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SAS man Mark Billingham explains how to survive brutal training: 'Embrace your surroundings, don't fight them'

(Image credit: © Vance Jacobs 2016)

Ex SAS man Mark Billingham tests a new group of ordinary men in series 2 of C4's SAS: Who Dares Wins and knows immediately who's not going to make it

In a career that spanned more than two decades, former SAS soldier Mark Billingham travelled all over the world completing top secret missions and even received an MBE for services to his country. Now he’ll be heading deep into the rainforests of Ecuador to see if 25 ordinary British men have what it takes to pass the brutal SAS selection process in Channel 4's SAS: Who Dares Wins...

This second series will be very different to the first, as it will take place in the jungle. What different challenges will the recruits face? "The humidity and the heat are unbelievably difficult to deal with. These guys are going to be constantly wet and uncomfortable and some of them won’t be able to handle that they can’t have a shower every couple of hours. They’re going to be sweaty, wet and stinking. After a couple of days you stink of urine because of the ammonia in your sweat, lots of blokes can’t handle that. They like to groom themselves and they don’t like it at all!'

What other unexpected challenges does the jungle have in store? "People who’ve never been in that environment will find it very claustrophobic. Everything’s so close, you can’t see anything for the trees! The noise of the forest is deafening, the creatures and the insects screaming around you, it’s quite overpowering the first time you experience it.

"You have to embrace your surroundings rather than fight them. When I was doing my jungle training I found the noise of the insects quite soothing, but it drove other blokes crazy!"

Presumably dehydration is also a real danger? "Imagine spending 24 hours in a sauna, walking up and down with a house on your back, then being slapped in the face with sticks – that’s what it’s like. If you’re not taking enough fluid then as time goes on you get more tired, then you’re on a loser."

What do you remember from your training? Did you ever think you were going to give up? “Everybody feels like giving up at one stage. It goes through your mind, how much further can I go? You’ve got to be determined. If you have one element of doubt then you won’t make it. Everyone needs a bit of luck as well. You’ll end up with an injury at some stage, or a situation where by the luck of the gods you get through it.”

How did you get lucky during your training? “We were running through the mountains and I was coming up to a marker and everything just went. I could see the truck and suddenly it was like Mike Tyson had punched me in the face and I couldn’t walk. Luckily it was the last marker, but if they’d told me there was one more I would have failed.”

You’ve trained SAS soldiers for many years, you must be good at spotting who’s going to make it and who isn’t… "It’s something you fine tune. You can tell how long someone will last by someone’s mannerisms and well-being. If I had 10 people, I could tell you who would go and who would stay and get at least eight right, without a doubt."

What are the tell-tale signs of someone who won’t make it? “Everyone’s a rabbit in the headlights at first, but some people get used to it quickly and embrace it. Some of them are so far out of their comfort zone, it’s written all over their face, then they’ll start whinging, 'Oh I’ve got a blister,' every two minutes. They’re waiting for the floodgate to open and then they’ll leave. They don’t want to be the first person to give in but as soon as one hand goes up, they’ll fall like dominoes."

Do any of them just admit it's too hard? “Hardly ever. They’ll say they don’t like the drill sergeant, they don’t like being shouted out, they don’t like being told what to do. It’s all rubbish, they just haven’t got the balls to admit to it.”

Do you ever get someone you don’t expect to last long surprise you? “There’s always a shocker in the locker that’s for sure. It’s always the little timid quiet guy who doesn’t say anything at all. Looks like a rabbit in the headlights, but just seems to plough on, doesn’t say a lot, doesn’t show a lot of emotion. There’s always one in every pack, there’ll be one you’d put money on not making it, but he’ll be one of the strongest ones! I’ve seen a bloke who’s worked in an office most of his life come along and there’s a little devil inside him, but that’s very rare indeed.”

Do you think people have a misconception about what someone in the SAS looks like? “Definitely. A lot of these really brawny blokes are just sculptured polystyrene, they look the part, but there’s nothing behind them. It’s the skinny guy you’ve got to watch. You ask many people what they think an SAS bloke looks like, they’ll say 6 foot, V-shaped, 6 pack.. blah blah blah..

“It’s not like that at all. It’s the bald bloke with the stupid moustache and the pot belly, but behind all that he’s got some great attributes and he’s hard in the fact that he’s willing to be uncomfortable and go the extra mile."

Is it difficult to watch someone break down during training? “It’s not something we enjoy, but it’s part of the process. People hallucinate in the jungle, they wake up having these nightmare fits, all sorts. But the people who don’t make the grade all tend to have learned a hell of a lot about themselves. They’ve become better people, more organised, pushing themselves to a limit they didn’t realise they could do, you know?

What happens if someone’s pushing themselves to hard and you think they’ll harm themselves? “In the real SAS selection process, these blokes push themselves very hard. They are very determined. We test them to breaking point, but there’s a limit. Sometimes you get guys who are trying their hardest and you want them to be able to do it, but it just isn’t happening. You have to call a medic and pull them out before they seriously hurt themselves.”

You must have seen some people come pretty close to the edge during your time? “We were in the jungle once and a few of us ended up contracting leishmaniasis and going to hospital, which is horrible. But one of the lads who’d looked really strong had started to flag in the couple of days and we couldn’t work it out. In hospital they diagnosed him with leukaemia! He was doing everything without knowing he had it. Terrible.”

You’re a family man, did you find it easy fitting that in with your SAS career? “I’ll be honest, no I didn’t. It wasn’t easy to fit the two worlds together. The way the world has changed over the 15 years, life in the regiment has been pretty full-on. So my family did suffer, I was away all the time. But I’m looking forward to being a proper dad again – and a granddad!”

Was it difficult to be away from them? “Of course it was, but that was my choice. I don’t blame it on the regiment, the regiment moves at a million miles an hour and you get off it when you want. At that time it was travelling pretty fast and I didn’t have as much time in the UK as I would have liked. But I did some great things and it’s set me up for the life I have now.”

Did thoughts of your family help push you on when you got in difficult situations? “You want to do good for your family, but when you are there doing operational stuff – which is pretty cheeky at times – you blank your family out completely. It’s hard to say that but it’s true, you can’t afford to be not focused when you’re doing these things.”

Do any of your children want to follow in your footsteps? “I have three daughters and one boy, who wants to be a commercial pilot. My daughters are all hard as nails, they can box, but they’re beautiful and they’re great. So no, none of them followed me!”

I’d imagine your daughter’s partners are always on their best behaviour with you about? “They get the riot act, mate – they know the deal!”

SAS: Who Dares Wins begins on Monday at 9pm on Channel 4