Melvyn Downes has been pushing and probing recruits in equal measure on Channel Four’s SAS: Who Dares Wins for several weeks now. The show’s newest directing staff (DS) joined the series after a glittering 24-year military career, half of which was spent in the SAS, and his experience of being a mixed-race man in the British military has already brought a new dimension to the long-running series.
During the first episode of the show’s sixth series, in one of SAS: WDW’s quieter moments, Downes said: “For a long time, I didn’t think people like me, who were black, could join the SAS. Growing up I wasn’t accepted, by joining the army it made me tougher, it made me more resilient and it made me make sure I treat everybody how I expect to be treated.”
It was a revealing and emotional moment, and now in an exclusive interview with Men’s Health UK, Downes has elaborated on why he didn’t think a black man could join the SAS and just how the colour of his skin has made him tougher and more resilient.
He explains how despite wanting to be in the military for as long as he can remember, an experience of everyday racism early in his military career nearly put paid to his ambition.
“A guy [I knew] went on SAS selection and failed,” says Downes. “I remember telling him, right, I'm going to go for this, and he said, ‘no you can't because of being black, you have to sit in bars in Belfast and do undercover work,’ and because I didn't know anything about it, I thought, okay, I can't go for it.
“It was only several years later, we actually had an officer who was in the SAS for two years and he came back, saw the potential in me and said, 'why don't you go for it?' I told him the story and he laughed. He said, obviously I can't sit around a Belfast bar, not back in those days, however, there's lots of things you can do and there's lots of countries where we go, so that was it. Once he told me that it was all systems go, I was going for the SAS.”
Downes explains that the man he spoke to, the man who told him he’d be no use to the SAS, wasn’t acting out of malice, “I do believe he most probably believed that,” he says. Nonetheless, it’s no exaggeration to say that conversation could have changed the course of his life, and that wasn’t the first time race and racism had impacted him.
Having grown up on a Stoke council estate in the 70s, Downes says, you could count the number of non-white faces on one hand. This was Britain in the 70s, explicit racism wasn’t hard to find, and we were only a few years removed from Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.
Downes stresses that lots of the people he grew up with were great, and despite now living in Dubai, he’s proud of the Midlands accent he still speaks with and happy that he still has roots in his city. But it’s fair to say that back in the 70s, he and his family didn’t have an easy time of it.
“Most people they liked you and they would treat you with respect and got on, but there was a few, a minority, and they just used to think you were just totally different, and they didn't like that, and you were a target for them," says Downes. “The amount of physical abuse and verbal abuse we used to get as very young kids, it was terrible, and I think that's why I've always blocked it out and my brothers the same. But that made me the person I am today because it made me more resilient. It made me tougher.
“I found what I went through in my early childhood days, pushed me through,” he says. “When I used to get bullied a lot and stuff and I'm like, no I'm beating these bullies, I'm getting the positive from a negative, you know?”
Given that Downes was treated by some as outsider in his home city, it’s not difficult to see why he was attracted to the band of brothers ethos espoused by the military.
“When I joined the military, I found it really inclusive,” says Downes. “It was just a band of brothers, so I took to it and the military does keep that ethos.
“I know people have suffered in the military, maybe through problems with race. I know it does happen – it happens in all walks of society – but I can honestly say, I didn't actually have any blatant racism when I was in the military. It was the total opposite. I found that people looked after me within the military.
“When I used to go home on leave, especially in the 70s, that's when I used to get a lot of abuse, racial abuse and so on. Whenever I was going out on the town, say with other soldiers in the garrison area, sometimes people didn't like soldiers being in the area. We used to call them ‘squaddie bashers’, people who on purpose would like to pick fights with the soldiers, so whenever I was with a bunch of my fellow soldiers, they'd always start on the black guy there, so they would start on me. The fellow soldiers, who were white, they would stand up for me. That's what I find about the military, it is a really inclusive band of brothers.”
Now he’s a DS on the show, Downes says he wants to inspire people of all colours and creeds to chase their goals and use any kind of disadvantage or blockade in their way as motivation and fuel.
“I want to represent people who've come from deprived working-class council estates,” says Downes. “If I can just say to them, you can go for your goals, better to try and fail than fail to try, and don't let your background or your difficulties put you off. If anything use that, use that negative as a positive and say ‘no, you will be a chef, you will be a lawyer, you can do whatever you want’. It doesn't matter how tall that mountain is you can get to the top of it just means keep climbing.”
Downes is living proof that no matter what glass ceiling people put above you, if you want to achieve something, it’s possible.
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