Too much backstory makes for heavy going in the BBC’s SAS Rogue Heroes, finds Griselda Heppel

Funny old thing, fiction. You’d think a story set in wartime featuring a bunch of young, fearless, spirited soldiers getting together to risk their lives blowing the blazes out of the enemy could not fail to grip right from the start. Especially when turned into a TV series set in embattled Cairo in 1940, bristling with intrigue, with a huge cast of extras and plenty of brawls and scenes of soldiers haring through the desert in jeeps and parachuting out of planes into sandstorms.
So why am I finding SAS Rogue Heroes (BBC iPlayer) such heavy going? 

I should clarify: the story itself isn’t fiction. All the main characters, bar one (who I’ll come to in a moment) are real: brave mavericks, intolerant of authority and frustrated by the Allies’ failure to stem the German advance through North Africa, who came together to form their own unit operating behind enemy lines. Venturing deep into the desert, they attacked enemy aircraft bases, blowing up huge numbers of planes on the ground, thereby inflicting heavy losses on Rommel.

Thus the Special Air Service was born. A more exciting, real life story you could not wish for. 

And that’s perhaps where the problem lies. I haven’t read the book on which the series is based, but author Ben Macintyre cannot write a dull account of anything. Translating the story to the screen however seems to involve lengthy back stories involving insubordination, clever japes, reckless schemes and violent attacks on superior officers, all to establish character, obviously, but at the expense of any narrative drive. A lot seems to happen in the first hour-long episode but in fact nothing does, and amidst all the turmoil I found myself yawning and looking at my watch, with the weirdest sense of being back in the 1960s with a copy of Boys’ Own or The Eagle. Worse, a decision has been made that there must be a main female character in this very masculine set up, so the totally fictitious figure of a French Algerian spy is introduced. Clever and alluring, she is allowed initially to match SAS leader David Stirling in strength of character, before quickly being reduced to anxiously waiting for news of him in the background. Realistically it’s difficult to give her much else to do but why include her in the first place, when she didn’t even exist? 

By Episode Three things at last start to happen and the filming is terrific. Fast, exhilarating scenes of racing across the desert and planting explosives on German planes under cover of darkness had me glued to the screen. Only to become unglued by a series of cringingly sentimental scenes in which a wounded Jock Lewis hallucinates that his girlfriend is there. These should be deeply moving but done so surprisingly badly that they are anything but. And of course they wouldn’t be in Macintyre’s book. 

This is the danger of fictionalising history to make it work better on television. It doesn’t. You just end up with something that is neither purely true nor purely fiction, but falls flat in between. Those real, courageous founders of the SAS deserve better. 

The Fall of a Sparrow by Griselda Heppel
BRONZE WINNER in the Wishing Shelf Awards 2021 
By the author of Ante's Inferno  
WINNER of the People's Book Prize


Nicky said…

You make good points but I really enjoyed it and binge watched the whole show. I haven't read the book so I wasn't comparing it to anything which perhaps made a difference.
Peter Leyland said…
I'm sure it's good for some Griselda but nor for me. I watched the second episode, having read good reviews of the first but as with your comments about The Eagle, I thought it was like a grown up Biggles story. Can you fictionalise history in this way, I wonder? I have an abiding image of the Iranian embassy siege in the early eighties, relieved by the SAS. That was more true for me personally.
Griselda Heppel said…
Thank you both and I’m glad you’re enjoying it, Nicky. My husband would agree with you. I’ll keep watching because the story itself is so extraordinary. And yes, Peter, who can forget the SAS crashing through the windows of the Iranian embassy to end the siege? Unbelievable bravery and skill.
Griselda Heppel said…
Many thanks for this very informative comment. They were an extraordinarily brave and highly individual band of fighters. I hadn’t heard of the ones you mention - I must look them up. I was intrigued by Fitzroy MacLean’s Eastern Approaches which I read recently, in which he recounts being assigned to the Long Range Desert Group to undertake some daring attacks on the enemy. Brilliantly described.
MI6 said…
Griselda - Eastern Approaches is a first class read as is his Escape to Adventure. Rumour has it that Fleming may have had an eye on Fitzroy when creating Bond! Fitzroy's trilogy is not dissimilar non-fiction to The Burlington Files except that there are six books in the latter but only one published to date.

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