Peaky Blinders meets Band of Brothers in SAS Rogue Heroes, a rocking retelling of how the specialist British Army unit was forged during the Second World War. Director Tom Shankland, producer Stephen Smallwood and executive producer Karen Wilson reveal how they made it.
As BBC drama SAS Rogue Heroes opens, a huge convoy of British army trucks snakes through the vast Egyptian desert. The noise of whirring engines is accompanied by the traditional military sound of drums and flutes, yet moments later, when the convoy grinds to a halt after running out of fuel, it becomes clear this series isn’t going to adhere to the look and sounds of standard wartime dramas.
As the frustration of eccentric young officer David Stirling (Connor Swindells) boils over in the sweltering heat, resulting in an almighty scream, his rage is matched by the thrashing guitars and tubthumping drums of AC/DC’s If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It).
In the hands of writer Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) and director Tom Shankland (Les Misérables), it’s a sign of how this edgy, stylish and action-packed drama – about how a band of brothers came together in the darkest days of the Second World War to form the British Army’s Special Air Service (SAS) – will play out across its six-episode run.
“When you’re approaching a true story, particularly a Second World War story, you could approach it with a very reverential hat on and try to lean into the gravitas, the tragedy and the sadness,” Shankland tells DQ. “I felt that was not the approach, because I didn’t feel the real people. I wanted to find a style that leant into their swagger, their ‘Who Dares Wins’ mantra and their craziness. The overall style had to express something of their maverick, crazy individuality.”
Based on the book of the same name by Ben Macintyre, the BBC series begins in the thick of war in Cairo in 1941, where Stirling (Connor Swindells) is bored. Convinced that traditional commando units don’t work, he creates a plan that flies in the face of the accepted rules of modern warfare, and fights for permission to recruit the toughest, boldest and brightest soldiers for a small undercover unit that will create mayhem behind enemy lines.
Work on the series – which is supported by the Special Air Service Regimental Association – began when production company Kudos optioned the rights to Macintyre’s book and then tapped Knight to write the scripts, knowing he had an interest in this period of history.
“There are so many things I love about the story. It’s about real people and it speaks to themes that are still relevant now: male friendship, rebels, homosexuality and toxic masculinity,” says executive producer Karen Wilson, co-MD of Kudos. “With the world as polarised as it is now, there’s something nice about dipping into a world where there’s a very obvious good and evil, so we knew what we were fighting against. There were all these other layers to dig away at in those characters. It’s just a story that needed to be told. Those guys wouldn’t call themselves heroes, but I think they are.”
Shankland joined the project with the intention of using editing, music and the mise en scène to express the bold and rebellious spirit he found in the true story of the men who founded the SAS and in Knight’s scripts. Part of that approach came from his desire for the series to appeal to a younger audience than might be expected to tune into a series set during the Second World War.
But he never felt the world of the show should be a macho one. “A lot of these guys, they’re much more complex than that. It was never about being the strongest and meanest guy,” the director notes. “Those weren’t the qualities that made you the best candidate for the SAS. It was all about leaning into things that felt a little more modern or finding a way to speak to people in a language that had a bit of contemporary pace and swagger to it, while still making it very authentic.”
“When Steven Knight writes a wartime drama, you know it isn’t going to be traditional,” Wilson says. “It’s what we all set out to do. A soundtrack like that just contemporises something set a long time ago, and it brings joy and humour. We don’t shy away from the traditional vibe, but it’s about getting that mixture to give it what I hope is a special sauce.”
From the outset, Wilson and Kudos (Humans, Broadchurch) knew they were embarking on the biggest series ever made by the company. But while they prepared meticulously for the demands of filming a period military drama in the desert, there were some challenges they couldn’t predict.
“What we hadn’t seen coming was Covid. We knew we needed real desert with scale, and we knew that was in Morocco, and then Covid hit and impacted us in the UK,” Wilson explains. “But while drama found a way to continue in the UK, the borders remained shut in Morocco. It became an absolute logistical exercise, working out how and when could we get there.”
The pandemic forced the production team to reverse the shooting schedule, filming in the UK in March and April and then moving cast and crew to Morocco once the borders opened. The switch meant production designer Richard Bullock had to create interior sets in the UK that would match Moroccan exteriors that hadn’t been shot yet, working only from photographs and a couple of short reccies. Stephan Pehrsson, the DOP, also had to recreate hot desert sunlight inside a British studio, while British airfields doubled as deserts during nighttime shoots.
The production’s arrival in North Africa in May coincided with “eye-boiling” temperatures that continued to rise and daily sandstorms that appeared on the first day of shooting.
Distributed by Banijay Rights, the series reunited Shankland with producer Stephen Smallwood, the pair having previously worked together on fellow BBC drama The Serpent. On that series, they faced a catalogue of delays and challenges as they battled actor availability, Thailand’s rainy season and the arrival of the pandemic. And more “madness” was to come on Rogue Heroes.
“By the time we got to Morocco, I was saying, ‘If The Serpent is 10 [in terms of production difficulties], we’re at five,’” says Smallwood. “But with each passing week it crept up. Maybe The Serpent still edges it, but by a mere 0.0001%. There were one or two challenges, but it was all for a good cause.”
“We were very gung-ho and wanted to keep the SAS ‘Who Dares Wins’ mantra very much alive in the filming process, so we dared to shoot the sandstorm, and some of that footage is in the show. It’s amazing,” Shankland says. “But, inevitably, shooting nuanced drama in a sandstorm wasn’t an option so, by the time we got out of the desert in July, we had a run of two weeks where the coolest temperature was 45°C and the hottest was definitely north of 50.
“It was a little challenging trying to keep Second World War vintage jeeps up and running, racing over the desert, and keeping 2021 human beings alive and well and fed, watered and alert in those conditions. We had an amazing Moroccan crew and we made it work, so there was a very good spirit. That was the tip of the iceberg of some of the craziness.”
In normal times, continues Smallwood, nobody would shoot in 50°C under the most extreme circumstances, with actors in thick woollen uniforms and overcoats. “But in the end we had to do it,” he says. “The people we were telling stories about managed to do it while being shot at. We were doing it while eating bacon sandwiches.”
The cast and crew began life in Morocco in separate hotels in an attempt to keep Covid at bay. When it inevitably began to spread, a third hotel was used for those who had tested positive.
“Then it all became very complicated,” says Smallwood. “There are scenes in the show where Tom only had half the actors to shoot, and the other half are doubles or not there at all and [were added using] green screen. But you would never know which those are.”
When he first read the scripts and tried to think about how the series might be made, Smallwood says “true horror” went through his mind. But together he, Knight and Shankland found a way to make a show they could afford to make – and one that looks fantastic too.
“You always want more money but you deal with what you’ve got,” Smallwood continues. “Tom’s made it look impressive. There are a lot of tricks used, but even the tricks cost money. We spent a lot of money on CGI and, when you see later episodes, you’ll see some very impressive action sequences involving exploding aircraft. It’s all quite impressive but it costs a lot of money.”
“Everyone was enormously ambitious for the scale of this and delivering a sense of being in this incredibly vast and sometimes terrifying theatre of war in the desert, where your adversary is not just [German field marshal] Rommel but also the desert,” Shankland says. “It always felt like it had to be a wonderfully visual, immersive experience. I’m very happy when it needs to feel big, but a brilliantly written five-page, two-hander is just as epic in its meaning and significance as some of our epic battles. I loved that about the show. You’ve got this wonderful focus on character but it also goes to some awesome, spectacular places.”
One of the most challenging scenes comes in episode three, where 60 people get onto three planes in the middle of a sandstorm, the planes take off and then the soldiers jump out with their parachutes. Based on a real incident in which many people died, the tragic scene was key to the SAS story could not be left out – and Shankland wanted to make it as real as possible. Stunt coordinator Neil Finnighan, together with the director and the visual effects team, found a way to shoot the parachute jumps by raising shipping containers into the air, cutting a small door in one side and having stunt performers jump out while wearing descender rigs, with Second World War-style parachutes opening above their heads.
“There are so many moments in that sequence that are absolutely real and in-camera, and then you’re adding layers of visual effects and special effects with wind machines. But I’m really thrilled we got there with that,” Shankland says. “It was probably shot over six months. People were probably still being dragged through thorn bushes on the last day of the shoot somewhere. That was a big one.”
Wilson describes casting Rogue Heroes as “assembling the Avengers,” with Swindells heading an ensemble cast that also includes Jack O’Connell, Alfie Allen, Sofia Boutella and Dominic West. She puts their fizzing screen chemistry down to the time they spent together in a hotel in Morocco, as pandemic regulations meant all the actors on the show stayed together for the entire shoot, no matter how many scenes they were required for.
“We weren’t operating in a universe where actors could come in for two days and fly back to the UK,” Shankland says. “Right down to our core gang of extras, all the guys – and it was mainly guys – were in one hotel in the desert, and our military advisor Ben [Simmons] would take them out to do a boot camp every morning in the desert. The spirit was very real and it was forged because they genuinely were a bunch of guys largely on their own in the desert having to survive – in some degree of comfort – but there was no version of going home. They were all together.”
Save for Boutella, who plays Eve, a French intelligence officer, the cast is dominated by men. Wilson also provides a female perspective behind the scenes, and she says it was important Eve always had a point of view and something to say about the events of the story.
“When we started talking to the BBC about it, [chief content officer] Charlotte Moore was really clear that there wasn’t any point doing anything tokenistic or pretending women were part of this story, because they weren’t,” the exec says. “I tried to bring a slightly different perspective. Steve always wanted to write the female character as a composite of other real women who took part in the war, and we just made sure that whenever she was on screen, everything she brought was about story. That was important to me.”
The series, which launches on BBC One this Sunday, has been designed for multiple seasons. Shankland won’t be returning, however, as he is beginning work on Netflix’s Italian drama The Leopard, which will film in the more clement surroundings of Rome and Sicily.
If there is a second season, “there are many practical things we could do [differently] but I also wouldn’t change anything,” Wilson says. “It’s really special, making something like that through such adversity and with such good humour, for the product to be as epic and amazing as it is.”
Smallwood, however, may have one or two suggestions, including replacing the engines in the show’s period vehicles with more modern engines better able to cope with desert conditions. “I certainly would say I will never go to the desert to shoot in June and July ever again,” he adds. “I knew it before we went and it proved to be true. It’s a nightmare.”