TV Quickfire... Five minutes with… Billy Billingham
With a new environment to navigate, the latest series of SAS: Who Dares Wins will push recruits to their mental and physical limits, hears Gemma Dunn...
SAS: Who Dares Wins is back – and its latest season serves up its toughest course yet, warns show veteran Mark ‘Billy’ Billingham.
Switching up the terrain to tackle jungle hell, the Channel 4 reality show – in which an elite team of ex-special forces operators lead recruits through the punishing SAS selection process – will, this series, take 20 recruits to the thick and tangled brush of Thung Ui in Northern Vietnam.
And it’s certainly going to be an authentic experience, says Billingham, who having spent half of his 27-year military career in the jungle, has been appointed chief instructor in the six-episode run.
“I knew I could no longer steer the ship from the back. I needed to take the reins and use my knowledge and experience to take the course to a new level,” the 57-year-old remarks of his new position.
“And this is a true survival footing from the start – it will start in a serial mode, tackling the environment, the climate, the creatures and, of course, the DS (directing staff),” he teases.
“As chief instructor, I will bring the fear of the unknown and be unwavering in challenging the recruits physically and mentally.”
Joining him in the testing process is returnee DS, Foxy (Jason Fox), Rudy Reyes and brand new member of the DS team, Chris Oliver, a former special forces operator.
But in a terrain where only the toughest can survive – “it will break you physically and emotionally if you are not mentally prepared” – there’s plenty at stake.
We’re already invested. What else can he tell us before we dive in?
THIS YEAR CERTAINLY LOOKS DIFFERENT FROM PREVIOUS SERIES. WHAT CAN THE RECRUITS EXPECT FROM THEIR JUNGLE EXPERIENCE?
The jungle is a total sensory overload and we’re taking the recruits into jungle hell. It doesn’t matter how often you have heard about it in war stories or seen it in TV programmes or films, there is nothing like experiencing it. Visually, it’s incredibly intimidating because everything looks the same. The smells are unlike anything you have ever known. The sensations of extreme heat and humidity are draining. The noise from the trees and creatures is often deafening, leaving little space to find tranquillity in your mind.
HOW DOES THUNG UI COMPARE WITH OTHER JUNGLE TERRAINS?
Vietnam is an extraordinary type of jungle. It’s very mountainous, with challenging terrain under a humid canopy, creating claustrophobia and fear. It’s home to some of the deadliest creatures on the planet, combined with unpredictable weather systems, including typhoons and flash flooding.
YOU’RE THE NEW CHIEF INSTRUCTOR THIS YEAR. HOW DOES YOUR EXPERIENCE MAKE YOU MOST QUALIFIED TO STEP UP TO THIS ROLE?
My military career started back in 1984 in the unforgiving Belize jungle. I have served operationally in the jungle and as the senior military instructor in the world’s number one international jungle training school in Brunei. There is one truth about the jungle – it does not like you. It wants to bite, sting and fall on you from a great height. We wanted this to be the most authentic, professional and demanding course to date, so with my unprecedented jungle warfare experience, it made sense to move me to the position of chief instructor.
IS THE COURSE TAILORED TO ANY PARTICULAR MISSION FROM YOUR MILITARY CAREER?
The course was devised from one of my first experiences of operating in the jungle. I will take the recruits on a similar journey from feeling claustrophobic to being paralysed by fear and tasting the dangers of this brutal environment, to learning how to navigate and embrace the unforgiving terrain.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR NEW RECRUITS?
Each recruit will have to give 100 per cent all the time. The recruits will be challenged on their capability and pushed a little further. They must be prepared to go physically, emotionally and mentally beyond any place they have ever been. We are not looking for an image. We are not looking for the fastest or the strongest. We are looking for individuals who can show resilience, integrity, grit and determination. We want to find the recruit who is an authentic version of themselves so that when everyone and everything around them is falling apart, they can think outside the box and find a solution, not an excuse. And finally, we are looking for a person who we can train to be an operator and trust side by side. The bar is set high and will not falter by one per cent of the world’s best one per cent.
ARE THERE SOME NEW TASKS FOR THEM TO ‘LOOK FORWARD TO’?
We have many new tasks, including a hostage threat in a built-up environment, unconventional abseiling, instinct patrol and close-quarter battle decision-making.
YOU ALSO HAVE A NEW MEMBER OF THE DS. WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT CHRIS?
Chris will bring new individual talent and valuable knowledge from which the DS and recruits will benefit. Having Chris support me and the rest of the DS will, without a doubt, make this the most brutal show to date. I know Chris brings a proven operational past, as I was his chief instructor during special forces training over a decade ago.
IN YOUR OPINION, WILL THIS SERIES BE THE TOUGHEST YET?
Every time we do the course, it gets tougher and better based on the lessons learned from the ever-changing experiences. We follow the ethos of the real SAS – the unrelenting pursuit of excellence.
SAS: Who Dares Wins returns to Channel 4 on Monday January 23.