SAS Rogue Heroes spoilers follow, but they're pretty minor.
SAS have become the three most famous letters in militaria. They immediately bring to mind daring raids behind enemy lines, and to people of a certain age, the 1980 Iranian Embassy Siege where the world saw the SAS abseil down and rescue all but one of the 26 hostages.
SAS Rogue Heroes begins with a title card declaring that the events you're about to see are "unbelievable" but "mostly true" (which is more than can be said for Peaky Blinders which had a very, very loose relationship with factual events).
But it is an accurate description of the show, as events are exaggerated, dramatised and in some cases played down due to the lunacy/bravery of the SAS and their early missions in the Second World War.
We're swiftly introduced to Lieutenant David Stirling, a young soldier, a maverick and a rogue who has issues with authority. SAS Rogue Heroes broadly captures the hows and the whys of the regiment's forming. The war in North Africa against Erwin Rommel and the Afrika Korps was not going well, the Allies were old-fashioned, and the slow desert terrain provided opportunity for unconventional warfare.
The characterisation of Stirling is also broadly in keeping with his spirit as a man born for boldness. The son of a military man, Knight’s script does imbue him with an abundance of exaggerated daddy issues and also has to battle with the sheer fact that Stirling had a bravado that transcends most established TV heroes.
Take for example, the scene where Stirling clears out a bar by throwing a dummy grenade onto a snooker table – it's tame compared to the real version. Though not in the book (by Damian Lewis) on which the series is based, Mike Sadler, who at the grand old age of 102 is the last living founding member of the SAS, says a far more extreme thing happened in real life (via The Telegraph).
Though not occurring in North Africa as it does in the series, Sadler has said that Stirling, to obtain a table at a Paris bar already in use by some patrons, threw a real hand grenade to clear out the place. Knight recently said at an event to launch the series that to make the show appear more realistic he had to tone down real-life events "so many times".
Perhaps the most famous example of this in the series comes in one of its later episodes where Stirling and Paddy Mayne, another SAS co-founder and highly regarded boxer and rugby player are dropped behind enemy lines, where they destroy a series of Nazi airstrips and fighter planes. The truth was something straight out of an Arnold Schwarzenegger film.
Stirling – without any assistance – pulled off an op where he singlehandedly blew up 20 enemy planes. Mayne, not believing his comrade, wanted proof, so the two of them went back into German occupied territory and Stirling showed him all of the planes he had rendered inoperable.
In the process they were again attacked by Nazis, had to destroy some more planes and escape back to Allied territory. It's no surprise Knight thought nobody would believe the story.
Where the series takes the most liberties is in the form of Sofia Boutella's femme fatale Eve, a French secret service agent who allows Knight to indulge his most James Bond of fantasies, where the Cairo clubs are awash with belly dancers, swinging jazz and women with more secrets than truths.
Eve has no historical counterpart and is instead a vague amalgamation of real-life figures. Despite playing with the truth, the producers of SAS Rogue Heroes have said (via The Telegraph) it's a show "about men" and that there won't be a contemporary attitude taken toward colourblind casting of non-historical figures, or to the roles of women.
Anachronisms are a staple of Knight's work. Indeed, one of the things that helped make Peaky Blinders so popular was its soundtrack that played heavy on blues rock and recurrent use of Nick Cave's 'Red Right Hand'. SAS Rogue Heroes takes on the same aesthetic but swaps out the growling thump of Royal Blood and The Kills for the heavier thrashing of Skunk Anansie. Just don't expect any Vera Lynn.
The language and costume also take a contemporary twist on the historically accurate which makes the show more Top Gun (yes, there are aviators) than Band of Brothers. It's all in the name of style and will suit some viewers more than others.
At one point in the series, Stirling utters the words that would go on to become the motto of the SAS – who dares wins – and it's a phase Knight appears to have taken to heart with his new series.
There is just enough grounding in real events and real people to not alienate those that know the story better but as he did with Peaky Blinders, Knight plays with the fantastical and outrageous to grab at a modern audience.
SAS Rogue Heroes premieres on Sunday, October 30 at 9pm on BBC One.
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