Been a while since I posted, been a busy bee this last week. Getting back on track, and in the spirit of my Beverley post – I wanted to blog an article that I wrote last year about the awesome, multitalented big man (as in super tall) CASS PENNANT! Cass’ production company Urban Edge Films is what got the Beverley ball rolling – he’s very inspirational and I thought I’d share this with you guys on here!
“Even when someone’s got nothing they can still teach you something.”
Former football hooligan turned author and film maker, Cass Pennant, talks gangs, prison and why it’s never too late to change your life around. Interview by Laya Lewis.
Pennant has just touched down in London after promoting his latest film project in Festival de Cannes. A man famous for knocking heads, literally, Cannes seems long way from Kent. So what’s the story?
When Pennant answers the phone for our interview I’m taken aback by the immensely friendly, deep cockney accent that greets me. A voice that immediately echoes pride, wisdom and years packed with life changing experiences. And why shouldn’t it, after being in and out of prison, shot 3 times in the chest and going on to have 9 books published…and that’s only the half of it.
Pennant rose to fame in the 1970’s for his antics as ring leader in West Ham United football gang, The Inner City Firm. The ICF were widely regarded as the first properly organised hooligan firm with Cass at the forefront. However Pennant grew up with white adoptive parents in a predominantly white neighbourhood so up until The ICF he felt the colour of his skin had made him an outcast. “With my background I’ve always had to fight to be equal. I was always the odd one out, always bullied, and the bullied becomes the bully,” says Pennant, who went from the fringes of the gang, to the inner circle, to a ring leader and eventually that lead to his going to prison.
Pennant was the first person to ever receive a long-term prison sentence for football hooliganism, 4 years in total. Was this because there had never been a gang as feared as the ICF or was he once again being singled out for the colour of his skin? “I’d been in the national headlines for the wrong reasons since my teens,” says Pennant, meaning that prison had always seemed inevitable to him.
It was in Prison that Cass first began writing. “I used to write prison letters for other prisoners who couldn’t write and that’s when I realised I could write. I kept trying to work my life out and couldn’t so I started writing chapters on my life instead,” says Pennant. Inspiring as he himself had never been one for reading books. “On holiday people would come up to the pool front and say, you still on the same page Cass, it’s been 4 days. I just can’t focus, I end up day dreaming.”
His first time in prison he was thrown in a cell with what he describes as a ‘hardcase.’ Pennant claims, ‘This was the kinda guy who’d spent more years in prison then out.’ In the end though the two of them became friends and it was his cellmate who inspired him to write books. “He said to me, ‘You’ll do prison the hard way.’ He asked me ‘Where am I?’ I said prison. Why? Where do you think you are? And he said ‘I’m not here, I’m on the moon.’”
“I thought he was mad until one day I figured it out. Every time he was reading a book he was out of those four walls.” It turned out that all the cellmates were reading books, something Pennant had initially thought was for “wusses”. “I said I’d like to read a book and he chucked ‘A Stone for Danny Fisher by Howard Robbins at me. That’s the first book I properly read and it inspired me. Even when someone’s got nothing they can still teach you something.” And that’s when he started English rehabilitation lessons in Prison and his journey as an author first began.
When pennant first left prison the memoirs that he’d laboured over for years were confiscated by the guards as they were written on ‘prison property’. Pennant couldn’t believe it, “When I came out I realised society says one thing but practices another”. He eventually managed to have his work smuggled out but after a year of trying to stay out of trouble he was back in the same prison. “They said I’d be back and I thought to myself, no, something’s wrong here. I took on everyone as gang leader so I thought I can take on society and change things.”
It was after his second run in prison that he eventually managed to get his book published. It took a while as the book was constantly knocked back from publishers for being hand written. “It took 20 years to get it published but I never gave up,” says Pennant. His book secured his status as an ICF legend and landed him a cameo role on hooligan based film Green Street. This was where he met producer Jon S. Baird. Baird had an acute interest in Pennant’s story and began reading his book telling him “This has got to be a film.” “I kept my cool and just said tell me when you’ve read the whole book. Two days later he rang and said ‘I told you, this is a film.’”
That’s where the transition from books to film began for Pennant. With his latest project being short film Beverly. The film is set in the 80’s, about a young mix raced girl struggling to find her identity amidst different subcultures. This was a time when racism was still very prominent and Two Tone was at the forefront of radical music. “What fascinates me are subcultures, I always wanted to make a film with a Two Tone background as I think it’s been underrated. It was the thing that brought black and white together…not governments,” say Pennant.
Two Tone is a music genre created in England in the late 1970s that fused together elements of ska, punk rock, rock steady, reggae and new wave. It allowed different people from different racial backgrounds to come together. The story of Beverly is the true story of Beverly Thompson, an amazing woman in her own right. According to Pennant, “I especially recognised the power in a female account of that era, and I knew the story was special as I had my own story made into a film. Bev has a lot to say for herself and for culture. If we make it a powerful short and who knows, for us it could be the start of an amazing journey.’”
Now back from Cannes and looking to continue his mission to take on the film industry I can’t see things slowing down for Cass Pennant anytime soon. To young people who feel they’re also lost in society’s judgements and preconceptions Cass says ‘You need to do things for you, not what others want. Not society, your peers, your parents. You do what you wanna [sic] do.’ Great advice because according to Pennant, ‘Sooner or later I’ll be doing my first feature film, trust me.’ Watch out for this one, he’s on a mission.
Trailer for Cass – his biopic