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16 November 2022

Why I love SAS Rogue Heroes, a carnival of macho nonsense

Steven Knight’s new series with Dominic West strikes a tone midway between war comics and a Duran Duran video – in a good way.

By Rachel Cooke

I come a little late to SAS Rogue Heroes. Beige is not my colour; I was somewhat reluctant to pull on the desert camo. But now I’ve slipped into it, epaulettes and all, I’m amazed to find myself half in love. Admittedly, this may, in part, be because this carnival of macho nonsense is packed with gorgeous young men in aviators. Mostly, though, I think it has something to do with the way it makes me feel oddly carefree, for all that it’s so full of jeopardy and violence. Unlike most BBC dramas, SAS Rogue Heroes comes with not one iota of angst. It has no desire to tick boxes, to be thought-provoking, to present a searing critique of times past. It wants only to be stylish and entertaining. We are invited to enjoy ourselves – and, mostly, we do.

The creation of Steven Knight of Peaky Blinders fame, it shares with that series a fondness for mythologising and aphoristic dialogue. Set in the Egyptian desert in 1941 as the British army struggles to defend besieged Tobruk from the Germans, its tone is midway between the war comics my brother used to read as a boy (he favoured Battle) and a Duran Duran video – and I mean this as a compliment.

[See also: Jafar Panahi’s No Bears shows the political power of filmmaking]

If it’s both silly and cynical, it’s also affectionate, sending up the war in much the same spirit as, say, Noël Coward once did (his “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” is on the soundtrack, along with a ton of heavy rock and a bit of George Formby). Most of the time, it’s self-consciously edgy: foul language, bad behaviour, bodies piled like bags of pasta. But at other moments, it’s almost old-fashioned. All these men in khaki, smoking their pipes! If Kenneth More or Richard Attenborough suddenly appeared, you’d hardly be surprised. (Instead, we get Dominic West, as a character called Lt Col Wrangel Clarke, in full make-up, for reasons as yet unexplained.)

I haven’t read the book by Ben Macintyre on which it’s based; I probably never will read it. Suffice to say that one gathers that some of what we see on screen might be true, however improbable – and it is all highly improbable. The origin story of the SAS begins with a borderline psychopath, Captain David Stirling (Connor Swindells), who somehow convinces the army high-ups he should be allowed to form his own regiment – one that will operate with utter freedom – the idea being that it will destroy German and Italian hardware clandestinely, from the ground rather than the air.

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[See also: Triangle of Sadness is part satire of the super-rich, part disaster movie]

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Stirling is a toff who drinks whisky like it’s sarsaparilla, and whose questions to the fellow crazies he hopes to recruit include killers such as: “How many women have you slept with?” Running the show with him are two of the best (ie the most insane and blood-thirsty) men he knows: Paddy Mayne (Jack O’Connell) and Jock Lewes (Alfie Allen). Truly, there’s nothing these two won’t do. Extremity excites them. They’re perverted and delusional. As Lewes notes having parachuted on to the dunes in a 30-knot sandstorm: “This is a big desert, but there’s no room in it for realists or pragmatists or one who believes in common sense.”

The viewer is free to feel appalled by all the strutting around, by the greedy murderousness and the twisted patriotism. But can anyone really resist them? I can’t. Usually, I’ve only to see a stag party to run in the other direction, but not in the case of SAS Heroes. I’m all in, and do pour me a large gin and it.

It’s so well cast. Ordinarily, I’d be indignant about the fact that there’s only one woman to be seen, but I’m too mad about Sofia Boutella as Eve Mansour, an Algerian-French spy, to care (she’s back in Cairo, where her lipstick, doubtless much envied by our friend Wrangel, can probably be seen from Mars). And all the leads are magnificent, particularly Swindells, who wears the crackle-glaze veneer of a man whose family owns grouse moors as if he was born to it (I googled, and the actor wasn’t, unless there are grouse moors in Billingshurst). The man he plays won’t, I think, crack up in the 50-degree heat, and for this reason watching him is somehow weirdly relaxing.

SAS Rogue Heroes
BBC One
Sundays, 9pm

[See also: Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin: a brilliantly nasty Irish fable]

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This article appears in the 16 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in