Are you tough? I’m pretty tough. I’m watching SAS: Who Dares Wins (Monday, Channel 4), about soldiers, and not Sass! Who Cares Who Wins? – which is about lazy dancers and is the kind of thing you like to watch.
This show starts with a drone zooming in on four muscly men on a temple balcony looking out at the wilderness in Vietnam. Yeah, these guys are so tough they’ve been to Vietnam, though not the war, just on holidays. They have surprisingly cute names, like those of children or pets. One is called Foxy and one is called Rudy. I didn’t catch the other names, so I’m going with Babycakes and Boofles. They look like a row of Eagle Eyes Action Men, and I instantly want to see if they’ve got a little lever at the back of their heads to move their eyes.
“Right, lads, finally back in the jungle. This is my baby. I have a lot of experience here – I’ll take the lead on this. Happy?” says Boofles (or possibly Babycakes) to Rudy, Foxy and Babycakes (or possibly Boofles).
The implication is that Boofles’ “experience” relates to jungle warfare, although at this stage it’s just as likely it relates to a neat CV in contemporary television-production techniques. Despite Britain’s long experience of meddling militarily in other countries’ affairs, one of its longest campaigns is probably SAS: Who Dares Wins.
‘I’m supersexy. I don’t have to try real hard if I’m honest’: Perfect Match is remarkably like my own life
“In show business, what we’re doing in the edit here is called a ‘montage’,” I can imagine Boofles saying to the other violence-hunks, who are presumably doing some sort of postmilitary service Fás course in video production.
Big, scowling sunburnt soldiers are shouting things like ‘Get your arse down!’ and ‘Stop grunting, you sound like a pig!’ but also, counterintuitively, ‘Believe in yourself!’
It does open with a montage, to show us what to expect. This is basically a programme in which regular folks with job titles such as “nutritionist” and “software account executive”, ie people who have probably never strangled a dog and then eaten it, and never once considered assassinating a diplomat, will be punished by the stubbly man-gods looking down on them from the balcony.
In the montage, people covered in muck weep and vomit and are shouted at by gruff soldiers as they crawl through undergrowth. It is promised that they will come “face to face with their own character”. When they do, I expect that character will also be weeping and vomiting. “Of course,” they’ll say. “I am a fluid-spewing shambles.”
And all the while big, scowling sunburned soldiers are shouting things like “Get your arse down!” and “Stop grunting, you sound like a pig!” but also, counterintuitively, “Believe in yourself!” I suppose everything involves self-help these days, even pretend war crimes.
The contestants sporadically discuss their expectations. “Ninety nine per cent of the course is a mental game, it’s not physical,” says an HGV driver named Levy, which is just not true. Nobody is asked to do sums, but they are told to crawl through the undergrowth like babies and then carry other contestants like they’re babies.
Meanwhile, the soldiers talk tough-guy gibberish. “The only way you can prepare for this course is go up to the Welsh hills and live in a puddle for a week,” says Foxy (which, given the state of student accommodation, is probably how most students are living anyway).
“Fear sometimes manifests itself in a little brown liquid running down the back of your legs,” says Boofles (or possibly Babycakes). “You’re sh**ting yourself,” he adds by way of superfluous explanation.
Anyway, the soldiers eventually take the contestants to a clearing where two huge towers of scaffolding are connected by two narrow bars. This is called the “Trainasium”, and each of the contestants must climb the scaffolding and then cross the bars very high above their nemesis, the ground.
This prompts more philosophising to the camera. “My greatest fear would probably be not being good enough,” says a chef named Zac, despite the fact that his greatest fear should be, at this point in his life, the Trainasium.
There’s a lot of disturbing weirdness in creating a reality TV show that romanticises special forces operators who have served in Afghanistan and Northern Ireland
“The self-doubt is always kind of there, isn’t it?” he asks, reflectively, before we cut to him quaking aloft the Trainasium.
“Get on with it, you f**king bellend,” shouts Foxy.
“Shut up, you muppet,” shouts Boofles (or possibly Babycakes).
Zac traverses the Trainasium for a while in terror before falling. He is, it turns out, attached to a sort of rope. That makes sense, on reflection.
And then it just gets strange. From time to time the four soldiers retreat to their headquarters, where they look at a wall full of headshots and discuss each contestant by number, not name. Occasionally, they have one of them hooded and brought to them for questioning. This is a bizarre conceit, and it’s where all (arguable) fun slips away.
Because all television programming is now seen as an addendum to psychotherapy, they ask the contestants probing questions about their lives and must seem vaguely compassionately straight-faced in their responses. One woman talks about the break-up of her relationship. Later a man reveals he was assaulted when he was younger. And one of his interrogators says: “We’re going to take you to some dark places. Park that part of your life and let’s use that course to move forward.”
My wife wanders into the room, grimaces and says, ‘For some reason something in me recoils at the sound of English soldiers shouting orders at people’
“He’s in the right place,” says Rudy once he leaves, but then the man goes outside and cries and it feels like “the right place” is probably with a kind therapist, not with macho military goons on a reality television show.
Then again, there are red flags all along. There’s a lot of disturbing weirdness in creating a reality TV show that romanticises special forces operators who have served in Afghanistan and Northern Ireland and that literally involves reducing people to numbers, shouting at them and throwing hoods over their heads. And yes, I should point out that at one point my wife wanders into the room, grimaces and says, “For some reason something in me recoils at the sound of English soldiers shouting orders at people.”
If the grotesque nature of all this isn’t obvious enough, on the same night BBC One airs Sam Collyns and Tom Besley’s excellent The Hooded Men: Britain’s Torture Playbook. It’s the story of the 14 innocent Catholic men imprisoned without trial, hooded, reduced to numbers and tortured by British security forces at the inception of internment in the summer of 1971. Beautifully shot, it includes moving interviews with the surviving men about their suffering, recovery and search for justice, the jaw-dropping justifications of members of the security forces and evidence that the legalese the British state used to defend this behaviour fed directly into the inhumane treatment of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’d be fascinated to know how many people watch both programmes.