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'SAS Rogue Heroes' review: Steven Knight delivers another period cracker

David Stirling (Connor Swindellls) in SAS Rogue Heroes (BBC)
David Stirling (Connor Swindellls) in SAS Rogue Heroes (BBC)

Coming on like the lovechild of David Lean and Guy Ritchie, SAS Rogue Heroes is fuelled by AC/DC guitar riffs and a healthy amount of irreverence.

Written by Oscar-nominee Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders), this BBC limited series draws its inspiration from the book by Ben McIntyre, which documents how Britain’s SAS (Special Air Service) came into being.

Opening on a military convoy as it crosses some desolate stretch of desert halfway between Cairo and Tobruk, audiences are dropped into North Africa circa 1941 where SAS founder David Stirling (Connor Swindells) is swiftly introduced. This instantly establishes expectations and narrative purpose on the road to a genuinely inspired piece of drama.

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What follows from Emmy nominated director Tom Shankland (The Missing), is some visual exposition which brings everyone up to speed, before AC/DC licks are replaced with a rain slicked Cairo taverna some days later. There is such visual economy in the character introductions which follow, that SAS Rogue Heroes just keeps gaining momentum. In fact, within the first 20 minutes despite its well worn set-up and reliance on needle drops to buck genre conventions, this show will have audiences hooked.

Paddy Mayne (Jack O'Connell) in SAS Rogue Heroes (BBC)
Paddy Mayne (Jack O'Connell) in SAS Rogue Heroes (BBC)

Soon enough, Stirling is joined in his North African escapades by Paddy Mayne (Jack O’Connell) and Jock Lewes (Alfie Allen). The former is a man who likes to beat up his superiors, inflict impartial injuries and never takes kindly to direct orders, while the latter has scant regard for his personal safety and may well be insane. These men represent Steven Knight’s core group of miscreants who were crazy enough to form the SAS for real.

Along for the ride is Lieutenant Colonel Wrangel Clarke (Dominic West), who indulges in some light cross-dressing, dabbles in counter-intelligence and possesses a flair for theatricality. Between himself and French intelligence operative Eve (Sofia Boutella) interests align, while German Field Marshall Johannes Rommel continues his efforts to take the seaport of Tobruk. In the meantime, Stirling and Lewes head up a series of ill-advised military exercises, which prove both problematic but crucial to their overall success.

Sidelined with a spinal contusion in Cairo, Stirling is left to rehabilitate, while any chance of this crack commando group coming together diminishes. What inherently keeps the momentum going, beyond a slickly written script and uniformly solid performances, is a sense of fun which seems to permeate every moment of this show.

Eve (Sofia Boutella) in SAS Rogue Heroes (BBC)
Eve (Sofia Boutella) in SAS Rogue Heroes (BBC)

Not only does it embrace the farcical nature of hierarchy, as illustrated by Stirling’s infiltration of British HQ, but revels in revealing the ineptitudes of war as a whole. That these events are described as mostly true, says a great deal about the creation of many great institutions that came together thanks to a few genuinely unbalanced individuals.

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It actively celebrates people who fathomed solutions from the ether, while showing little regard for personal safety — suicidal tendencies that would see them locked away today. Similar in many ways to The Men Who Stare at Goats, which told a tale of psychic soldiers in the United States military, SAS Rogue Heroes embraces a comparable ethos. The only difference being that Britain’s special air service, became a formidable force to be reckoned with in later years.

What Steven Knight and his top-drawer ensemble cast have created here is nothing short of phenomenal. Across the board there are no weak links and everything feels dramatically balanced, without drifting into caricature or succumbing to cliché. Standouts include Jack O’Connell, who simply disappears beneath the skin of Paddy Mayne, while Alfie Allen does an equally impressive job breathing life into Jock Lewes.

Jock Lewes (Alfie Allen) and Reg Seekings (Theo Barklem-Biggs) in SAS Rogue Heroes (BBC)
Jock Lewes (Alfie Allen) and Reg Seekings (Theo Barklem-Biggs) in SAS Rogue Heroes (BBC)

From the five-minute mark SAS Rogue Heroes crackles with an energy which remains undiminished throughout its six-part run. Sofia Boutella makes a welcome impression amongst the endless amounts of guns and ammo, while Dominic West does flashes of camp combined with mounds of savvy without batting an eyelash.

Between the bawdy behaviour of these irreverent recruits, a healthy amount of stiff upper lip and the sultry climes of Cairo, SAS Rogue Heroes amounts to a serious slice of fried gold. There is a lightness of touch in innumerable scenes, some respectful Guy Ritchie hat tips and more than a modicum of self-assurance from all involved.

This show not only puts some rose tinted glasses on pivotal moments in history, drawing comedy from the desperate acts of unheroic men, but reminds audiences that selfless deeds can come from the most unlikely people.

At its core this drama celebrates the rabble rouser, the barroom brawler and jail cell degenerate who did something good for all the right reasons. A fact which makes this essential viewing for audiences everywhere.

SAS Rogue Heroes will premiere on Sunday, 30 October at 9pm on BBC One.

Watch: The trailer for SAS Rogue Heroes