Could you punch someone in the face? This isn’t a hypothetical question about what you’re prepared to do to survive a no-deal Brexit, as you scrap in the aisles of Lidl for the last case of bottled water. I’m talking boxing gloves, mouthguard. Rules. Oh, and would it matter to you if your opponent was a woman?
As an escape from politics, I’ve been watching the new series of Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins. A bunch of ferociously fit people with intriguing back stories are taken to Chile, made to run up and down the Andes, and shouted at by gimlet-eyed men with names like Jason “Foxy” Fox, Mark “Billy” Billingham and Matthew “Ollie” Ollerton. It is part of a rich seam of similar programmes, including the BBC’s original SAS: Are You Tough Enough? (No), all of which I have enjoyed enormously, even though the closest I’ve been to a combat situation is visiting the West Bank in a minibus full of theatre impresarios.
The lead presenter, Ant Middleton, may be familiar to you already. He has ice-blue eyes, a beard of Lebedevian ebony, and a conversational register that alternates between Spanish inquisition and fortune cookie. He has killed people, but now tweets about “#zeronegativity” and is going on a speaking tour called “Mind over Muscle”. In December, he advocated leaving the EU without a deal, tweeting: “A ‘no deal’ for our country would actually be a blessing in disguise. It would force us into hardship and suffering which would unite & bring us together, bringing back British values of loyalty and a sense of community! Extreme change is needed!” (Now there’s a man with confidence in his ability to triumph in the bottled water aisle.)
Anyway, I’m obsessed, particularly since the model of masculinity on display in SAS: Who Dares Wins is fascinating. Yes, Middleton and the three other instructors look like double-hard bastards. Yes, anyone attempting to bleep out the swearwords would die of repetitive strain injury within the opening five minutes. But honestly, they give the recruits such amazing therapy sessions. Confronting the aggro of “N0 20” – a Scouse woman with a teardrop tattooed under one eye – Ant asked her why she didn’t react to learning that her fellow recruits had identified her as the weakest. “I don’t care,” she shot back, sullenly. “I don’t give a shit.”
Ant stared her down. “That’s exactly why you were picked, because of your attitude … I can f***ing see it, because I’ve been there. No one wanted to be around me. I had this f*** you attitude. I thought it was f***ing everyone else. It wasn’t. It was me.”
He leaned forward. “You’re not that person. You know it. I know it. You need to f***ing stop now.”
Within a minute, No 20 was snuffling like a hedgehog. “I don’t think I know how,” she said. When she got outside, two burly men offered her a hug. She accepted it.
In the second episode, “No 16” – Nathaniel, raised in care from the age of nine months – said there was no one in his life who believed in him. At the start of the year, he had tried to “end it”. End what? “My life.” He had tried to hang himself.
“You’re f***ing lucky that you survived that,” observed Billy. “Cause no life is worth taking like that.” Ant chipped in: “You’re a capable person… Believe in yourself.”
And then, in a piece straight to camera, Foxy – a demolition expert and “combat swimmer” (sounds terrifying) – told his own story. “Contemplating suicide is an extreme form of escapism, when you feel you’re failing at everything. I found myself at the end of my f***ing tether, standing on a cliff, thinking: f*** it, I’m not achieving anything in life. Mental strength is probably the one thing that got me through it.”
In the modern world, then, men can fight, shout and cry. Earlier in the programme, Nathaniel had broken down after carrying a log up a hill. “No shame in f***ing crying,” shouted Ant, consolingly, inches from his face. “Whatever you need to get out, leave it here and f***ing crack on. There’s no shame in f***ing shedding a tear, once the task is done, letting a bit of emotion out.”
Of course SAS: Who Dares Wins is engineered and tweaked for maximum emotional impact. There are the usual regular reminders that it is really, really difficult to get into the Special Forces, in case this had somehow eluded you. But we know that men are far more likely to kill themselves, and that suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK. Everyone in the sector agrees that getting men to admit vulnerability and feelings of weakness is difficult. If part of the answer is to have trained killers talk about mental health problems on television, then so be it.
What about the violence, though? As the army has now opened up combat roles to women, this series is the first to admit them. Middleton had previously expressed his scepticism about the idea, suggesting that few would be physically strong enough.
In a task where all the recruits had to box each other, No 21 – a woman, Louise – picked Nathaniel. Clever, I thought. He will be too scared to hit her properly. Still, as Ant reminded everyone: “The enemy doesn’t care what f***ing gender you are, what f***ing race you are, what f***ing religion you are, they just want to f***ing kill you.” (Demonstrably untrue, but let’s go with it. I remember the bit in Bravo Two Zero where Andy McNab shows his Iraqi captors his foreskin to prove he’s not Jewish.)
Louise and Nathaniel stepped forward, and as the fight began, he landed two punches on her, square in the face. He won.
Afterwards, in the barracks, she had to console him, reassuring him he had done the right thing. But he had. She wanted to be treated as an equal, and that’s what he did. SAS: Who Dares Wins might not tell you much about war, but it tells you a surprising amount about people.
This article appears in the 16 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain