Recently, Steven Knight attended a low-key screening for his anarchic new drama series SAS Rogue Heroes – which chronicles the extraordinary circumstances in which the Special Air Service was formed – for a host of serving and ex-officers. As an elite organisation cloaked in secrecy, you might imagine they were a tough crowd.
“It was the most nerve-wracking thing I’d ever done,” admits the maverick Birmingham writer, down the phone line from his London home. “I kept glancing at them to see their reactions. They watched all six episodes, one after another, and by the end some were in tears. It was emotional, which took me by surprise.”
“This is the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve done”
– Steven Knight
After the bottled-lightning success of his hit BBC show Peaky Blinders, which aired the first of its six seasons in 2013, you’d think little would shock Knight. The addictive crime yarn charting the exploits of the Shelby gangster clan became an unstoppable cultural totem. Famous fans included A$AP Rocky, David Beckham and David Bowie. Men across the globe started donning copycat baker boy caps, and requesting the Peaky haircut at barbers (severe skin-fade with a tousled fringe).
Of course, Knight was no stranger to phenomenons, having co-created global quiz juggernaut Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in the ’90s. Even so, it wasn’t until Snoop Dogg asked to meet Knight, that he realised his passion project had ram-raided its way into the public consciousness. The pair chatted for three hours, with the rapper explaining how Knight’s show reminded him of his own gang culture experiences while growing up in California.
“When Snoop Dogg got in touch, something felt different,” he says today. “People from all over the world still send me photos of people in Peaky Blinders bars. And it’s still going on – and even increasing – which is great. What’s good for me is when teenagers tell me ‘I watch it with my dad’ and vice-versa, and it’s something that appeals to both generations.”
More than 3.7million people tuned in to watch Peaky’s masterful finale on BBC One in April, so how do you follow a cross-cultural behemoth like it? Six months on, Knight’s much-vaunted return to prestige telly, SAS Rogue Heroes, proves to be another feather in his flat-cap. Based on historian Ben Macintyre’s rip-roaring book of the same name, the true, but at times frankly unbelievable, against-the-odds origin story of the SAS, forged in the darkest days of World War II, was something that appealed to Knight, whose father served in the military.
“It’s really young men – teenagers up to the age of 25 – going into a losing situation where the British army was being steamrollered,” he elaborates. “And this group of young men, from a range of classes which is unusual for Britain, who were military but renegade and rebellious and contemptuous of authority, took it upon themselves to invent a new form of warfare. And they succeeded in turning around the course of the war. It’s one of the most remarkable achievements in the 20th century in terms of military endeavour.”
Rather than the traditional virtuous paragons of valour we’re used to seeing in war dramas, the SAS were reckless lunatics – some joined because they craved excitement, some made no bones about their predilection for killing, some were the colourful square pegs of the military’s circular ranks – who come across as less Band of Brothers, and more akin to DC’s The Suicide Squad.
“They weren’t this regiment of square-jawed tough commandos,” points out Knight. “They were misfits, poets, prisoners, artists and painters. In fact, when the SAS decided upon a name, they originally called themselves The Artists Rifles. It’s almost like Dad’s Army but really young and cool.” He adds: “The truth was so mad and unexpected that I didn’t need to apply the rules of drama to it.”
“This show goes off like a rocket”
– Steven Knight
And he’s right. SAS Rogue Heroes is a rollicking tale that pinballs from action-packed set-pieces (kamikaze parachute jumps, raids on enemy bases) to absurd moments to heart-wrenching loss – all in the blink of an eye. In the words of Knight, “it goes off like a rocket” – and is set to a soundtrack that mixes wartime standards with classic rock and metal.
“The things you might call flaws in these officers are the qualities that made them successful,” says Knight. “These are people who, if there hadn’t been a war, would have not thrived and would have been in trouble. Suddenly a war comes along and all the things that made them bad made them good. Their experience of war is it goes from tragedy to comedy within seconds and back again.”
Jumping straight into conflict, we first encounter the members of the undercover unit in Cairo, 1941, where the sand gets in their eyes and under their foreskins. Eccentric, upper-crust officer David Stirling, played by Sex Education’s Connor Swindells, is drowning his sorrows in a bar, and squaring up to two Aussie commandos ready to fight. He’ll fend off the vomit-laden hangover the next day by inhaling laughing gas in hospital. Serious-minded John ‘Jock’ Lewes, portrayed by Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen, is introduced mid-battle, his face speckled with the blood of enemy troops, while we initially meet imprisoned live-wire killing machine and unexpected poetry enthusiast Paddy Mayne (Skins’ Jack O’Connell) in the midst of a jail brawl, where guards are attempting to hang him as a reprisal for using them as punching bags.
For Swindells, it was the fast-paced bedlam of the show that appealed. Prior to our phone conversation with Knight, we have a fittingly chaotic Zoom video call with him and the cast. There are so many boxes on screen that it resembles a frenzied game of Guess Who? (Is your person wearing a dressing gown? Alfie. Is he ceremoniously smoking a cigarette throughout? Jack), but it’s clear there’s a camaraderie built up from having COVID-bubbled together while filming.
“After watching an episode, you feel like you’ve been on a run,” enthuses Swindells, to a chorus of agreement. “So much happens in each instalment – they’re jam-packed with action. And these guys are the prolapse of the military, rejects from society,” he adds of the characters. “They’re from different backgrounds and are thrown together into complete hardship. But they have this way of communicating with each other to achieve a common goal. They accept the madness of their situation and throw themselves into death-defying feats of bravery.”
“We had to stop filming for hours because of a sandstorm”
– Connor Swindells
Shooting in the extreme mercury-busting temperatures and sand-battered surroundings of Morocco, that substitutes for Cairo, also helped forge a bond between the young Desert-Brat Pack. “The conditions did 60 per cent of the work. We were exhausted through the heat, uncomfortable in the uniforms, dehydrated. We could appreciate how the harsh the environment they were in was, so it was one less thing to imagine,” says O’Connell.
“On our first day of shooting, we had to stop filming for four hours as a sandstorm blew through,” remembers Swindells. “I went to check on Jack and he was sat in his pants, laughing to himself with his feet on the wall, so in case his trailer blew over, he’d be stood up. That’s how bad it was! He was deranged.”
“There was a scene in episode three that we shot when it was 53 degrees Celsius, where we’re screaming off in trucks” chips in O’Connell, “It was the only time we felt any breeze!”
For Allen, it was the pedigrees of the subject and storyteller that first piqued his interest. “I was hanging out with a guy from the military when I got the script and I mentioned the names David Stirling, Jock Lewes and Paddy Mayne to him, and his face lit up. And Steven Knight is a writer who I would jump at the chance of working with, so it was a no-brainer.”
All the cast were avid Peaky Blinders viewers and effusive in their praise for Knight. “I feel like Steven’s writing is the closest thing to the theatre that I’ve experienced from someone who writes predominantly for the screen,” says Tom Glynn-Carney (House Of The Dragon) who plays Mike Sadler, the only officer still alive today. “The way he writes is so rhythmic and musical and that’s rare…” Glynn-Carney pauses, jokingly keen to defuse the love-bombing. “Right, that’s enough blowing smoke up Steve’s arse for one day!”
“The SAS lads sat us down, like schoolchildren: ‘Don’t fuck this up!'”
– Tom Glynn-Carney
Knight, arse now perhaps ready to set off the sprinkler systems, notes that the 102-year-old Sadler has given Glynn-Carney’s immortalisation of him his personal seal of approval. Sadly now-blind, the veteran experienced the show by having someone describe the events happening on-screen to him. “When I met him for research, he was recounting stories of incredible hardship in a way that minimised the danger and made it seem as if it was a sporting event,” says Knight. “He told me a story about David Stirling going into a bar and asking some people: ‘Can we use the snooker table?’ When they said ‘no, we’re on it for the rest of the night’, Stirling took out a real hand-grenade and threw it on the table. That [story] ended up in the show.”
The real-life Sadler isn’t alone in his hearty support. It’s a hallmark of the quality and accuracy of the series that this is the first show about the SAS that the organisation themselves have endorsed and co-operated with. Aside from regular preparatory formation drills, and weaponry and equipment training, the cast even found themselves having to sit a written test before filming.
“It’s an exam that officers go through during their last part of training,” says Swindells, noting that he found it the most beneficial part of his research. “There’s a problem you have to solve. An example would be: you start at this area on a map, you’ve got two soldiers – one has a broken leg, the other’s got heatstroke. You need to get here with this amount of supplies. What do you do? There’s no right answer. You just have to come up with a plan and articulate it. Our military adviser told us that’s the point where people often end up breaking.”
Still, despite their newfound knowledge, none of the stars are keen to appear on Channel 4 reality series SAS: Who Dares Wins. “I remember one of the SAS lads sat us down – we’re all in chairs like a fucking school assembly – and he managed to make eye-contact with everyone while saying: ‘Look, we don’t let dramas happen about the SAS. You’re lucky we’re cooperating with you. Don’t fuck it up’,” laughs Glynn-Carney. “I’m sat there worrying: is my address on file?!”
He need not worry about elite operatives bundling him into the boot of a car with a bag covering his head. Knight hewed scrupulously to what actually happened, and the mantra of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction underpinned everything they did, including the set-pieces. “You sometimes worry that [the stunts are] going to look so outlandish that it’s pointless,” says O’Connell. “We didn’t have that problem during any stage on this because we knew we were recreating real situations, so it removes the concern that you’re doing a gratuitous action-film version of that type of thing.”
As a writer on a white-hot streak, Knight’s upcoming productions include his all-star adaption of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations starring Olivia Colman as Miss Havisham. (“Dickens is always relevant and that story in particular is personal to me because the main character Pip, like me, is the son of a blacksmith and my dad always wanted me to shoe horses. So I’ve always felt an affinity to him”, he says), as well as the dramas All The Light We Cannot See, The Veil, and Ferrari, a series about the eponymous race car driver and entrepreneur for Apple TV +.
Oh, and following on from the rave reviews garnered for Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby, the dance stage show adaptation he wrote which premiered recently in Birmingham, there’s also the not-insignificant matter of finishing the anticipated spin-off movie. That’s slated for a 2024 cinematic release, but he’s remaining as tight-lipped as an SAS officer under intergeneration about it.
“It’s set in the Second World War, and you should expect the unexpected,” he teases, as we prepare to apply the thumbscrews. “It’s three different stories that have not really been told that happened during the Second World War in this country.”
“If people want Peaky Blinders, then it will continue”
– Steven Knight
Does he see it as a stand-alone film or has he game-planned possible sequels? “Whatever comes next will be dependent upon what happens in the film, and I don’t even know what happens in the film yet,” he says, cryptically. “I’m not great at planning when I’m writing. I think if you plan logically, then the thing will be logical and not very good.”
Rest assured however that the world of Peaky Blinders isn’t over, with small-screen spin-offs set to take us into the 1950s. “I was really pleased the last episode was so well-received and it made me think there’s [desire] for more. I’m finishing off the film which is the next chapter and then they’ll be spin-offs after that. I don’t feel it’s my place to stop it. If people want it, then it will continue.”
For now, however, Knight is fully focused on SAS Rogue Heroes. He doesn’t worry about achieving the same cultural omnipresence as Peaky – it’s unlikely lads will start donning khaki – and besides, the approving audience from that screening gave him all the validation he needs.
“If you visibly affect people who’ve been through what they have, then that’s probably what we’re all in this industry to do,” he beams. “That’s the best review I could have ever received.”
‘SAS Rogue Heroes’ begins at 9pm, October 30 on BBC One, with all episodes then available on BBC iPlayer