As a film about football and, in particular, football hooliganism I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy Cass very much; as a rule it would be the sort of low-budget, grubby British film that I would usually seek to avoid. Thankfully, it isn’t at all what I expected and in no way typical of its genre which is quite fitting as by all accounts Cass Pennant, on whose memoir it is based, has led a remarkable life.
Pennant’s biological mother left Jamaica whilst pregnant for the UK in 1958; 6 weeks after he was born he was abandoned and rehomed by Dr. Barnados with a middle-aged white couple from Slade Green. Pennant had been christened Carol (a common West Indian boy’s name) and that, along with being the only black kid in the neighbourhood, ensured that he was the target of constant bullying and regular beatings.
Whilst at school Pennant adopted the name of ‘Cass’ inspired by his boxing hero Cassius Clay and made firm friends with Freeman (Leo Gregory) and Prentice (Gavin Brocker). As devoted followers of West Ham United the 3 teenagers drifted into football violence, becoming members of the notorious Inter City Firm. During the early 1980s Cass Pennant emerged as one of the most prominent leaders of the ICF.
Set against the back drop of mass unemployment, the miners’ strike and the general malaise of Margaret Thatcher’s “Me” generation the film authentically recreates the period and is especially attentive to the fashions of the day. Le Thugs Nouvelle, as the tabloids sometimes referred to the football hooligans, dressed impeccably for the terraces in Pringle or Lyle & Scott jumpers and Fila or Sergio Tacchini tracksuit tops; evolving the Mod style and establishing the distinctive Casuals look that’s undergoing a major revival today.
Cass always strived to ensure that the ICF were perceived as the most efficient, most formidable and most stylish mob which he measured by the number of front page headlines devoted to their exploits that were planned with both an enterprising and military flare. Cass had calling cards printed that simply stated “Congratulations. You have just met the ICF.” and after one savagely executed revenge attack on the Newcastle United gang Pennant was arrested for grievous bodily harm and causing an affray; historically he was the first football hooligan to be served with a prison sentence.
Whilst in Wormwood Scrubs Cass shared a cell with a Rastafarian who challenged him to examine his Afro-Caribbean roots, in one of the movie’s more intriguing sequences Cass articulates that he was “fighting because of the colour of his skin again only this time the hate was coming from another direction” and that the only heritage he ever felt he had was with West Ham. During his time in jail Cass started to write his autobiography only to have his many notebooks confiscated on his departure.
Cass received a hero’s welcome and was reunited with his adoptive parents, Doll (Linda Bassett) and Cecil (Peter Wright) who reluctantly told him that his biological mother had been writing to him via Dr. Barnados, much to Doll’s relief Cass maintains they are his real family and agreed to try keep out of trouble and settle down. He started dating Elaine (Nathalie Press) and although he promised that his violent life was behind him he was drawn back in after a vicious razor blade attack on Prentice by Arsenal supporters left him with multiple scars to the face.
During the retaliation Cass sustained a knife wound and retreated to his flat to be confronted by Elaine who dropped the bombshell that she was pregnant but unwilling to raise a child with a father whose violent lifestyle would likely get him killed. Cass decided to change and contacted an old prison friend who owned a chain of nightclubs and offered to run the security on all his doors; it appears his violent past found an appropriate outlet and when business was booming his family life also blossomed and he and Elaine had a second child.
The past came back to haunt Pennant when he was shot 3 times at close range and whilst recovering from the attack he was told the news that his mother has died. During this period of recovery Cass suffered from post-traumatic stress and contemplated further acts of bloody retaliation against the Arsenal mob that attempted to kill him. Ultimately his story is a redemptive one, when stood in front of his would-be murderer, holding a gun inches from his assailant’s face, Cass was unable to pull the trigger and walked away, reflecting on the fact that his own poor choices had brought these acts upon himself.
Cass Pennant went on to write his autobiography along with a slew of books on the subjects of football hooliganism, sports and fashion, he founded his own publishing firm Pennant Books along with a production company Urban Edge Films which is all set to release its debut documentary Casuals this year. In a recent discussion with Cass he was telling me how the movie of his life came about. He met director Jon S. Baird while he was a consultant for Green Street, another film about football violence; Jon was the associate producer. From chatting on the set Cass knew that Jon was hungry to direct his first feature film and at the movie’s wrap party Jon suggested that Cass ought to write a book on his life, to which Cass replied he already had. Usually he carried a copy of his autobiography in his bag but not this time, so he made an excuse to go to the bathroom and then ran next door and bought a copy of his own book to hand to Jon to read.
According to Cass within an hour Jon had called him saying he had to make the film. Cass coolly replied call me back when you’ve actually read the book and within a couple of days Jon confirmed his convictions. Cass is a wonderfully rich and layered debut feature, it would have been far easier and cheaper to skip the boyhood scenes and get straight to the ICF period. Instead by focusing on Pennant’s relationship with Doll and by including passages of narration direct from the book it avoids being just another football violence film and becomes a genuine story of a man’s life; easy to relate to even if you have no interest in the beautiful game.
The film’s success is largely due to the towering performance from Nonso Anozie as Cass Pennant, a Shakespearian actor who manages to capture the nuances of speech and physical mannerisms in such a remarkable way that you find it hard to imagine the same performer in the role of Othello for which he received rave reviews. Cass sparkles with quality in every aspect of the production and deserves a much wider audience that with any luck this Blu-ray release will bring.
I want to close with an anecdote that Cass related to me which I think reveals his character somewhat. On the night of the film’s premier at London’s Odeon Leicester Square Cass, who has an office above a pub in SoHo, came down to the bar to find a successful film director had bought him a bottle of champagne and invited him to sit down and drink it with him. Cass has the reputation of being a bit of a workaholic but the director insisted, going on to ask if he was familiar with the list of 100 Great Black Britons and that was he aware that his name didn’t appear on the list? Cass had looked through the list, which is primarily comprised of great sporting, entertainment and public figures, and he wasn’t exactly surprised not to be included as a former football hooligan! The director pointed out that despite that not one of the 100 people listed have had a film made about their lives and that he should be extremely proud and should stop and raise a glass to savour the moment; Cass the movie is a suitable celebration.