Britain has long held a fascination with the Special Air Service. This may be due to the strict secrecy surrounding this most elite of army regiments. The dramatic end they brought to a hostage situation in central London during 1980 was inadvertently televised live on a bank holiday evening, becoming one of the most defining moments in modern UK history.
From TV dramas to books with flames on the cover, there’s been a lot of romance and speculation surrounding this illustrious special forces unit. “You spend all of your military career trying to get into the SAS and the rest of your life denying it” Mark ‘Billy’ Billingham tells me. “I left the army, with nobody knowing what I did.”
The slightly reluctant star of Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins has legitimately lived life at the sharp end of the nation’s military might.
Having joined the Parachute Regiment in 1983 and serving with distinction, he was selected for the SAS as a Mountain Troop specialist eight years later. Working across the world, in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, South America and Africa, he led several hostage rescues and received numerous awards – including the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery and an MBE presented to him by HM Queen Elizabeth.
After leaving the regiment, he suddenly found he’d more comrades than anyone realised. “I’m getting offered jobs in security, and I found that everybody working in that industry was apparently in the SAS! I knew none of them. Everybody was using our credentials, but I was too afraid to say it. Half of them couldn’t even spell SAS…” this left him with decision to make. He could either keep quiet about his past or embrace who he was and his extraordinary skillset.
I’ll admit I’d gone into this interview with an impulse intention of writing a slightly cheeky feature about ‘British TV’s Hardest Man’, but that would have been a huge disservice. It’s easy to like Billy. He’s friendly and doesn’t flaunt this noteworthy career, which has repeatedly involved doing things so the rest of us don’t have to. This doesn’t appear to be modesty, but a sense of quiet pragmatism.
Almost everything up to this point has been about doggedly achieving his potential. It’s this constant striving to be the best which forms the basis of his new speaking tour, Always A Little Further.
On manoeuvres across the whole of the UK, it tracks most of his life; from running with gangs in the Midlands during the 70s to bodyguarding for celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Sir Michael Caine, Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe.
He says people can take the show’s title however they like. But, for him, it’s been a personal mantra since his childhood. “I’m not one of those people who stands up there throwing out quotes and statistics, which sound great but don’t really mean anything. I take people on a journey, and it’s my journey, I’m not telling anyone how to live their life.”
He tells me how he used to steal hats from older men, at the tender age of nine. “Then this one guy chased me. God knows how, he was about 70. I think he was Linford Christie’s Dad… He cornered me and I went into a boxer’s stance.” Rather than give the youngster a good hiding, the sprightly older gentlemen invited him to spend some time at a local boxing club. Which is how Billy found himself in room behind a pub.
“He always used to say that boxing isn’t a sport of brutality, it’s a poor man’s game of chess. It’s about anticipation and respect. And when you think you can’t go on, you can. As long as you keep in your mind ‘always a little further.’ He reminded me every day I went there.” Billy got to keep the hat though.
Fortunately, this was only one of the people who inspired Billy on his journey.
He sounds like a tearaway as a youngster. In trouble with the law at 11, he was kicked out of school at 13 for gluing his teacher to a chair and got stabbed aged only 15. He’s not proud of any of these episodes; but says they did teach him some important lessons. “Boxing got me out of trouble, but it also taught me how to fight better. So, I was getting into more fights, but getting away with it. Then my brother came home and said he’d joined the cadets… The man in charge was an old fashioned, no-nonsense type. If you stepped out of line, he’d put you back in your place”.
But Billy gravitated towards the discipline. “I was being taught things which made sense, for example, I learned first aid and could see how that would save lives and it was ‘real’. I was taught how to navigate with a map and by the stars. In school, crossing the Ts and dotting the Is, I thought: ‘What’s this nonsense?’ So, I just didn’t bother going.”
Then he started seeing men around the neighbourhood who’d joined the Army. “They came back, and they looked smart and acted smart. I thought that was where I had to get to.”
He’s adamant the military saved him from a life of crime, or perhaps an early death.
After several years’ service, he attended a selection process for the SAS. At their Hereford barracks stands a clocktower, inscribed with the names of the regiment’s fallen above the words: ‘We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go. Always a little further; it may be. Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow. Across that angry or that glimmering sea’ – an excerpt from James Elroy Flecker’s The Golden Journey To Samarkand. “It’s always been my mantra, if I’m honest,” he says. “But that’s when it became embedded in me.”
He suggests the military needs people with a rough upbringing, who are going to fight for their county. But it also needs very well-educated, ‘nicely brought-up’ people as well. “Put them together and you’ve got the best army. It pinpoints people with prospects and gives them a chance in life. Eventually rising to Sergeant Major, his career was then spent doing things he once couldn’t have dreamed of. “I managed to get it right through all the direction and training. The army picks up great potential in everybody and pushes you to your limit.”
While he travelled around the world doing astonishing things, one of the biggest challenges was leaving the army after 28 years.
“It was a world of pain. I’d just gone through a divorce, and you don’t realise how much the army does. I knew where the doctor was, I knew where to get food.” After getting himself organised, and working in several different security roles, he again started applying his personal motto to civilian life.
“A lot of it was aiming for goals I’ve never reached, but they did open up other avenues. Don’t be afraid to go for things above the bar. You might get there, or you might not. Falling and getting back up is what life is about. It’s how you grow and become who you are.” He suddenly found himself stepping from the shadows into the glare of the camera lights. Working with celebrities, Billy had done a few bits of filming; just for fun more than anything. There had been one piece of TV work, which he found immensely unfulfilling, but then he received an offer to do a new Channel 4 reality show.
Showing a disparate group of people who they really are, SAS: Who Dares Wins must stand as the most gruelling and empowering reality show on TV.
Billy says he loves the filming because it gives so much to so many people. “It’s not acting, we just run a course and they film it 24/7. It’s given me a massive platform. I hate the word celebrity. Unfortunately, in the bizarre world we live in, celebrities get more credibility than professionals like scientists or proper politicians.” His role as Chief Instructor on the series of challenges treads a line between intimidating and inspiring, as each week he seeks to get the very best from the contestants.
He admits it’s not the full SAS experience, but it does run off the same ethos. “It’s the person that’s special. That’s what selection does. It peels the person back to their raw self. Are they somebody who can pick themselves up when the chips are down and go forward? Can they think outside the box? Are they a genuine person and not one of these egotistical lunatics?”
This unwavering examination of each candidate’s true self is what the real SAS is founded on. Which is probably why hardly anybody gets in. It’s about pushing people through physical, mental and emotional processes in a very short space of time. “That’s why they come on the show. Most people in the world haven t got a clue who they are, they all think they’re somebody else on Instagram. I don’t think there’s one single person who’s done that show who won’t say it’s made their life better for it.” His view is that life should be more than acquiring social media follows and material things. It’s about health, family and doing the respectful thing. And people walk away from SAS: Who Dares Wins with that lesson embedded in them.
Although he’s best known for his TV work, he spends most of his time maximising the platform he’s been given for charity work.
He founded REBUILD Globally with his second wife after seeing the devastation left by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. This non-profit organisation aims to create a sustainable solution for survivors, fighting poverty through education and job training. “Military people are particularly passionate about charity work, especially after seeing what we’ve seen. When this earthquake happened, I didn’t even know where Haiti was. But, with the numbers of people dying we felt we had to do something.” His goal is to replace conventional charitable aid with a thriving social entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Originally, he’d gone over to build a hospital, but what was supposed to be a couple of months soon turned into three years. He started raising money so street kids could get through school. “But it’s all well and good, but what use is that without an actual job? So, my wife formed a business.” Now this locally owned, for-profit social business employs around 80 workers making handcrafts, sandals and accessories, establishing a framework for the transition from desperation and dependency to self-sustainability.
Elsewhere, he’s currently an ambassador for both Phoenix Heroes, who encourage wellbeing amongst veterans through outdoor activities.
He is also an ambassador forThe Tommy Club, who help ex-servicemen regain their independence and overcome challenges caused by disability, substance dependency or unemployment. Billy also does a lot with Scotty’s Little Soldiers, who provide long term support for bereaved military children. But there’s so much more work to be done. “I’m horrified by the way military people get treated. I don’t believe we should have everything given to us. I went to the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre up in Loughborough, and the facility is phenomenal. It did give me hope that the government have spent a bit of money.”
But then he found all the families supporting the injured receive no financial aid. It’s endemic of a wider attitude towards those who’ve served their country. “We’ve got soldiers on the street, men who are smashed up and in a bad way, and we’re taking care of other things. We should be taking care of these people. The veterans have served us and done their piece. Giving them a false limb isn’t the end of it. It’s just the beginning. We should be taking care of them until they die. It’s disgusting.”
Cramming a lifetime of experiences into a welcoming and fun show, Always A Little Further can offer something of a reality check to audiences.
“Life isn’t easy,” says Billy. “We’ve lost the truth in this world. You are going to fall on your arse. You are going to get things wrong. The message is to have a dream and go for it. Just by steeping over the line it will put you in a better place.” I ask if there’s any more mountains to climb or is he just going to settle in this new celebrity lifestyle? As you’d expect, he’s got no interest in settling or taking things slowly. “I’m going to try and throw myself out of a plane and break a world-record, which the missus isn’t too happy about,” he says, after a short pause. “I’m always looking for the next challenge. You don’t know what you’ve got left. You don’t know what’s going to happen. So don’t give up until you HAVE to give up.”
Mark ‘Billy’ Billingham’s Always A Little Further comes to Bexhill’s De La Warr Parr Pavilion on Wed 18 Oct and Theatre Royal Brighton on Thu 19 Oct. Season five of Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins is airing now on Channel 4 www.markbillybillingham.com
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