Cult Movie: David McCallum's Violent Playground re-visited

The young David McCallum stars in Violent Playground
Ralph McLean

Violent Playground

CONSIDER the cult credentials of David McCallum for a moment. Among the Glasgow-born actor's major small screen credits are The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Colditz, The Invisible Man, Sapphire & Steel and NCIS.

On our cinema screens, he's lit up everything from A Night To Remember to The Great Escape. These days he pens crime novels as a hobby and he even found time at the very peak of his global fame in the 1960s to create a series of instrumental albums with legendary producer David Axelrod – albums that are now highly sought after by hopeless crate-digging collectors the world over to this day. Hopeless crate digging collectors like me, in fact.

All things considered, that's a pretty impressive array of cult friendly credits, is it not?

Violent Playground is just another magical moment to add to that impressive list. Directed by Basil Dearden in 1958 it's a moody little black and white crime thriller about a Liverpool gang of hoodlums who fall foul of the law with tragic results.

Even without the involvement of the future Illya Kuryakin, it would still be worthy of attention: as a snapshot of a lost world of backstreet crime and post-war glumness it's a priceless artefact and, with the likes of Stanley Baker and Peter Cushing among the cast, it's well worth an hour and half of anyone's time.

However, with the young McCallum in the central role of fire-starting Merseyside troublemaker Johnny Murphy and burning up every minute he's on screen like a Jock James Dean, it is little short of a proper, grim and gritty little British realist masterpiece.

Johnny is the chief suspect for a series of arson attacks in the city and juvenile liaison officer Sgt Truman (Baker) is hot on his tail. Trouble is, Truman's investigations are compromised by the fact that he's fallen pretty hard for Johnny's fiercely loyal sister (Anne Heywood).

As events escalate, Johnny find himself holed up in a primary school classroom holding the pupils hostage at gun point. As the public gather and a sanctimonious priest (Cushing) gets involved it all leads to an inevitably grim conclusion.

Dearden's film is far from perfect. It leans a little too heavily on the old kitchen sink drama tropes that were so in vogue during the period and most of the accents veer wildly from the Mersey to the Liffy, but there's still much to admire here.

McCallum is electric as the wild and wiry gang leader, even if most of the juvenile delinquents on show wouldn't cut the mustard in an inner city kindergarten today. These are be-quiffed, brothel creeper wearing street urchins whose main poison appears to be listening to bog standard rock and roll and dancing like idiots.

The sequence where the clean cut and decent Truman approaches Johnny and his beat loving gang as if he's witnessing a full blown satanic ritual in progress is simply unforgettable.

Leaving aside such a gutless attitude to teenage issues, this is a film with plenty to say about the alienation of youth in Britain's inner cities. There are rare roles for black and Asian actors and the sequence where Johnny barricades himself in that classroom with only the innocent kids as his bargaining chips and a Tommy Gun for company is also tragically relevant still.

An undervalued B movie beauty with a stunning central performance from McCallum, Violent Playground deserves instant reappraisal.

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