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From Council Estate to Windsor Castle with SAS Star Billy Billingham

From Council Estate to Windsor Castle with SAS Star Billy Billingham

Credit: Pete Dadds / Channel 4

They don’t come much tougher than Mark ‘Billy’ Billingham. You’ll know him as one of the stars of Channel Four’s hit series SAS: Who Dares Wins. He’s the take no prisoners DS, who gives the best rollickings in the business. He demands the best from those he’s instructing as he was part of the greatest elite fighting force on the planet for many years.

From a tearaway kid on the streets of Walsall, he turned his life around when he joined the Parachute Regiment in 1983, before completing the gruelling selection process to join the SAS in 1991 as a Mountain Troop specialist. There he was responsible for planning and executing strategic operations and training at the highest level in numerous locations such as Iraq, Afghanistan and South America, not to mention leading countless hostage rescues.

After his military career, Billy became a bodyguard to the stars with Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Russell Crowe and Tom Cruise among a who’s who of A-list clients. Oh, and did we mention he received an MBE from The Queen for his involvement in numerous top-secret missions? It’s fair to say Billy Billingham is the real deal.

With his new book, The Hard Way, just released, we sat down with the man himself to find out how he went from teen terror to decorated military man. Whether he thinks any contestants on Who Dares Wins could make it into the real SAS, and we get some situational awareness tips that can help make us all more vigilant.

The MALESTROM: Let’s start off with your childhood, tell us a bit about life growing up? 

Billy Billingham: I was a very naughty kid, from a very early age I became streetwise. I lived on a council estate in the West Midlands, the middle child of five, an older brother and sister and a younger brother and sister. And it’s that middle child syndrome, you’re a bit different, a bit rogue and I went particularly rogue.

My mother would say, “you got in with the wrong crowd.” Even at the age of nine, I knew it wasn’t the wrong crowd, I was the one leading some of this gang stuff. And it was just a way of life back then, even at that early age trying to make a name for yourself, at least that’s how it felt.

TM: And it was boxing that got you back on track at least for a time?

BB: It did mate. One of the older guys I’d had a run-in with who chased me and cornered me, instead of giving me a slap, he talked to me and said, “look come here and do this boxing club” and that’s what I did. If you imagine this nowadays, I was nine years old, it was February, so it was dark at 5 o’clock, walking around the back of a pub, to meet a man that was about to beat me up, imagine that today, it just wouldn’t happen.

Anyway, I’m glad I did it because it changed the course of my life. He literally took the time, he became the second most influential man in my life behind my Dad, and he said something that stuck with me throughout my life,

“Boxing is not about brutality, it’s a poor man’s game of chess.” 

It’s about thinking, about using your feet and using your mind, reading the situation and acting before something happens. And I’ve carried that throughout my life, and it’s very true. He taught me discipline and all the rest of it, but how to be a better fighter as well.

'Billy' Billingham with his mates in the late 70s. The only skinhead in a gang of mods
‘Billy’ with his mates in the late 70s. The only skinhead in a gang of mods

TM: You obviously had a talent for it. You also had some near-death scrapes before you even reached the age of 16? Was that a sign of things to come?

BB: Yeah well, I was constantly in trouble, the police were coming over every week. At the age of 11, I’d already been to juvenile court and got two years of conditional discharge, so I was already on a sticky wicket. I was fighting at school, I was fighting out of school and then I got stabbed at the age of 15.

I literally left school at the age of 13 more or less, you know thinking I was clever I glued the bloody maths teacher to the chair and when I got put in detention, I climbed out the window and was gone. Then I was working in a factory at the age of 15, illegally. There I fell into a vat of caustic soda and was lucky to survive. 

TM: So when you did join the army, did the boxing give you an advantage over some of the other lads, in terms of fitness etc?

BB: Oh yeah it did, but it was two things really. As well as the boxing I joined the cadets, so the cadets taught me kind of a military regime and way of life really and the discipline.

What I realised pretty quickly was that, what I was being taught at school, I didn’t want to know because it didn’t feel like it was real to me, it wasn’t any use. Maths or Geography, it didn’t compute in my head as something I’ll need.

Whereas when I went to the cadets, I was learning about how to defend myself, how to look after things, learning proper skills. So, although I was naughty and what have you, I gained a sense of where I wanted to go. Boxing kept me fit and the cadets taught me discipline and skills. 

Billy Billingham at eleven. Destined for a career in the military
‘Billy’ at eleven. Destined for a career in the military

TM: Tell us about that initial training for the paras, it was pretty intense for your age?

BB: I remember going there, I was about 17 at the time and weighed about eight stone because I was boxing at that level so I kept the weight off and because I wanted to join the paratroop regiment, the medical team said you have to be ten stone. So I stopped boxing, and I started taking all this weight gain stuff. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I never got in as a junior, I went in as an adult at 17 and a half.

I remember being in the lineup, there was about seventy of us and I was really skinny, the rest of them were like men. I was very intimidated, I remember thinking, shit I’m out of my depth here. But, as the weeks went by, there was 50 of us left, and it started to give me encouragement and hope, confidence if you like. And so it went on and while it was really hard physically, I took to it quite well and I was really enjoying it.

Mentally it was hard, thinking can I keep going, can I keep doing this? But I was getting better and better, to the point that, out of the seventy, there were only seven of us originals that finished. And out of that, I became the champion recruit, which to me was an amazing achievement, but I was just glad to get to the end if I’m honest.

I always said to myself, if I fail one piece and have to go back I’m never going to do that again, I’m only going to give it one go, I said the same with SAS selection and luckily I made it. 

Billy Billingham at his Paras passing out parade, where he was awarded'Champion Recruit' for 497 platoon
‘Billy’ at his Paras passing out parade, where he was awarded ‘Champion Recruit’ for 497 platoon

TM: With your SAS selection, you mention how polite everyone was, which is very different to the representation we see on TV with Who dares Wins…

BB: The difference between anything else I’ve done in the military and going to the SAS is similar to a footballer. You start off at a lower league team, but, you always want to go to the top, and that’s what the SAS is, it’s on a world level, not just UK scale, that’s a fact. The SAS regiment is leagues above everybody, it really is, and I’ve worked with most Special Forces around the world.

When I went to do SAS selection, I was ready for it, fitness I had no problem at all, it was the mental side that really got to me. The thing that caught me out most of all about it was when you’re an army recruit, you get shouted and screamed at and you have to keep going, keep pushing to your absolute limits.

In the SAS they’ll just ask you to do it. It’s about you, it’s about self-motivation, the person who can get up and get on with the job without being pushed, that’s what they’re looking for. That’s what a lot of people can’t handle and I struggled with it initially. If you turn around and say “well I’m not doing it”, in the paras you’d get your head ripped off, in the SAS they say “ok no problem, off you go, we’ll get you a car, get you back to where you need to be.” It’s weird and a lot of people couldn’t handle that.

A lot of people haven’t got enough motivation to get off their arse and really want it enough. I did, I found it strange initially but, I really enjoyed it and I really pushed myself to the limits. I had this thing in my head, that the first phase of selection is the hill phase, navigating through the mountains carrying a house on your back, and I thought if I get through that, I’m in. But I was wrong, it’s not how it works, you don’t even get looked at, that’s just a filter to cut down the numbers before you go to the jungle.

The jungle was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. Because I convinced myself it’s easy and I’ve done it all before, but it was relentless, there was no criticism or encouragement, so you never really knew how you were doing, but, everything you did was scrutinised, they were watching all the time.

It was really hard, very difficult, the sleep deprivation, from the moment you stepped off the helicopter to the moment you got back on five weeks later, you count every step as you go through the jungle as you navigate, there’s a lot going on. People don’t realise, I didn’t realise. 

Billy Billingham in Oman with 3 Paras in 1986
‘Billy’ in Oman with the Paras in 1986

TM: But you took to the jungle quite well didn’t you in comparison to others?

BB: I did, I loved it. A lot of people don’t like the claustrophobia, the stinky sweaty nature of it, with creatures crawling up you. I actually loved, I found it very tranquil, listening to all the noises of the different animals, creatures running about your feet, it didn’t bother me at all.

I really loved it and I’ve spent a massive part of my army career in the jungle. I’ve been to Belize nine times, I’ve been to Brunei as an instructor, the jungle in Kenya if you want to call that jungle, some people do, and Guyana. So yeah, the jungle was my favourite environment. 

TM: And now as a TV star, have you seen many come through that selection process that you could really see making it? Obviously, it’s night and day to the real thing?

BB: Yeah… I mean don’t get me wrong these men and women go through one hell of a friggin process. The comparison with the SAS, it’s not the physical side, it’s the mental side of things. It’s us trying to break them down to the point that we can really get to know who that person is, to get deep into their character. That’s what SAS selection is, it’s about getting to know their character, the real person.

We can all hide behind a false image for a couple of days, but over a period of time, that’s going to break down. Would any of them from the show actually go far enough to get in the SAS? I don’t know, I wouldn’t like to say, because it’s such a short process. It’s amazing what they do, but, the only comparisons are finding their true character, the physical side. Yes, it is really hard, but in selection, it’s over a six month period, not two weeks. 

But with the TV show, none of it’s staged, none of it’s scripted, we don’t know anything about these people. So you start off going through their life, finding what makes them uncomfortable, get them out of their comfort zones. And, it’s really interesting, finding out some of their backstories, because it’s the classic never judge a book by its cover. Because someone who comes across like a hard-faced f**ker, you find out they’ve been through a really dark time to get where they are. So it’s a great mental process.

Billy Billingham with the other boys from SAS: Who Dares Wins
‘Billy’ with the other boys from SAS: Who Dares Wins

TM: Is it hard not to lose it when you get the cocky ones in?

BB: I mean again, I don’t stage any of that mate, I wear my heart on my sleeve and if I feel someone’s being a dick or acting the hardman, I do go at him, as I would in normal daily life. That’s not for TV, forget the camera and everything else. It’s about how I’m feeling, I can’t tolerate somebody with that cocky attitude.

TM: Well, you can see that! Given how much the world has changed in say the last thirty years, do you think we’ve all gone a bit soft to some degree?

BB: Yeah I mean with political correctness we’re all too scared to say this or that and it’s a shame. We can’t be honest, that’s the world we’re living in right now, everyone’s scared to be honest because of the backlash that comes from it. Yeah, we have gone soft, we’ve lost the male role model now.

If you think about it, when I was a kid, you would go out and talk to older people and you’d listen and learn certain things, but now we’re too scared, we’re too scared to let our kids talk to an elderly man sat on a park bench… and the old man looks around and the first thing he says is “where are your parents?”

It’s ridiculous, we’ve lost all that. We’re in the age of the internet, it’s so hard, people go on about the millennials, but, they are a different breed. We’re living in a world where everybody believes the world owes them something. We’re a weak society and it’s sad. 

TM: Absolutely. Now, another part of your career was working as a bodyguard for huge celebrity names. How did you develop the situational awareness needed for that job, which is key right?

BB: Absolutely. It’s something that the military instills in you. Third-party awareness, understanding your surroundings and looking beyond what’s directly in front of you. It gives you an amazing sixth sense. When things don’t feel right then take a moment and recalibrate. We don’t get it right all the time but it does enhance that skill that you have.

Going into the security world paid dividends for me. Working with celebrities, you soon learn it’s not about being aggressive and rolling around on the floor with people, it’s about protecting an image, a family, knowing what their dislikes are, keeping them away from making a fool of themselves in public, that’s what you’re really concentrating.

Don’t get me wrong you’ve got to be capable to roll on the floor if shit happens, but, if you’re a good bodyguard, your awareness identifies where the problem is and you go round it, you avoid it. I’m not the biggest guy in the world, I can handle myself, but, I’ve never had to roll around on the floor with anybody because I can smell danger.

If you look into a crowd of a thousand people and ninety-nine per cent of them are all smiling, but one’s looking a bit strange and you pick him out and go, ‘you know what, maybe let’s not go anywhere near him’. It’s about identifying that kind of thing, based on the skills I’d learned in the military.

TM: And that was an advantage you had over your counterparts, having trained with the elite?

BB: Massively, because you say bodyguard and everyone thinks six foot six, v-shape, big muscles, shades and you know that’s the thing, you look like a bodyguard. And so if I was about to attack your client, then I know where the bodyguard is for a start… most of them are just big lumps, it’s really not about that.

It’s about knowledge and experience and being able to think outside of the box and be able to react to crisis type management, and a lot of them can’t do that. 

Mark'Billy' Billingham driving a military jeep

TM: Can people, in general, be more vigilant do you think, what would you recommend?

BB: They can be mate. Put your phone down in public when you’re out and about. The number of people walking around with their heads down, with absolutely no idea what’s going on around them. Look for the unusual, be more aware.

We tend to know, the amount of time you hear someone say, ‘I thought something wasn’t right’ or ‘I felt something’ and I would say to anybody if you feel something ain’t right, then take a second to have a look around. Being more aware of what’s around you, wherever you are instead of having your head stuck in a frigging phone.

TM: In the book, you mention how Tom Cruise and Sean Penn were pretty dialled in?

BB: To be honest all the celebs I’ve worked with have been pretty realistic, down to earth people. Sean’s very acute, he’s very wise, he loves the military, he’s a smart guy, very streetwise, he ain’t just an actor. He’s lived a life and is very street aware, Tom [Cruise] is the same, very respectful. If I was doing anything in terms of what my job was and my knowledge, he’d listen to it. 

TM: And you were actually in one of Sean’s movies… 

BB: That was bonkers. The first time I actually appeared in a movie, it got cut, which I’m glad it did. It was actually with Brad [Pitt]. They put me in as an extra in, The Tree of Life. I was playing the part of a gambler or something, the whole gambling scene got cut out, that was the first time. It was a spur of the moment thing, he just threw me in.

With Sean for The Gunman, it was the same. Sean never told me what he wanted me to do, it was weird.

I remember having this big meeting, all the actors were there going through the script, and it came to me and I thought I can’t say this in the American dialect, so I said to Sean, “I wouldn’t say that” and he was like, “what would you say”, and I was like, in a British way, “guys grab your fucking weapons.” So I was allowed to add all my own lines to it. So it was great, but a very weird experience.

It’s a different world but it was an absolute honour to have been there with people like Ray Winstone, Idris Elba, Sean himself, Javier Bardem and Mark Rylance.

TM: Can we just quickly talk about your MBE as well? That must have been a proud moment?

BB: It was mate yeah. People ask me why I got it. There was a number of reasons, one was for my part during the London bombings, but mainly for the rescue of the hostages in Iraq. What was funny about it was the fact that I got put forward for this award, but it was at the time I’d left full time in the SAS, but, I was still part-time, I didn’t leave the SAS till 2015, so instead of serving 27 years I probably did 35. 

And when I was doing the stuff with Brad and Angie I got the letter from the lady-in-waiting, inviting me down to the Palace and I feel rude now, but I didn’t go because I was too busy so I ignored it. Then I got one the next year and by the time I got the fourth one in 2011, the lady-in-waiting was like ‘get your arse down here, you’ve left Her Majesty waiting for four years’.

I hadn’t told my Mum and Dad any of this and luckily they were still alive, so I said to them I’ve been invited to this thing at Windsor Castle do you want to come along. My dad was like, “what?” So we went and beforehand they read out the citation of why you’re getting the award and I can remember seeing my dad’s face thinking what’s all this? Even I was chuckling to myself thinking yeah I did that and I did this. Her Majesty even said, “Been busy, Billy?” it was very cool. 

TM: We always ask for a bit of wisdom, but your mantra – Always a little further – seems appropriate if you want to explain that?

BB: Well people say ‘if you put your mind to it, you can achieve anything’, but that’s not true if you go for something, by putting yourself on the start line, it puts you in a better position to achieve something. And, by starting something other avenues open up.

Always go that little bit further than you think you can, don’t put yourself down, don’t let anybody else put you down. Give it a go, and even if you don’t get to your goal, you’ll definitely be in a better place than when you started that’s for sure.

The Hard Way: Adapt Survive and Win by Mark ‘Billy’ Billingham published by Simon & Schuster is out to buy now.

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