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The set of the BBC's new war drama SAS Rogue Heroes was less a set, and more an expanse of desert on the edge of the Sahara. “There was always a point where at least 10 per cent of the cast and crew were having a meltdown,” says Ben Simmons, co-founder of Bare Arms, military advisers who consulted on the show. The physical exertion and searing heat, along with lockdown rules trapping cast and crew in the same intense setting for four months, understandably began to take a toll.
Starring Connor Swindells, Alfie Allen and Jack O'Connell as David Stirling, Jock Lewes and Paddy Mayne – the real-life founders of the SAS – Rogue Heroes is a Boy's Own telling of the founding of the British Army's most famous special forces unit in the depths of WWII and its derring-do attitude during the crucial North African campaign. The brutal campaign saw Allied forces suffering heavy casualties due to the ingenuity of German field marshal Erwin Rommel. Lose the fight, and victory would be in the hands of the Axis powers. Cue a maverick soldier, a few parachutes, and the formation of the line-breaking, plane-dismantling Special Air Service.
“We've been very lucky to work on some fantastic shows, but SAS Rogue Heroes is far and away the most involved and most fun project we've had so far,” says Simmons, who knows a few things about fighting in the desert. An officer in the British Army for 10 years, Simmons ended up as a tank commander in the Royal Tank Regiment, gaining plenty of operational experience “driving around in the desert in vehicles.” After the military, Simmons co-founded Bare Arms, providing expert advice (from script work, to bootcamps, to firearms training) across film, TV, theatre and video games. They've worked on Bodyguard, Baghdad Central and The Crown – they're also the consulting armourers for the English National Opera.
The intensity of the subject matter, combined with the challenging conditions on set in Morocco and the Sahara, made shooting the show a lot closer to the reality than anyone was expecting. “It was really bizarre as we were going through [the project]”, says Simmons. “A bunch of young men locked in the desert, under incredibly difficult conditions, are playing a bunch of men locked in the desert, working under incredibly difficult conditions. It all fed into each other and the lines became quite blurred.
“It worked really well and I think the way you see them interacting on screen, it's all down to that. All of the cast and crew were brilliant, and absolutely made the show. It was a proper team effort from start to end.” In his own words, here's how Simmons and the team kept the cast of SAS Rogue Heroes fit, fighting and sane throughout three-and-a-half months of lockdown, sandstorms and particularly aggressive games of water polo.
We didn't have a lot of prep time. COVID reduced what we could do: we could only really train the actors when filming had started and everyone was bubbling together. The main cast members were already filming scenes, so I had to snatch them when I could for little bits of weapons training: those three [Swindells, O'Connell and Allen] actually didn't get nearly as much time training as I would have wanted.
When we got to Morocco, we had two weeks locked down inside the hotel – I say inside the hotel, the hotel was in the middle of nowhere, and it backed onto the Sahara. That was when I had some time with them and we could go through a bit more training. Connor, who plays [David] Stirling, literally finished another project on the Friday, and on the Monday started Rogue Heroes – it was such a short turnaround for him. This is just the reality of what we've got to deal with. My job is to do the best I can with what I've got in the time that's allowed. The opportunity to do it in Morocco to have two weeks where they weren't going anywhere was perfect.
In Morocco, we had a chance to get the actors together as a team to acclimatise. The actual shoot itself became really tough with sandstorms and the temperature, so the acclimatisation we did with them meant they were able to survive when it got that much tougher. Working together as a team also helped them know and understand each other.
It's always a bit of both. At the end of the day, with film and TV, it's what looks good on screen. You can, however, have a situation where somebody looks good, but you can tell that it's not functional. We have a resident fitness trainer called Smudge – Steve Smith, he's an ex-para. There are a fair few actors he's taken under his wing, like Callum Turner for The Capture and Natasha Culzac for Halo. He's not only training in the physical aspect, but also in how soldiers operate and think. He's an invaluable member of the team.
When it comes to these guys, we're not talking about the SAS of today, who are incredibly fit, extremely strong athletes. We're talking about 1940s guys – food and training were completely different back then. These guys were incredibly tough, but you wouldn't look at them and think they're superhuman, like some of the Special Forces guys you see today.
The commonality between the two is mental robustness: that capacity to motivate yourself, to keep yourself going, and when things are going wrong to be a little bit more upbeat about it and retain a sense of humour. Mental robustness is key, so a lot of the training we were doing was trying to find that motivation their characters had, what it meant to them, and why it was important. Getting real SAS guys in to talk to the actors helped them understand how important it was, which therefore put the pressure on them to perform.
It's exactly what those guys [in the 1940s] had to go through – they were under pressure to succeed and wanted to make a difference, which is why they ended up doing some really risky things. So getting the real SAS guys in to talk to the actors gave them a little bit of that.
Most of the training was to get them into the mindset of what these soldiers were doing and how they worked, rather than anything particular in terms of their physicality. There were frayed tempers: there was always a point where at least 10 per cent of the cast and crew were having a meltdown, because it was just that difficult, and it was the other 90 per cent that kept them going.
If you put any group of people into that kind of situation – regardless of having to film in all that heat – locked down in the same hotel, eating the same food for three-and-a-half months in the desert and not being allowed to go home or do anything other than interact with your fellow inmates, then people will have arguments and tempers will fray.
The important thing is keeping everyone together, exactly like those guys fighting in the desert in World War II. There were fights, some of which we replicate on screen. There's a famous temper-fraying moment between Johnny Cooper and Reg Seekings [played by Jacob McCarthy and Theo Barklem-Biggs]. Those two had a famous falling out at the start – they both had very different backgrounds and very different outlooks – but then were thick as thieves for the rest of their lives.
I took 10 lads out with me, young actors and trainee stunt guys, to play the rest of the SAS amongst the cast. A number of the cast, during the toughest parts of the show, came up to us and said “I was going to give up, then I saw that your 10 blokes were there doing it as well and doing it every single day, and I thought I can't let them down.” Again, there's a strong similarity with the military in not wanting to let anybody else down and that pride in not breaking. It becomes a team effort where everybody's helping everybody else. You are the link in that chain and you don't want to break it.
They all started training together. A couple of them would go boxing; they all started playing water polo in the pool and it got pretty violent! As a group, they bonded really well, and it was lovely to see because that was my number one aim at the start.
You don't ever want to break people, but for the actors, you want to take them to breaking point, so that they recognise it. All the actors I've worked with work in different ways, but the common thread is that they want to experience similar things that their characters have to go through, so that when they portray it on screen, they've got some emotion and experience to fall back on.
If you start mucking around with people's food and sleep, it makes it really difficult. Food is important, for instance. Food is fuel. If you go really method into it, then people can break, and we were at breaking point quite a lot of the time anyway due to the conditions. If they were staying in hotels in West London and going to the studio each day, then yeah, absolutely, we'd probably pile on those things to try and add to their stress and get them close to breaking point, but given the conditions, they were already 90 per cent of the way there.
It's just getting used to it. Acclimatising to it: wearing clothing that's light, that wicks away the moisture; always having a bottle of water on the go and sipping it constantly as hydration is key; keeping out of the sun and keeping in the shade when you can; wearing something to protect your head. It’s just standard desert stuff: there's no secret to it, it’s the same stuff people have been doing for thousands of years.
You have to be really disciplined, especially with water, but a lot of it is also keeping an eye out for other people. When it comes to heat-related injuries, it’s normally the person next to the person struggling that spots it first rather than the individual themselves. Again, it was about teamwork, and ensuring everybody else was alright.
The Moroccan crew were great. They’re used to the heat, they lapped it up and would occasionally take the burden off the Brits. But yeah, it was just… you had to do it. You just had to get through it.
All of them could have [made good soldiers], but it's about motivation more than anything else. It's not about the skills somebody has, it's about wanting to do it. You're not going to get an effective soldier if you're forcing them. Jack O'Connell had toyed with the idea of joining, and so he was very into it. I think in another life, he could have definitely been a soldier.
By David Levesley and David Taylor
One of my favourites was a chap called Virgile [Bramly], who plays a French commander. He's well-known for playing baddies – I think he’s doing a thing at the moment where he’s a football hooligan. He's always the thuggish type: drug dealers, pimps, that kind of thing. When I was with the actors, I would always treat them like the characters they were, so if they were officers, I would talk to them slightly differently. Whenever I wanted to speak to the French guys as a whole, I would ask Virgile to assemble his men. At the start, he was like, “why are you asking me? I'm just an actor, I’m not really in charge.” I said, “no, no, I’m going to ask you, as the commander, to be in charge.” He didn’t get it right up until we started to film, then came up to me and said, “I get it now, I understand now, everybody looks at me slightly differently. It makes sense.”
I think in another lifetime, again, he might have made a good soldier, but all of them were brilliant. I would happily go to war with any of them – I might be standing behind them, though, depending on how good a shot they are.
SAS Rogue Heroes continues Sunday 9pm on BBC One, with all episodes available now on iPlayer.
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