Skip to main content

Basil Dearden’s Violent Playground (1958): Masculinity, Class, and Sentimental Politics

  • 111 Accesses

Part of the Palgrave Studies in (Re)Presenting Gender book series (PSRG)


Christian Krug argues that the British ‘Social Problem film’ Violent Playground (1958) showcases competing but relational models of masculinity in its exploration of working-class juvenile delinquency. These include a performative model, tied to the material body and potentially transgressive, and a conformist one which is more aligned with the requirements of a larger social body and the object of social discipline. Scrutinizing Violent Playground’s ‘sentimental politics’, which works at the intersection of ideology and affective corporeality, Krug’s critical reading foregrounds the film’s attempts to emotionally interpellate the audience by teaching it to ‘feel right’ about its unruly males. Dominant masculinities are posited but remain ideological vanishing points, however, and the film also features other, contingent, bodies that complicate this ideological project.


  • Masculinity
  • Sentimental politics
  • Working class
  • Ideology
  • British film
  • Affect

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

USD   19.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-3-030-88604-2
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Hardcover Book
USD   29.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)


  1. 1.

    Cf. Messerschmidt (2018) for current terminological distinctions between ‘dominant’ and ‘hegemonic’ masculinities.

  2. 2.

    For the 1930s and 1940s, cf. footnote 4; for the 1950s and early 1960s, cf. Clay (1999). The 1990s provide another prominent example of (white) working-class men ‘in crisis’, with British films such as Brassed Off (1996) or The Full Monty (1997), e.g., Monk (1999). As early as 1991, Tania Modleski argued that it is precisely this perpetuity—cycles of crisis and resolution—which serve to consolidate male power (7). The phrase becomes problematic when it is instrumentalized for populist purposes (Kappert 2008), but also if ‘crisis’ is taken to imply a normalcy where ‘masculinity’ remains largely unchallenged from within (e.g., alternative, competing masculinities) or without (other genders, but also seemingly unaffected by social structures and intersecting categories of difference).

  3. 3.

    Consider how in contrast, New Wave films (and Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy) often showcase generational conflicts between an older and younger working class and frequently feature sexuality, pregnancy, and abortion. Violent Playground, on the other hand, poses problems that concern both former and future generations—the absence of both Murphy parents, Johnnie’s ‘a(hetero)sexual’ body threating the reproduction of relations of production, the petty crime of his younger siblings as representatives of the “next lot” (01:08:07) of the working class—but the ideological solutions it offers firmly focus on the here and now—and they embrace the logic of melodrama. The fact that Truman, the chosen ersatz-father, turns out to descend from a line of shepherds (i.e., has been a shepherd all along) is significant in this respect. The solution the film offers revolves around (self-)recognition, forging emotional bonds, and realigning social positions accordingly.

  4. 4.

    Kathryn and Philip Dodd (and many others) have argued that John Grierson’s celebrated documentary films of the 1930s, such as Industrial Britain (1933) or Coalface (1935), (homoerotically) depict such fetishized male bodies as heroic figures—a strategy which they partly attribute to a perceived ‘masculinity in crisis’ after World War I (1996, 45; cf. my second footnote).

  5. 5.

    The overt symbolism of this construction is easily decipherable. In the broadest of strokes, the film admonishes that if the next-generation working classes fail to labor along, logistics and retail will be affected—and the whole social body will suffer accordingly.

  6. 6.

    Both ‘feelings’ and ‘emotions’ are thus eminently social, with ‘emotions’ more overtly conventionalized (as in ‘emotional regimes’), and ‘feelings’ purportedly more ‘personal’—even though, as the phrase ‘feeling right’ already indicates, they both retain normative elements. They are distinguished from ‘affect’, which I take to denote, in Brian Massumi’s words, a pre-personal intensity, an “ability to affect and be affected” (outlined in his “Notes” to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, 2019, xv). This notion of affect, which is not limited to individual bodies, allows “moving and being moved” (Chandler 2013, 177)—and, as James Chandler argues, is central to the language of sentimentality.

  7. 7.

    The term ‘emotional realism’ is now associated with Ien Ang’s seminal analysis of soap operas (1985, 41), but it was already used in the 1960s by British film critics, cf. Lowenstein (2005). Lindsay Anderson, a prominent director within the Free Cinema movement and the New Wave films, in 1957 similarly called for an “emotional socialism” in theater and film production, cf. Lacey (1995, 34).

  8. 8.

    While Dearden’s films have very occasionally been discussed in terms of an underlying sentimentality (most notably in Wells [1997], who equates sentimentality with nostalgia in order to place Dearden’s films in a comic tradition), my use of the term is markedly different and stresses its political dimension.

  9. 9.

    According to Andrew Spicer, the young, upper-working-class men that came to dominate cinema audiences towards the end of the 1950s preferred American male heroes offering “fantasies of empowerment and success for male cinema-goers estranged by the middle-aged, middle-class orientation of British film producers” by presenting what a preference survey of British audiences undertaken in 1955 called “‘models of mobility aspiration’: an ‘attractive, virile and ambitious hero, pursuing a combination of personal and social aspirations against a hostile environment’” (1999, 85–86). In Violent Playground, middle-aged British film producers Dearden and Relph offer these elements in Johnnie’s futile attempts at upward mobility (symbolized by being refused entry to the Grand Hotel) and the dangers emanating from his Americanized friend “Slick”, who carries a machine gun in his guitar case.

  10. 10.

    This trope is explored in more detail in New Wave films, most famously in Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), where juvenile delinquent Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) also has a talent for running which grants him a privileged position at the borstal he is sent to, and in Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963), where miner Frank Machin (Richard Harris) seeks social advancement by joining a rugby team, channelling his aggressiveness in a socially legitimate form. However, in both films such athletic activities by working-class men are mere pet projects of more powerful, patronising middle-class men—the borstal’s governor and a Wakefield captain of industry.

  11. 11.

    Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) is the best-known example of a sustained, almost allegorical use of windows doubling for the cinema screen. Partly because the introduction of widescreen formats (such as CinemaScope) changed its aspect ratio (i.e., its geometry), the screen had become an object of meta-reflexive attention by the mid- to late 1950s. Changes in the aspect ratio affected a film’s potential for intimacy (a point producer Michael Relph was keenly aware of in 1957; cf. Burton and O’Sullivan 2009, 129), and any discussion about a film’s sentimental politics, specifically if those involve the audience, also needs to consider cinema as a dispositif—something I can only sketch here: Whereas widescreen formats allowed for more peripheral vision—which arguably complicates Neo-Marxist concepts of subjects being interpellated by the cinematic apparatus, cf. Belton (1992, 185)—, Violent Playground was projected in a more narrow format (1.75:1), which, while ‘wide’, kept focusing the audience’s gaze more firmly, thus benefitting the didactic impetus of their Social Problem films.

  12. 12.

    The sentimental responses of cinema audiences in the late 1950s are difficult to gauge in historical hindsight (and there is an obvious danger that current affective responses are projected onto the film), even though the decade saw the first empirical attempts to study audience reports about the tears shed in cinemas (cf. Harper and Porter 1996)—including Dearden and Relph’s The Blue Lamp (1950).

  13. 13.

    Cf. the special number on “History of Early Modern Masculinities” of the European Review of History (2015), specifically Joseph Campana’s programmatic essay on “Distribution, Assemblage, Capacity: New Keywords for Masculinity?”.


  • Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation.” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Translated by Ben Brewster, 121–173. London and New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ang, Ien. Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination. London and New York: Methuen, 1985.

    Google Scholar 

  • Belton, John. Widescreen Cinema. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard UP, 1992.

    Google Scholar 

  • Berlant, Lauren. The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2008.

    Google Scholar 

  • Buckingham, David. “Troubling Teenagers: How Movies Constructed the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s.” In Growing Up Modern: Childhood, Youth and Popular Culture Since 1945. Accessed December 28, 2019.

  • Burton, Alan, and Tim O’Sullivan. The Cinema of Basil Dearden and Michael Relph. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2009.

    Google Scholar 

  • Campana, Joseph. “Distribution, Assemblage, Capacity: New Keywords for Masculinity?” European Review of History 22, no. 4 (2015): 691–697.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Chandler, James. An Archaeology of Sympathy: The Sentimental Mode in Literature and Cinema. London and Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2013.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chibnall, Steve. “The Teenage Trilogy: The Blue Lamp, I Believe in You and Violent Playground.” In Liberal Directions, Basil Dearden and Postwar British Film Culture, edited by Alan Burton, Tim O’Sullivan, and Paul Wells, 137–153. Trowbridge, Wiltshire: Flicks Books, 1997.

    Google Scholar 

  • Clay, Andrew. “Men, Women and Money: Masculinity in Crisis in the British Professional Crime Film 1946–1965.” In British Crime Cinema, edited by Steve Chibnall and Robert Murphy, 51–65. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

    Google Scholar 

  • Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated and foreword by Brian Massumi. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019 [1987].

    Google Scholar 

  • Dodd, Kathryn, and Philip Dodd. “Engendering the Nation: British Documentary Film, 1930–1939.” In Dissolving Views: Key Writings on British Cinema, edited by Andrew Higson, 38–50. London: Cassell, 1996.

    Google Scholar 

  • Feldmann, Doris, and Christian Krug. “Sentimentales, Heroisches und Männliches in filmischen Repräsentationen der britischen Arbeiterklassen, ca. 1960–2000.” In Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven auf soziale Ungleichheit, edited by Victoria Gutsche, Ronja Holzinger, Larissa Pfaller, and Melissa Sarikaya. Erlangen: FAU Press, forthcoming.

    Google Scholar 

  • Greven, David. “Contemporary Hollywood Masculinity and the Double-Protagonist Film.” In Cinema Journal 48, no. 4 (2009): 22–43.

    Google Scholar 

  • Harper, Sue, and Vincent Porter. “Moved to Tears: Weeping in the Cinema of Postwar Britain.” Screen 37, no. 2 (1996): 152–173.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hickey-Moody, Anna. Deleuze and Masculinity. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan/Springer, 2019.

    Google Scholar 

  • Higson, Andrew. “Space, Place, Spectacle: Landscape and Townscape in the ‘Kitchen Sink’ Film.” In Dissolving Views: Key Writings on British Cinema, 133–156. London: Cassell, 1996.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hill, John. Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956–1963. London: British Film Institute, 1986.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hoggart, Richard. The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working-Class Life. London: Chatto & Windus, 1957.

    Google Scholar 

  • Howard, June. “What Is Sentimentality?” American Literary History 11, no. 1 (1999): 63–81.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Kappert, Ines. Der Mann in der Krise: oder: Eine konservative Kapitalismuskritik in der Mainstreamkultur. Bielefeld: transcript, 2008.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kirkham, Pat, and Janet Thumim. “Men at Work: Dearden and Gender.” In Liberal Directions, Basil Dearden and Postwar British Film Culture, edited by Alan Burton, Tim O’Sullivan, and Paul Wells, 89–107. Trowbridge, Wiltshire: Flicks Books, 1997.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lacey, Stephen. British Realist Theatre: The New Wave in Its Context 19561965. London: Routledge, 1995.

    Google Scholar 

  • Laing, Stuart. Representations of Working-Class Life 1957–1964. Houndmills: Macmillan, 1986.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lowenstein, Adam. “‘Direct Emotional Realism’: The People’s War, Classlessness, and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom.” In Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film, 55–82. New York: Columbia UP, 2005.

    Google Scholar 

  • Luck, Johnny, with Ken Jones and His Orchestra. “Play Rough.” Written by P. Roberts. Shellac Single. Fontana, 1958.

    Google Scholar 

  • Messerschmidt, James W. Hegemonic Masculinity: Formulation, Reformulation, and Amplification. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

    Google Scholar 

  • Messerschmidt, James W., and Michael A. Messner. “Hegemonic, Nonhegemonic, and ‘New’ Masculinities.” In Gender Reckonings: New Social Theory and Research, edited by James W. Messerschmidt, P. Y. Martin, M. A. Messner, and Raewyn Connell. New York: New York UP, 2018.

    Google Scholar 

  • Modleski, Tania. Feminism Without Women: Culture and Criticism in a “Postfeminist” Age. New York and London: Routledge, 1991.

    Google Scholar 

  • Monk, Claire. “Men in the 90s.” In British Cinema of the 90s, edited by Robert Murphy, 156–166. London: British Film Institute, 1999.

    Google Scholar 

  • Perkin, Harold. The Rise of Professional Society: England Since 1880. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

    Google Scholar 

  • Späte, Katrin. “Akteur-Netzwerk-Theorie (ANT): Potenziale für die Geschlechterforschung.” In Handbuch Interdisziplinäre Geschlechterforschung, edited by Beate Kortendiek, Birgit Riegraf, and Katja Sabisch, 379–388. Wiesbaden: Springer, 2019.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Spicer, Andrew. “The Emergence of the British Tough Guy: Stanley Baker, Masculinity and the Crime Thriller.” In British Crime Cinema, edited by Steve Chibnall and Robert Murphy, 83–95. London: Routledge, 1999.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. “Male Stars, Masculinity and British Cinema, 1945–60.” In The British Cinema Book, edited by Robert Murphy, 93–100. 2nd ed. London: British Film Institute, 2001a.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. Typical Men: The Representation of Masculinity in Popular British Cinema. London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2001b.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sussman, Herbert. Victorian Masculinities: Manhood and Masculine Poetics in Early Victorian Literature and Art. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.

    Google Scholar 

  • Violent Playground. Dir. Basil Dearden, prod. Michael Relph, screenplay James Kennaway, photography Reginald Wyer, music Philip Green. 35mm, black and white, 106 mins. Rank Organisation, distributed by Carlton Film, 1958. DVD: ITV Studios Ltd, distributed by Strawberry Media, 2011.

    Google Scholar 

  • von den Hoff, Ralf, et al. “Helden – Heroisierungen – Heroismen: Transformationen und Konjunkturen von der Antike bis zur Moderne. Konzeptionelle Ausgangspunkte des Sonderforschungsbereichs 948.” helden. heroes. héros 1 (2013): 7–14.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wells, Paul. “Sociability, Sentimentality and Sensibility: Basil Dearden and the English Comic Tradition.” In Liberal Directions, Basil Dearden and Postwar British Film Culture, edited by Alan Burton, Tim O’Sullivan, and Paul Wells, 36–58. Trowbridge, Wiltshire: Flicks Books, 1997.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Christian Krug .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2022 The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG

About this chapter

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Krug, C. (2022). Basil Dearden’s Violent Playground (1958): Masculinity, Class, and Sentimental Politics. In: Dexl, C., Gerlsbeck, S. (eds) The Male Body in Representation. Palgrave Studies in (Re)Presenting Gender. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Download citation