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The heroic real-life soldiers behind the SAS: Rogue Heroes in new BBC series

Jess Hardiman

| Last updated 

The heroic real-life soldiers behind the SAS: Rogue Heroes in new BBC series

Since debuting last month, new BBC drama SAS Rogue Heroes has proven to be a huge hit with viewers - something creator Steven Knight has credited to the incredible real-life story, and the real people behind the stranger-than-fiction tale.


The compelling series follows a motley crew of soldiers as they create a brand new special forces unit, the Special Air Service, during World War II.

Knight, who also created the hugely popular Peaky Blinders franchise, believes the reason people are so drawn to the programme because it is based on a true narrative, with Connor Swindells, Jack O'Connell, Alfie Allen and Tom Glynn-Carney all playing the real people who orchestrated the radical plan.

Speaking to LADbible recently, Knight said he found the character-driven true story ‘irresistible’, adding: “The truest bits are the weirdest bits."

He continued: "This group of very young men in their early 20s, took themselves off, they didn't take orders, and decided amongst themselves to conduct a campaign against the strongest army in the world at the time," he said.

"And they succeeded.

"And all, as a writer, you have to do is tell the story, I think. You've got to get into the characters, but these characters did this. This is all true."

David Stirling (Connor Swindells)

Connor Swindells as David Stirling. Credit: BBC
Connor Swindells as David Stirling. Credit: BBC

Sex Education star Connor Swindells plays David Stirling, the SAS' ringleader who used his charm and social connections to get his extraordinary idea approved, roping in 67 recruits to create the new ‘L Detachment Special Air Service Brigade’, which was set up in the North African desert so that troops could operate from deep behind enemy lines.

Stirling, who coined the SAS' motto 'Who dares wins', was granted the honourary rank of lieutenant-colonel upon retirement in 1965, and was also knighted before his death in 1990.

Swindells told us: “I think Stirling is sort of the charisma of the operation, in many ways. He's the pride of the group, and the ego.

“In this show, really, the characters are their own worst enemies, and never is that truer than with David Sterling, because he really is his own worst enemy.

David Stirling. Credit: Imperial War Museum
David Stirling. Credit: Imperial War Museum

“He's the person that points the finger at everyone else for not being in the position that he wants to be in. But ultimately, he advocates for taking the bull by the horns, which is the sort of founding statement of why SAS came to be it. It was because these guys felt like nothing was being done and they wanted to put their training to good use as commandos – they've done all this titting about in Scotland and so on.

“So ultimately, he was an adventurer and someone who was good at rallying people together, but utterly flawed, ridiculously prideful, egotistical, self-serving. At this time in his life, he was a young man dealing with something quite existential in many ways.”

Paddy Mayne (Jack O’Connell)

Jack O'Connell as Paddy Mayne. Credit: BBC
Jack O'Connell as Paddy Mayne. Credit: BBC

O’Connell stars as Lieutenant Colonel Robert Blair Mayne – also known as ‘Paddy’ - who was a real-life war veteran known to sport a ‘volatile and complex’ personality, with little respect for authority.

Born in 1915, Mayne became one of the British Army’s most highly decorated soldiers after joining the Special Air Service (SAS) at the age of 25 in 1941, having been recruited from a prison cell.

His bravery on the battlefield even earned him four Distinguished Service Orders (DSOs), the Legion d'Honneur and the Croix de Guerre.

The real Paddy Mayne. Credit: BBC
The real Paddy Mayne. Credit: BBC

To play Mayne O’Connell had ‘daily vocal sessions’ with his coach, who is from Belfast.

“It was a no brainer working with him,” he told us, adding that there were a number of other aspects to bear in mind when it came to characterisation.

“And then I think another factor was also precisely where in Northern Ireland is he from?,” O’Connell continued.

“And the fact that he's quite a learned man, Paddy Mayne - he practiced law at one stage.

“So, you know, that offered me some great steerage.”

Jock Lewes (Alfie Allen)

Alfie Allen as Jock Lewes. Credit: BBC
Alfie Allen as Jock Lewes. Credit: BBC

John Steel ‘Jock’ Lewes was another of the SAS’ co-founders, who was known for inventing an explosive device known as the Lewes bomb.

He tragically died in action in December 1941 after his vehicle came under attack from Italian and German aircraft.

When asked how he prepared for the role, Allen said: “I enjoyed reading the love letters between him and his partner, Mirren. And I just really enjoyed reading the way that he would really just attempt to be a romantically eloquent man.

“He would berate himself in the next letters for even attempting that, and I just always found it quite endearing in a man that didn't want to be endearing."

Jock Lewes. Credit: BBC
Jock Lewes. Credit: BBC

The actor said he also read the book of the same name by Ben McIntyre, which inspired the show.

“There was a one part in that where Lewes gets up on the table in a mess hall to diffuse a situation between men who I think are arguing about food or drink or something,” he said.

“And that gave me something else in terms of there is some kind of spontaneity there to him, and [he is] willing to sacrifice something in himself for the cause.”

Mike Sadler (Tom Glynn-Carney)

Tom Glynn-Carney as Mike Sadler. Credit: BBC
Tom Glynn-Carney as Mike Sadler. Credit: BBC

Mike Sadler is the only member of the SAS founding fathers still alive today, now aged 102.

He was known for his unparalleled navigation skills, and was recruited by Stirling as a senior desert navigator to guide the SAS on their missions across the featureless desert terrain.

In the programme, he is played by Tom Glynn-Carney, a rising British star who has previous credits in the likes of Dunkirk and, more recently, House of the Dragon.

Speaking about what it was like to portray such a ‘remarkable’ man, he told us: “It was funny, when we were having discussions about how he'd look like and what the design was going to be for the character, there was a load of pictures that we had of Mike - a lot of ones where he had been away for a long time and not a chance to look after himself, in terms of shaving and hair and all that sort of stuff.

Mike Sadler. Credit: BBC
Mike Sadler. Credit: BBC

“So we really leaned into that.

“And I have a similar facial bone structure to Mike back in his 20s.

“So yeah, we were sort of blessed with that so they could really try and get as close to him aesthetically as we possibly could.

Sadler is the only SAS member still alive today. Credit: BBC
Sadler is the only SAS member still alive today. Credit: BBC

“There's so many World War II-type films or television programmes, and everyone's got the really neat side partings and everything's Brill-creamed within an inch of its life, and then you get Mike rocking up in the desert with hair all over the place, wide eyes and he completely in his element.”

He added: “The man by all accounts, is a remarkable, remarkable human being who did some remarkable things.”

Watch SAS Rogue Heroes on Sundays at 9pm on BBC One, with the whole series also available to watch on BBC iPlayer.

Featured Image Credit: BBC/ Imperial War Museum

Topics: TV and Film

Jess Hardiman
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