I felt oddly conspicuous in camo face paint,
and combat fatigues have never been my idea of acceptable
fashion. But here I was, practically invisible to the
naked eye and lying still as a possum, eyes focussed
down the sights of my semi-automatic rifle while Shane
stealthily scaled the slab behind me.
The intimidating fighting force; Gavin, Richard
and I take a break from shooting
We couldn’t really avoid the shooting, on account
of us being paid to be there. And it was only by a harmless
TV crew, though the cameraman was hovering within inches
of my face for so long I didn't know where to put myself.
I contrived to fix upon my face a look of concentration,
alertness, and other expressions I presumed an SAS serviceman
would be showing. In reality I will have looked like
a civi with no military experience at all pretending
he was highly trained and fearless. Hopefully with enough
editing they'll make me look tough, but it'll not be
We weren't really prepared to be actors; Shane, Gavin,
Richard and me. We thought we'd just turn up and do
a bit of scrambling up a rocky hillside for camera long-shots.
They'd get proper actors to do the close-ups. After
all, we weren't being paid enough to do anything skilled
or dangerous. Except Shane, who by virtue of being our
contact-person, had secured for himself the fun (and
rather better paid!) role of fearless free-climbing
solo-man. Me, envious? Whatever gave you that idea?
Not that there was anything really dangerous to do
anyway, but we weren't going to tell them that, were
we? Though as it turned out we ended up coming perilously
close to seeing Gavin land in pieces at the bottom of
the wall later in the day. Lesson for the day: never
mistake confidence for proficiency.
The recce had been a bit of a hoot. Shane and I had
been taken along the Gower coast path and shown the
40ft slab they hoped we would be able to ‘scale’.
We looked down at it, then cast nervous looks and sharp
intakes of breath back at the shoot co-ordinator, before
conceding it might just be possible. Whereupon we scrambled
down the bank at the side and almost ran up the wall
in our trainers, laughing all the while at what a cushty
couple of days we were in for.
Eddie wasn't impressed. "You wouldn't be doing
that so easily in combat boots and full kit", he
told us in fluent Glaswegian, “and with a 50kg
Bergen on your back.”
Eddie was a real SAS serviceman, or rather he allegedly
had been at some stage in his fast-receding history,
before beer had convinced his barrel chest to head south.
But he still talked a good campaign. So much so that
he'd become something of a TV celebrity in that medium's
new-found fascination with all things SAS.
"This is how you put cams in really badly"
The other ex-regiment servicemen were different. They
had eyes that told of things we didn't want to hear,
and physiques that suggested winding them up too much
may not be the healthy option. But they were surprisingly
‘real’ and in their own way likeable people,
and not the military pseuds we had begun to expect.
On the popular topic of killing, one talkative ex-member
told it to us straight, “The Paras and Marines
are the worst,” he said, “once they get
started you cannae stop ‘em. Men, women, animals
– anything that moves they'll f***ing shoot it.
Even if a guy's dead already, they'll bayonet him anyway.”
But we weren't easily impressed, and vowed to wind up
the SAS boys at every opportunity.
The following day the scene had been transformed. The
safety crew had fixed a rope down the grassy bank, with
shunts and slings in place so nobody got hurt walking.
And nobody was to go within three metres of the cliff
edge without being ‘roped and harnessed’,
which sounded rather fun. Gav and Rich soon got told
off for wandering unroped halfway up our fearsomely
hard rock climb, even though they were careful not to
go within 3m of the top!
We had a laugh, we scaled fixed ropes four abreast,
knocking loose holds off onto the nervous crew below.
Shane demonstrated leading, and cunningly placed gear
that was so bad he could walk back down and pull it
all out with a quick tug on the rope so he was ready
for the next take. We spent many a free moment shooting
each other with our plastic guns (“Dance, mo-fo,
dagadagadaga”) and getting sternly castigated
for it (Oh, you mean the real ones are dangerous? Thanks
for telling me – I never would have realised).
We even did some abseiling which, as every non-climber
knows, is what climbing is all about. We abbed side
by side, conveniently ignoring the fact that if our
sacks were full of anything heavier than pillows we
soon would have been upside down and scraping our way
painfully down the wall.
We had a hostage; Gavin became a mad scientist with
cuffs on and a pillowcase over his head. The SAS were
to be lowering him down, which worried us not a little
so we talked it all through and made sure the right
people had the right knowledge.
Eddie was to be abseiling first, then controlling the
rope while Gav was bundled over the edge in abseil mode
but with his hands tied. We should have seen the warning
signs as Eddie jerked his way down the rope and lost
his balance upon contact with terra firma, comically
rolling down the bank while still trying to look professional.
But how hard can it be to belay someone down? He knew
if Gavin was going too fast he just had to pull harder
on the rope, and we really couldn't see a genuine problem.
When it came to Gav's turn we stared like hawks at
the way the harness was put on and the abseil device
attached. All went smoothly and I ran around the side
to watch. He rounded the edge safely enough, and I remember
felling relieved that all was well. But then he started
accelerating fast, dropping as though completely unattached.
Time stood still as he fell ten feet or more. We watched
in horror. But then he stopped. Just as suddenly as
control had been lost it was regained again. He'd insisted
on keeping his hands pretend-tied ‘just in case’,
and managed to grab his own rope shortly before going
so fast he wouldn't have been able to hold it. Eddie
was at the bottom pulling on the wrong rope.
Thankfully Gav was able to arrest his own fall
We could barely believe our eyes. We were relieved
and angry, and not slow in making our feelings known.
People had to know how close Gavin had come to major
injury. Not surprisingly there became no need for a
second take. It was a wrap.
The next day's climbing scenes suddenly became non-essential
and were written out of the script. Thanks to Gavin's
misadventures we got to play around in inflatable landing
craft all day, still trying to look tough and alert
and all things we weren't but this time acting out a
clandestine beach landing. Eddie tried to convince us
it would take five days to rig ropes up our little slab
and haul gear up, and as he didn't listen to us at all
anyway we found we could say pretty much anything. So
we told him how crap the SAS must be, but he wasn't
We decided to squeeze in a few routes at Oxwych Bay
after the shoot, which everyone except us seemed to
think was pretty strange behaviour. After all, we hadn't
been climbing for two days and it was a much better
way of unwinding than the alcohol-laden alternative.
And it was good to feel like we were back in our version
of normality, though I'm not sure whether it was the
military version or the TV production version I found
the more strange. I am looking forward to seeing it
on the telly though, and it's probably no bad thing
we can't take SAS celebrities seriously any more.
The Cliff Assault episode of SAS Secrets was first
screened on BBC2 in February 2004
This article, by John Arran,
first appeared in the February 2004 issue of On The