Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Cass: Frodo Baggins, Margaret Thatcher And The Exploitation Of Violence, West Ham-style

Last August, I was contacted by a man called Dan Taylor who was working as the production designer on a film called Cass. Dan had seen photographs I had taken before and after West Ham games, and said that they symbolised the style he was looking for in the film.
I was flattered by this, but also slightly concerned about the film, which was an adaptation of the life story of Cass Pennant, who used to run the ICF (Inter-City Firm), the gang of football hooligans which followed West Ham in the 1980s. The odd thing about Cass as a leader of a group of football hooligans is that, aside from being a giant of a man, he is black. In the past, West Ham fans haven't had the best reputation for racial tolerance, and the thuggish elements were not shy about aligning themselves with the National Front. Which makes Cass's leadership of the ICF remarkable, if not admirable.
Dan explained to me that while the film of Cass's life would contain violence, it wouldn't glamorise it, Instead, it would attempt to "make the audience understand the root and cause of it and how it is attractive to that social class during its most prolific years."
Well, I was intrigued, but not quite convinced. I'd seen Cass outside Upton Park on match days, selling his books, and while he's now a man of peace, he's still an intimidating figure. But a film about West Ham hooligans which didn't exploit the violence would be a novelty. The most recent of this regrettable genre was Rise of the Footsoldier, which was based on Muscle, the autobiography of East End criminal Carlton Leach, who also merited a chapter in Hard Bastards, a book by Kate (wife of Ronnie) Kray.
Leach did his apprenticeship as a “general” in the ICF, graduating to tough-guy jobs bouncing for Essex nightclubs, and moving through the rave scene to various levels of drug-dealing, violence and general act of menace. His criminal career ended when three of his associates were murdered by rivals in their Range Rover in Rettendon in 1995. My memories of that film are not positive, but I believe the character of Cass had a walk-on role. Whatever else it was, Footsoldier wasn't sociology. It was an exercise in the pornography of violence, enlivened momentarily by the scene where the toupee-wearing criminal Tony Tucker (Terry Stone) ordered "a pint of your finest Champagne!"
Before Footsoldier there was Green Street, a very silly film named after the road which runs through Upton Park, in which Elijah Wood plays a Harvard journalism student who accidentally becomes involved with a gang of East End football thugs - as you do. Perhaps there is something fantastic about West Ham's terrace anthem, I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles, but that doesn't make Frodo Baggins a plausible hard-case.
I've now seen Cass, and while it isn't nearly as execrable as Footsoldier or Green Street, it doesn't quite succeed. The production design is good - the scenes from the '60s and '70s have a washed-out documentary feel which does a decent job of recreating the poverty of the East End in pre-Thatcher Britain. The violence - as is the fashion these days - is done with hand-held cameras, and has a nasty visceral quality. And the performances are good, particularly Nonso Anozie in the lead role, and Tamer Hassan as his criminal mate. (Nathalie Press does a very effective audition for a role in EastEnders).
But still there are doubts. Cass is a film in which the violence is the only drama. The poignancy of Pennant's life - a Barnardo's boy adopted by a middle-aged white woman - is glimpsed, but not in any depth. His family life is pitched somewhere between Alf Garnett and the Dursleys in Harry Potter. He loves his adoptive mum, but still he breaks heads.
Presumably, he had his reasons, but the film doesn't explain the brutality except to suggest that it seemed like a good idea at the time. Yes, there is some stuff about the need to belong, and the fact that Thatcher had her own "firm" bashing up the miners. But that wasn't a justification then, and it isn't one now.