photography and the subtle handling of the children."

There’s some good support from John Slater (later to star in Z-Cars) as Detective Sergeant Willie Walker; a street smart copper, Vincent Price is superb as usual and  it’s worth noting the presence and performances of Michael Chow as Alexander and Tsai Chin as Primrose. Liverpool has Europe’s oldest Chinese community and so it is good to see this being represented in 1958.

Butter wouldn't melt: Fergal and Brona Boland

The kids are great too: Brona and Fergal Boland playing Mary and Patrick Murphy, Johnny, and Chrissie’s younger siblings.

There are some fascinating location shots in the city and I especially liked one shot of the kids running down from Lime Street Station as well as the genuinely tense van and car chase through town, down to the Pier Head, the Three Graces and the gone and much missed overhead railway. Some of these buildings have now gone and Liverpool, after years of progress, now stands at a crossroads after the Covid pandemic, it’s to be hoped we are ready for what will follow.

You can order the DVD of Violent Playground from Amazon.



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