Classic Liverpool Films


This article first appeared in Issue 4 of The Merseysider magazine. Since it was published, 2013 has seen the release of Blood, a crime thriller filmed on location in Liverpool and the Wirral. Click here to read our review of the film.


Alan Gardiner uncovers some forgotten cinematic gems

In 2012 many people who live or work in Liverpool were swapping tales of their encounters with Keira Knightley, Johnny Depp or Kenneth Branagh, all of them in the city to film Maryland, the latest instalment in the Jack Ryan series that began in 1990 with The Hunt For Red October, itself filmed partly in Liverpool. It was confirmation of Liverpool’s status as the second most-filmed British city after London: location shoots in recent years have included sequences for Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, The Dark Knight, Captain America and many more.

Liverpool has had a long relationship with film, having been visited by such early filmmakers as the Lumiere Brothers (who filmed the docks from the overhead railway in 1897) and Mitchell and Kenyon. Early silent feature films were also shot in the city, such as an adaptation of Silas Hocking’s 19th century novel Her Benny in 1920.

For this look at Liverpool films we’ve chosen six from the second half of the 20th century. All of them are set in the city as well as filmed there, and they offer interesting perspectives of Liverpool at different points in its history. Several might be considered ‘lost’ films in that they are little known, rarely (if ever) shown on television and not currently available on DVD. Fortunately this lack of availability does not apply to Violent Playground or Gumshoe. Violent Playground, which has acquired the status of a minor Fifties cult classic over the years, was released on DVD for the first time in 2012, and is well worth snapping up before it disappears again.

There are further articles to be written on films such as The Magnet, These Dangerous Years, Letter To Brezhnev and Terence Davies’s The Long Day Closes, not to mention the many fine films that aren’t set in Merseyside but have made use of its atmospheric streets, buildings and waterfront, from Chariots Of Fire to Let Him Have It and In The Name Of The Father. But for now let’s focus on these six films, beginning with an obscure 1950 release in which a young Richard Burton played a Scouser…   

Waterfront (1950)

Waterfront, adapted from a novel by the Liverpool writer John Brophy, starred Robert Newton as Peter McCabe, a feckless seaman who abandons his pregnant wife (Kathleen Harrison) and two young daughters. After an absence of fourteen years he returns to the city. His daughters now have contrasting boyfriends: Nora is engaged to an honest but jobless ship’s engineer (Richard Burton in one of his earliest film roles), while Connie is seeing affluent but sleazy Maurice Bruno (Kenneth Griffith). Their father has an argument with the captain of his ship, who wants to demote McCabe to stoker to ‘sweat some of the rebel Irish out of him’, then kills another member of the crew in a drunken brawl onshore. In prison, facing likely execution, he is visited by his wife and meets his young son for the first time.

As the film’s title implies, much of the action is centred on Liverpool docks, and Liverpool’s identity as a maritime city is to the fore. Burton’s character Ben Satterthwaite, reflecting on the relentless movement of the tides, says that without them ‘there wouldn’t be any docks, any ships, any Liverpool’. Waterfront is set during the Depression of the 1930s, and the hardship of the times is well conveyed as Satterthwaite searches for work with increasing desperation, asking at ship after ship. As with many Liverpool films, the idea of the city’s shifting population – of Liverpool as a place which people leave, or to which they come or return – is strong. McCabe’s irresponsible departure at the beginning of the film is balanced by Satterthwaite’s more positive leave-taking at the end, when he finally finds a job (ironically replacing the man McCabe murdered).

Also typical is the film’s association of Liverpool with crime and social deprivation. This stereotypical representation of the city (which continues today) makes many people uneasy, though the better films achieve a sense of realism and humanity by treating these aspects with subtlety and sensitivity. Here even Robert Newton’s character has a streak of kindness, and Nora is the film’s heroine, striving to keep the family together during her father’s absence.

Several scenes were shot on location at the pier head, around the docks or in the city centre. The opening shots of the city include an interesting one of a moving train on the old overhead railway. Kathleen Harrison’s character visits her husband in the Derby Road Bridewell, and Nora’s sister Connie meets her boyfriend outside the George Henry Lee department store before he whisks her off for a meal at an upmarket restaurant in Chester.

Waterfront has a very strong cast, though the characters’ accents are all over the place, ranging from Home Counties (Nora as a child) to Cockney (Robert Newton), with a smattering of Lancashire. No one has (or seriously attempts) a convincing Liverpool accent, though Richard Burton’s Welsh-inflected delivery comes closest. Director Michael Anderson was at the beginning of a career that would continue for another 50 years, his later films including The Dam Busters, Around The World In 80 Days and Logan’s Run.

Violent Playground (1958)

With Violent Playground we move away from the docks to the inner city – specifically to Gerard Gardens and the (now demolished) estate of walk-up flats where much of the film was shot.

Violent Playground is very much a film of its time: a creditable, and generally successful, attempt at producing a British equivalent to American portrayals of teenage rebellion in films such as the similarly titled Blackboard Jungle, and Rebel Without A Cause. An earlier example was These Dangerous Years (1957), in which Frankie Vaughan played a Liverpool gang leader who reacts against the constrictions of army life when he’s called up for National Service. In Violent Playground, David McCallum (later to be Illya Kuryrakin in television’s The Man From Uncle) plays Johnnie Murphy, a troubled James Dean-type character, and there’s a rock’n’roll soundtrack. Johnnie and his siblings (including older sister Cathie, played by Anne Heywood) live together in a parentless household.

The family’s misdemeanours bring them into contact with policeman Jack Truman (Stanley Baker). He’s an experienced detective who, after taking initial offence at his transfer to Juvenile Liaison, finds himself increasingly sympathetic to the social problems he encounters, as well as romantically attracted to Cathie. An ongoing investigation into an arsonist known as ‘the Firefly’ binds the plot together.

As in Waterfront, there’s an absent father (completely absent in this case – neither parent appears in the film) but a strong daughter (Cathie), who grapples with the family’s financial hardships and struggles to keep everyone on the straight and narrow. She’s helped by the efforts of the local priest (Peter Cushing), in whom Johnnie and Truman both confide. The film has a strong liberal stance, blaming the harsh city environment for the crime that appears rife. Significantly Truman, the son of a shepherd, is from somewhere very different and he tells another character who like him grew up in the countryside, ‘You and I were lucky to have that orchard. The kids in this city – the shops, the lorries, the vans, the barrows – they’re their orchard. The streets are their playground.’

Though they’re presented less sympathetically, several characters (mostly hard-bitten policemen) have an attitude that’s tougher and less understanding. And the viciousness of some of the criminal activity is unflinchingly portrayed: Johnnie’s gang is casually racist, hurling rocks at a Chinese laundry van, and there’s a particularly shocking moment when Johnnie shoots a child.

Apart from Gerard Gardens itself, there are several interesting location shots, with scenes in Ranelagh Street, Lord Nelson Street and School Lane. A climactic car chase takes in several city centre roads and ends in the Mersey Tunnel. The ‘Scotland Road School’ that features quite prominently is however a school of a different name in London.

Again there’s an interesting cast, with a range of British character actors, including George A Cooper, Melvyn Hayes and John Slater (who as Truman’s sidekick has a role very similar to his part a few years later as Sergeant Stone in Z Cars). A young Freddie Starr has a minor role. Director Basil Dearden had a distinguished career: his earlier films included The Blue Lamp (which introduced the policeman later famous as Dixon of Dock Green), and he later directed Victim (a groundbreaking thriller about homosexuality), The League Of Gentlemen and Khartoum.

Violent Playground is now available on DVD.

Beyond This Place (1959)

Although Beyond this Place had a British director – Jack Cardiff, best known as a cinematographer for Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston and others – its two leading roles were played by Americans: Van Johnson and Vera Miles (who also starred in Hitchcock’s Psycho). Johnson plays Paul Mathry, who moved from Liverpool to the United States with his mother during the war. On a visit to the city of his birth nearly twenty years later, he is shocked to discover that his father (played by Bernard Lee) is still alive but in prison serving a sentence for murder. Mathry becomes convinced of his father’s innocence and sets out to clear his name and discover the real culprit. He becomes romantically involved with a librarian (Vera Miles), who helps his fight for justice.

As in Waterfront, Liverpool’s maritime identity is referenced throughout the film. It’s there in the opening shots of Bernard Lee’s character running along a river bank with his young son, chasing after a model yacht; soon afterwards Lee makes his son a paper boat to play with in the bath. A shipping magnate (played by Emlyn Williams) has an office filled with models of his vessels. And Van Johnson’s character works on a ship whose route takes him back to Liverpool, where at the end of the film it seems he might stay. Vera Miles plays a Canadian who has also travelled to Liverpool, where she has made her home.

Another link to Waterfront (and to Violent Playground) is the figure of the absent father. The relationship between father and son is central to the film. Initially close, the two are then separated and a convincing touch is that when the two are reunited, the older Mathry is not the loving, affectionate parent we had seen earlier; prison has brutalised him and he is not especially grateful for Paul’s efforts to secure his release.

The novel by A J Cronin on which the film is based is not set in Liverpool, which may help to explain why although Beyond This Place is a thriller, it doesn’t associate the city of Liverpool itself with crime or social problems in the way that many other films do. The location shots are generally of iconic Liverpool settings: the pier head, St George’s Hall, the Liver Buildings and the Magistrate’s Court in Dale Street. One of the characters runs a drinking club in New Brighton, and there are shots of the ferry and the Mersey Tunnel. The early scenes are set during the war and the Liverpool blitz is vividly recreated.

Among the cast, Bernard Lee has a fair stab at a local accent, Jean Kent is a convincing female villain and Leo McKern has a small role as a hardheaded newspaperman.

Ferry Cross The Mersey (1965)

This was an exuberant musical film made primarily as a vehicle for Gerry and the Pacemakers. Brian Epstein instigated the project, enlisting the help of Tony Warren, who’d created Coronation Street. The storyline is a fictitious account of Gerry Marsden’s rise to fame. He lives across the river in his Aunt Lil’s boarding house, travelling by ferry every day to art school in Liverpool, where the Pacemakers are fellow students (and where they’re taught by Wallasey comic actor Deryck Guyler). Also in the class is Gerry’s wealthy girlfriend Dodie (Julie Samuels), who encourages Gerry and the group’s musical ambitions. They enter a talent competition which, after various mishaps along the way, they duly win.

The film has a lightweight script and the comedy routines (such as a speeded-up Keystone Kops-style car chase) have generally not aged well. But it’s of interest as the only Merseybeat era feature film to be shot largely in Liverpool itself. Whereas Violent Playground presented a picture of alienated youth, the young characters in Ferry Cross The Mersey have a high-spirited, happy-go-lucky attitude, the film’s general energy and optimism reflecting the city’s incredible musical success at the time. It begins on a more sombre note, with documentary footage of derelict, boarded up houses and children playing on waste ground. But even this is given a positive spin, with Gerry Marsden’s voiceover declaring that Liverpool is ‘tough’ and ‘hard’, ‘but I love it’.

As well as Gerry and the Pacemakers several other Liverpool music acts appear, mostly in the talent competition – compered, I’m afraid, by Jimmy Savile – which takes place at the Locarno Ballroom: the Fourmost, Cilla Black, Earl Royce and the Olympics, the Blackwells and the Black Knights. Many other locations in and around the city are also used, making the film a valuable record of mid-Sixties Liverpool: the Woodside Ferry Terminal, Hope Street, Nelson Street, the Mersey Tunnel, the Anglican Cathedral cemetery and of course the ferries themselves all feature. The mansion in which Gerry’s girlfriend lives is actually Speke Hall.

There’s no problem with the authenticity of the accents, either: in fact the American magazine Variety commented, ‘The thick local accent and idiom do not help for general consumption.’ The supporting cast has some excellent actors, including George A Cooper (again) as a lodger at Aunt Lil’s, and Mona Washbourne as Aunt Lil herself. T P McKenna plays the dapper, well-spoken Jack Hanson, a character clearly based on Brian Epstein. Gerry’s girlfriend persuades him to take Gerry and the boys under his wing, and – as Epstein did with the Beatles – he insists on getting them ‘proper outfits’ for the all-important talent competition.

It’s a film that has mysteriously disappeared without trace but deserves resurrection.

The Reckoning (1969)

The plot of this film, with its story of a man who returns to Liverpool to avenge his father’s murder, has echoes of Beyond This Place and also of the more celebrated Get Carter (which it pre-dates by two years), in which a London gangster played by Michael Caine travels to Newcastle looking for trouble after his brother is killed.

Here the central character is Michael Marler – played with tremendous power and presence by Nicol Williamson – a ruthless, driven, womanising businessman, living in the Surrey stockbroker belt and working for a large London accountancy firm, where he’s surrounded by public school toffs who regard him with a mixture of fear and contempt. News that his father is dying takes him back to Liverpool and the small, terraced house he grew up in. He arrives to find his father already dead, the family doctor insistent that the death was a result of natural causes, even though Marler learns that his father was badly beaten in a pub fight by ‘some lad from Bootle’. Back in an environment very different from the sophisticated world he now inhabits (where stabbings in the back are frequent but only metaphorical), he decides he must take the law into his own hands.

The Reckoning uses Liverpool and Surrey’s Virginia Water to symbolise the divide between North and South, rich and poor. The film is full of contrasts between the two: a lavish drinks party in Surrey, disrupted by Marler’s abusive behaviour towards his guests, is preceded by a raucous night at a working men’s club in Liverpool, where there’s live music, bingo and a wrestling match featuring Jackie ‘Mr TV’ Pallo – curtailed, to Pallo’s bemusement, when a brawl breaks out among the audience. Marler’s return to Liverpool brings home to him his loathing for the lifestyle he now has: ‘I feel as if I’ve been playacting ever since the minute I left home. I’m just beginning to feel real again.’ Not that he has much sentimental attachment to Liverpool either, saying of his father, ‘He never belonged to this place any more than I do.’ His father was a staunch Irish republican, whose detestation of all things English Marler appears to share. (It’s become less the case in recent years, but the ‘Irishness’ of Liverpudlian characters has often been emphasised in films – as well as The Reckoning, Waterfront, Violent Playground and Beyond This Place all illustrate this.)

Marler is presented as a brutal, unpleasant character, but the script – and Williamson’s performance – encourages us to share many of his attitudes even as we’re appalled by his actions. The supporting cast includes Rachel Roberts, terrific as a doctor’s receptionist who has a brief affair with Marler.

The Reckoning’s locations include Liverpool, Surrey and London. The Liverpool scenes are unusual in that the city centre and the waterfront do not feature (the brief docklands shots were filmed around Birkenhead). Instead streets of terraced houses dominate. Parts of the film were shot in Everton and Wallasey, but some ‘Liverpool’ scenes were actually filmed in other parts of the country. It’s been suggested that the pub where Marler exacts his revenge on his father’s assailant is the recently demolished Shepherds Rest in Wallasey. If so, it’s been interestingly re-named the Firefly, which may be a respectful nod to Violent Playground. The Reckoning has been released on DVD in the United States, but not as yet in the UK.

Gumshoe (1971)

This very entertaining take on the American private eye novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett is part spoof, part genuine thriller. It stars Albert Finney as Eddie Ginley, a Liverpudlian bingo caller who, inspired by his love of detective fiction, advertises his services as a private investigator in the Liverpool Echo. A response from the mysterious ‘fat man’ sets in train a convoluted plot awash with shady characters. The cryptic conversations and sharp, wisecracking dialogue sometimes seem over-contrived, but a lot of it’s genuinely funny and the longer the film goes on the more it grips.

The screenplay is by Liverpool writer Neville Smith, who a few years earlier had written The Golden Vision, a BBC Wednesday Play (directed by Ken Loach) about a group of obsessive Everton supporters. Smith also had an acting career, and appears briefly in Gumshoe as an old friend of Eddie Ginley who reminisces with him about their love of rock’n’roll. His intimate knowledge of Liverpool is very evident in the script, which is peppered with references to very specific locations, including Gambier Terrace (where Eddie has a flat), Falkner Square and Renshaw Street.

Other locations include Dale Street, the docks and the streets around the Liver Buildings. The ‘Broadway Club’ where Eddie works is the real Broadway Club, in Norris Green. The club used to be run by Ernie Mack, a Merseyside show business veteran (as a musician, club owner and booking agent) who died recently aged 89. His jazz group the Saturated Seven appear briefly in the film; Joe Royle Sr (father of the former Everton FC manager and player) was a pianist with the band. In the film the club’s managed by the much-loved Liverpool actor Bill Dean, whose other roles included Harry Cross in Brookside. Dean’s character has an office whose walls are covered with signed photographs of himself standing next to everyone from Frank Sinatra to Buster Keaton – all of them fake. Other Liverpool actors make small but memorable contributions, including the excellent Ken Jones, whose numerous TV roles included ‘Horrible’ Ives, the unpopular Scouse prisoner in Porridge.

There’s also a fine performance from Frank Finlay as Eddie’s unscrupulous brother William. His business is based at the docks, from where he is illegally shipping guns to South Africa. Billie Whitelaw plays Ellen, married to William but possibly in love with Eddie. Fulton McKay (also known for a role in Porridge, as the fearsome Scottish warder), is a seedy private detective who wants Eddie to hand his lucrative assignment over to him. Maureen Lipman and Wendy Richard both have small roles. Gumshoe was the directorial debut of Stephen Frears, who went on to make such films as My Beautiful Launderette and The Queen. He also directed Liam, which had a screenplay by Jimmy McGovern and was set in 1930s Liverpool.

Thanks to Joe Peters for his help with this article.

For more information on Liverpool film locations, visit