This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.


Early on in SAS Rogue Heroes, Alfie Allen’s character delivers a great speech. “In a world where there are no rules, no order, no organised plan, certain men are identified by war itself as its natural executors. And those natural executors take matters into their own hands. I’m bringing together men of a particular calibre. The others are all insane, in jail or, like me, in despair.”

Allen is playing John “Jock” Lewes, the founding principal training officer of the Special Air Service, which was established during the North African desert campaign in 1941. He concludes his speech by saying, “Let’s go and win the f**king war.”

How fitting is that dialogue as an overall description of the spirit of this action-packed, star-studded BBC series – Ben Macintyre’s best-selling story of the formation of the elite regiment during the Second World War brought to screen by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight?

“I’d say pretty apt!” Allen, 36, shoots back with a grin. In the acting band of brothers at the heart of the action, Allen is joined by Connor Swindells (Sex Education) as SAS co-creator David Stirling, Jack O’Connell (The North Water) as maverick Irishman Paddy Mayne and Tom Glynn-Carney (House of the Dragon) as Mike Sadler, at 102 the only surviving founder member of the SAS.

So how were the actors tested in the pre-production boot camp? The preparation, says Allen, was all about mental rather than physical preparation. “These were wiry, kind of scrawny men who did what people thought was impossible. They weren’t trying to prove anything to anyone else other than to their brothers-in-arms.”

That said, notes Swindells, 26, the SAS’s founding fathers were “a bunch of hard nuts, really,” a view “that hasn’t changed much” over the course of production.

Equally, they were, as the title puts it, rogue – a mix of dissolute aristocrats, insubordinates and drunks, in a drama that doesn’t shy away from the antics and gallows humour of men facing death by the hour. Glynn-Carney, 27, reports that Knight spoke to Sadler, who confirmed that those elements are true to the group’s real-life experiences.

“Steven got absolute gold dust from Mike... the tales that he tells of bombing airstrips and planting Lewes bombs on the enemy’s equipment – there’s a light-hearted touch to it because he minimises the drama and the risk of all those things they were trying to do.”

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Alfie Allen as Jock Lewes, Jack O'Connell as Paddy Mayne and Connor Swindells as David Stirling.
Alfie Allen as Jock Lewes, Jack O'Connell as Paddy Mayne and Connor Swindells as David Stirling. Kudos, Robert Viglasky

I interviewed O’Connell in August last year, when he’d just returned from the Moroccan desert where the drama was filmed. He described the shoot as “the toughest one yet, and I don’t say that lightly”.

“What makes it worthwhile is what you have with your castmates and crew,” the 32-year-old says as the actors reunite for a Zoom conversation. “And then you hope that what you’re doing it for is going to be conveyed on screen.”

Some might take exception to these military men being conveyed as rock stars – like Peaky Blinders’ Birmingham gangsters, SAS Rogue Heroes does imply as much with its soundtrack: it opens with AC/DC at full tilt.

Nonetheless, these are individuals with charisma and a taste for doing the dirty stuff. In another plum piece of dialogue, Swindells’s Stirling describes with relish the damage a thumb can do to an eyeball.

Connor Swindells as David Stirling in SAS Rogue Heroes.
Connor Swindells as David Stirling in SAS Rogue Heroes. Kudos, Rory Mulvey

But as Glynn-Carney points out, at times of existential peril, we need men like these. “The unique situation that these lads were in – it felt like a lawless land when you were out in the desert. Stirling was a maverick [who] didn’t do anything by the book.

“There are some things that war requires that go away from protocol,” he continues, “and these were the perfect cohort. They weren’t followers, they were extroverts, wild and untamed. And they were willing to put themselves on the line to make an impact on the war.”

That’s a scenario of which O’Connell has direct and intense experience, having starred in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, about a real-life American survivor of the Pacific campaign. How did making this BBC drama compare to that Hollywood blockbuster?

“Unbroken was great because, again, you had that bond,” he says of a film that also starred Domhnall Gleeson and Luke Treadaway. “The one common factor is that these things are forged in extremely difficult circumstances.”

Allen, too, knows battle, having gone sword-to-sword in Game of Thrones. “But this was totally different,” he says. “Completely different surroundings – and it was hot! In terms of the environment, it was definitely still challenging.”

And, finally, Swindells is also aware of, er, the battlefield that is teen hormones. Was making SAS Rogue Heroes anything at all like making Sex Education? “Incomparable!” he laughs, gamely.

“Sex Education for the most part is me going to Wales a couple of times a week, saying absolutely nothing, pulling a funny face and then driving home. So being out in the desert was unbelievable. But, thankfully, I made great friends for life.”

SAS Rogue Heroes arrives on BBC One on Sunday 30th October at 9pm. Visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight, or check out the rest of our Drama coverage.


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