Friday, 30 November 2012

Violent Playground

'Violent Playground' was directed in 1958 by Basil Dearden. Much of it was filmed on location in Liverpool, at the time an untidy and hellish mix of building and bomb site, studded with huge social housing projects that, from today's perspective, seem less 'streets in the sky' than holding pens for the next generation of criminals, layabouts, dogsbodies and skivvies. 

Into this harsh and degrading environment comes the very great Stanley Baker, a hard bitten Detective who, inexplicably, is moved from investigating a series of arson attacks to Juvenile Liaison Officer. Baker isn't married, hates children and thinks that pretty much every situation can be dealt with by administering a 'wallop'. He doesn't see the point of helping anyone who isn't a law abiding citizen, let alone a snotty nosed brat, but, when a fellow officer points out that the most important arrest in an offender's life isn't the first one, but the second - because it means that he / she has now decided to become a criminal -he promises to give it a go.      

His first case is the Murphy twins, a boy and a girl who, at seven, know they are too young to be prosecuted and so spend their time bunking off school and shoplifting. They're quite charming in an annoying, rascally way, so he softens a bit, grabs their dirty hands and takes them back to their flat in a massive complex down by the docks to have a word with their Mum and Dad. Dad's away at sea, and Mum's run off with another bloke, so parental guidance is provided by older sister Kathy (Anne Heywood) and older brother Johnny (David McCallum): she's gorgeous; he's a dangerous hoodlum, so Baker decides to get to know the family a bit better. 

Baker and the Murphy twins approach the ramparts.

Not particularly violent, but almost certainly a Health & Safety nightmare.
An awkward moment.

Johnny heads up a gang of Teddy Boy-ish teenage delinquents. It's not a particularly impressive gang, as it contains a young Melvyn Hayes and an even younger Freddie Starr, but it's a gang, nonetheless, and barking out orders is the most work Johnny does these days, despite having the potential to become a first class athlete. Baker strongly suspects that the gang have something to do with the arson attacks, and this conviction is strengthened when he hears that, as a kid, Johnny raised the alarm about a major fire and was a local hero for a time. The shrewd Baker thinks that Johnny wants to relive his triumph, but in an evil way, and he's right - Johnny is pretty messed up, a ball of neurosis who only comes alive when he hears fire engine bells or the incessant animal beat of a hep rock and roll record.


Get down!

A blur of intensity. Melvyn Hayes on the right.
There's a brilliant sequence when Baker is talking to Johnny and actually making progress until they pass a flat where the rest of the gang are dancing frenziedly to a Johnny Luck platter. Gripped by the music, Johnny falls into a strange reverie, his face and body twitching to the beat. Within seconds he is dancing too, wildly and uninhibitedly, and this becomes a dance of violence and threat - choreographed menace (sort of - it's rather camp). Baker's face is a picture, and reminds me of the moment my Dad first saw The Smiths on 'Top Of The Pops' - incomprehension, revulsion, contempt, fear.


Johnny eventually snaps, of course, and holds a classroom full of children to ransom with a German WW2 MP40 Sub Machine Gun. It's a strategic disaster, as the school is of the Modernist style and is open plan. Johnny ends up in the back of a Black Mariah, bound for whatever whitewashed, carbolic smelling institution is the closest. I hope it's fireproof. Baker cops off with the sister, and the twins will be saved from Johnny's fate by his firm, fatherly hand. 

"I'll shoot!"

"I told you I'd shoot!"
'Violent Playground' is tagged as a social realist film because of its on location filming and portrayal of the seamier side of inner city life, and its most convincing moments are in tableaux - the gang lounging around in the tower block playground throwing stones at a teddy bear tied to a post, for instance - or the shots of Baker stalking the streets. Somewhat overblown in dramatic terms, director Dearden nevertheless manages to keep a lid on the action, and some good performances stop it getting too silly. Nice to see Peter Cushing in a 'straight' role as well, and Baker is always extremely good value.


We've had some fun on this blog looking at his hairpieces, but I genuinely think Stanley Baker was probably the most exciting and interesting leading man working in British film in the post-war period up until the early sixties, but, because much of that particular period is unfashionable and has fallen out of public view, his talents are often overlooked.

Baker was able to be incredibly tough and tender at the same time - an undeniably hard and capable man who could be brought down by dangerous weaknesses like loyalty and love and honour. He was also a superlative villain - black eyed and hawk like in appearance, utterly ruthless and good in a scrap. He died, not even fifty, in 1976. He's one of my heroes, whatever he's got on his head.

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