Raygunesque #9: Cass Pennant Talks The Guvnors

Art & Culture

If you’d told Cass Pennant 30 or more years ago that one day he’d be an author, publisher and, now, film producer, he’d probably have given you the kind of going over that he’d become notorious for in his days as the leading light in West Ham’s ICF. 

During the late 70s and early 80s, the InterCity Firm (or Ice Cream Firm, as rivals at, say, Millwall called it) were busy getting up to all kinds of naughtiness at grounds around the country, with East End boy Pennant leading the charge. 

He’d served time for his beloved team at Wormwood Scrubs and had a hankering to be a writer, or something else. 

Now, a few decades later, Pennant has realised his dream and then some.

The Guvnors, a film that he produced, is set to make its debut on DVD and Blu-ray after a successful run at cinemas and an appearance at the Edinburgh Film Festival. 

The irony of the situation is not lost on the surprisingly affable Pennant – as his first love, football, has become increasingly attractive to the middle classes, the film and book worlds, once seemingly closed off to someone from his background, are now in his grasp. 

“It used to be that the easiest way out [of the East End] was through boxing or football,” he says. “The last thing they would try was the film world. 

“But now there are more working class making it in the film and book worlds. 

Pennant hasn’t had an overnight success, but, as he notes, his long road to success has helped open doors to others. 

It’s a long journey all right. “It took me 23 years to get  book published, it didn’t just happen overnight. But now people like me don’t have to take 23 years to succeed.”

His story has oft been told before, ever since his first brush with media fame, or notoriety, on the Hooligan documentary in the mid-1980s. He’d already set his sights on life beyond Upton Park and its environs, as well as locations around the country. He has, he says, always wanted to tell stories, from his first stretch inside to the present day. It’s resulted in an impressive roster – his publishing imprint has put out 50 books, he’s penned almost a fifth of that amount. Now, he says: “I want to be known for work behind the camera, I want to crack the film word. It’s my first time as a producer on a major cinema release.”

He’s already worked in different capacities on films, on the likes of Green Street, Snatch and Cass, the eponymous film that told his tale. What does he bring to the table for the likes of Metrodome, the company that backed the film? “

“I can help put the talent together,” he says, but, more importantly, “I’ve got that authenticity, I can bring the seal of authenticity to it.” 

He’s trying to avoid the pitfalls, or rather the familiar plot points, of so many of his British contemporaries. “It’s something that’s not been done before,” he notes. “A lot of people are sick and tired of the crash bang wallop of British gangster films.

“We want to get to the heart of it, give you an understanding, not do the cliched things, the stereotypical things, create it from the point of reality.”

It is certainly a real world to Pennant, he worked in Thamesmead, where much of The Guvnors was filmed like, years before it, seminal hooligan film A Clockwork Orange. (Look, it’s influential for a whole bunch of reasons, but in pure football terms, the terraces adopted the style of Alex and his droogs, it was required viewing for any self-respecting 70s fan during the golden era…) Pennant even wooed his wife to David Essex. The veteran singer and actor appears in The Guvnors, as one of the older faces. The film follows the clash of two worlds, younger, streetwise kids today, with older, former hooligans, people like Pennant, who’ve become if not bastions of society then, at least, contributing members of a more normal world.

“Everyone talks about how there’s no respect out there today,” Pennant explains. “Is it really as bad as that today? We took it further.”

As well as boasting some big names, such as the aforementioned Essex, director Gabe Turner, of Class Of 92 fame and, in an excellent debut feature turn, Harley Sylvester (out of Rizzle Kicks, although we’re still not sure if he’s Rizzle or Kicks), it has plenty of old football faces too. 

“We've got guys involved like One Eyed Baz [former Birmingham Zulu], he's now doing a lot for charity. We've got guys from all around the country, Newcastle, Nottingham. It's one man's journey, about redemption. It's not exclusive to me, but it's about my life."

Many of his former associates have gone on to other things, Pennant recounts a tale of one of the crew working on aforementioned ITV doc Hooligans. He told him: "You've made your film, go back to your world. You love us because we're the outcasts." He told Pennant that the only thing holding him and other chaps back was a lack of self-belief, which meant they took another path. That path has led to his new role. 

And is he happy with the finished product of The Guvnors? “I’m pleased with how it’s turned out. The reaction we got in Edinburgh [at the film festival] says a lot. It wasn’t the film people thought it was going to be. Harley put in a tremendous performance, Charley [Palmer Merkell] will go far too. It will resonate with a lot of people.

“For me to have my name to a film. I stand proud with what we’ve achieved. What I’m really buzzing about now is how people are going to react to the film. You can’t beat the word of mouth. It’s easy to play safe, just churn out another British gangsters film, but we didn’t."

Next for Pennant and his crew is a short film – he wrapped on the day I chatted to him. Beverley is about a mixed race rude girl growing up in the Two Tone era ("it's about being British, British identity, I'm really proud and passionate about that one. I want to take that into a feature film," he says).

And what about the football? It's not until the end if our chat that i tell him I'm Millwall, although I have been introduced to him a couple of times before, mainly by film types eager to make some Millwall versus West Ham rivalry. He has a dig – "it'll be a while before we play you again," he laughs — but says, more pertinently: "It's different watching now. It's definitely become more middle class. I twas brought up in the days football was for fans. Forget the ugly side, now it It doesn’t need its fans. It's obvious the world of sport becoming further away."

The Guvnors is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.