James Bannon
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James Bannon: Running With the Firm at Soho Theatre

James BannonFollowing a notable 4 week run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and a sold-out show at The Soho Theatre, London on 13th November, James Bannon (in association with Off The Kerb Productions) has confirmed three more dates at The Soho Theatre in London on 10th 11th and 12th February.

This is the shocking and factual story of how James Bannon, an undercover cop infiltrated the infamous Millwall hooligan firm “The Bushwackers”.

In 1995, a film called I.D. was released. It told the account of an ambitious young copper who was sent undercover to track down the ‘generals’ of a football hooligan gang. The film reached cult status for its sheer brutality and unnerving insight into the dark and often bloody side of the so-called ‘beautiful game’. The film in fact was so shocking it was hard to believe the mindless events that took place could ever happen in real life.

Almost twenty years later, the man behind the film has finally broken his silence and disclosed that the astonishing script was in fact a true story. Author James Bannon, was ‘the ambitious young copper’, ‘the football club’ was Millwall F.C. and the gang that he infiltrated were ‘The Bushwackers’ – one of the most brutal and fearless gangs in English football history.

James Bannon: Running with the Firm tells of an intense and dangerous journey into the heart of the world of hooliganism, where nauseating levels of violence dominate over anything else. Bannon introduces the hardest thugs from football’s most notorious gangs, tells all about the secret and almost comical police operations that were meant to take them down, and, how once you’re on the inside, getting out from the mob proves to be the greatest mission of all.

A disturbing but powerful read that deals with the highs and lows of football hooliganism and tells of the moments of violence, sadness, friendship and humour – all exactly as they happened.

James Bannon was born in 1965, in Lambeth, South East London. He spent five years working for the Metropolitan Police, spending a large amount of time as an undercover police officer.

Over the years his film I.D. has gained notoriety. Its subsequent re-release in digitally re-mastered format in May 2012, reignited the long-standing debate, as to whether the film was based on a true story. Up till then Bannon had no desire to revisit that chapter of his life. However, the operation was now twenty-five years old it seems like as good as time as any to tell the full story.

Bannon has gone on to be a successful actor, property developer and proprietor of his own commercial airline. He is an Ambassador for the Princes Trust and now is currently writing and performing full-time. He lives with his family in Sussex.

Earlier this week James took time out from his busy schedule to answer some questions about his career and Running With The Firm.

Looking back on your career in the police force, there must have been easier ‘jobs’ to do. Why an undercover police officer?
There were easier jobs of course but undercover work carries with it a certain kudos and allure. I was immensely proud to be given the opportunity at such a young age, 21, but if I was being honest I was not fully ready for what it entailed. That said I don’t think anyone doing this type of work can ever be fully ready. It is a job that can and normally will change minute by minute. I had an idea what to expect but nothing can ever really prepare you for what is to come

How long were you undercover as a ‘hooligan’?
The operation lasted for a total of  two and a half years.

What was the hardest part of being undercover?
None of it was easy, but for me the hardest part was trying to not lose sight of the fact that what I was doing was a job. Justification of your actions whilst working in this environment is relatively easy…”I had to do it in order to maintain my cover”, and is a very well-used phrase in this line of work and one that has recently been rolled out by ex-undercover police officers to “justify their actions”.  The other members of my team and I, all managed to keep sight of the fact that it was our job, but being brutally honest at times it was not easy.

Looking back, what was the most humorous thing that happened as part of this operation?
For me by far the funniest moment was delivered by Chris the Sergeant and my partner on the operation. We were at a Millwall home game when a ball was passed to one of our star players Teddy Sherringham. Now Ted by his own admission was not the quickest, and the ball that he was chasing was a lost cause, but he didn’t give up. He ran as fast as he could to try and retrieve it but sadly the ball rolled into touch. There was the briefest of moments, which happens sometimes at sporting events, where there was complete silence. The silence was broken by Chris who, it has to be said, was not renowned for his quick wit, shouting out at the top of his voice: “Sherringham you’re on drugs… (There was a split second when everyone turned to Chris waiting for the next line)….. and it ain’t speed.” The whole crowd erupted as Teddy turned and made his way back to the half way line. Teddy however had the last laugh. He scored in the 2nd half at the other end and having scored ran the entire length of the pitch and stood and looked up at us and then ran as fast as he could on the spot and blew us a kiss as he turned and made his way back to the centre circle. Quality.

Some time ago now, but how difficult was the career change, from being a police officer to an actor?
Surprisingly, not that difficult. Working as an undercover police officer has lots of parallels with that of an actor. You assume a character, you make that character as convincing as possible. I adopted a persona of a football hooligan and played my part to the best of my ability. The only real difference was that as an actor if you get your lines wrong you get to do it again. As an undercover police officer, if you get your lines wrong you will rarely get a second chance so the stakes are understandably a lot higher. The best way to explain it is, it was in acting terms a 2-year improvisation but with very high stakes if you didn’t perform at every turn.

You have performed numerous roles on TV, including being in the cast of The Bill over a number of years. How did it feel being a part of a police series given your previous career?
It was one of my easier roles given my previous career. I actually prefer the roles that take me out of my comfort zone. Like, I would assume, most actors, we all crave for the parts that require us to use our craft and to go places in our head that we would not normally visit. There is no better feeling than to portray a character that is so far removed from your normal persona and to do it to the point where people are convinced that it’s really you and not the character that you are portraying

What has been your favourite screen role and why?
My favourite role was in fact for Film. I played a really obnoxious character in Ken Loach’s film Ladybird. To work with Ken Loach is so far the highlight of my acting career. It was a tiny part but it had always been a wish of mine to work with him since watching Kes as a kid and he didn’t disappoint.

How has it felt bringing ‘James Bannon: Running with the Firm’ to the stage?
It was to start with extremely scary. You can never fully know what the reaction from the audience and your peers is going to be. You can second guess and try to get an idea but you never really know until you put it out there. I have been bowled over by the reaction both from the audience and critically. The show initially was to promote the book but it has now grown into something much bigger. I am immensely proud of what I and my co-collaborator and Director Dermot have achieved. We have worked really, really hard to try and keep the show authentic and real and I think we have managed to achieve that. It is by far as an actor the performance that I am most proud of to date.

How does it feel to be on stage rather than in front of a television camera?
It is a completely different craft and experience working in live theatre than in front of a camera. There is nothing, for me anyway, more satisfying than getting a live reaction from your audience as you deliver your lines and it does have huge similarities to my previous career as an undercover police officer. The adrenalin and fear is not dissimilar only I have to remember 75 minutes of scripted dialogue rather than improvise. I love both mediums as they call for different qualities but there really is nothing to replace working in front of a live audience

What can you tell us about Running with The Firm?
It is a 75 minute show that details my work as an undercover police officer between the years of 1987 to 1989 during which time I infiltrated Millwall Football hooligans. It is my story performed by me, from my perspective, as to what it was like to work, at the age of 21, in that environment. It is unique in that it is me telling the story and not another actor portraying me. It is in the Directors words the “Authentic Voice”. For me it is another way of telling the story rather than through what we have had already, the book and the film I.D ., and, most importantly I think for the  audience the one that  gives them the best understanding of what it was like to work as an undercover police officer in the late 1980s and beyond.

Why should everyone get along to see the show?
Well if you want the authentic voice and something that you would not normally see in the theatre than this may be for you. There will be a  tour of the show in early 2014 and then hopefully to New York and Edinburgh, but after that it will be written up  and put out there for other people, over time, to perform should they wish, but not by me. Plus if you come and think it’s shit, come up and see me afterwards and I will happily give you your money back. Can’t be fairer than that!

James Bannon: Running With the Firm
Soho Theatre

Wed 13th November and Monday 10th – Wednesday 12th February, 7.30pm
Soho Downstairs
£12.50 (£10)

Updated 27th November 2015

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