Fans of SAS: Who Dares Wins know Mark ‘Billy’ Billingham as one of the tough, no-nonsense leaders who drive recruits to the edge of mental and physical exhaustion. David Johns talks to the local man who went from crime-riddled teenager to Special Forces high-flier, A-lister bodyguard and TV star
Cover image: Billy Billingham photographed by Glyn Dewis www.glyndewis.com, youtube.com/glyndewis
If you can’t swim, are afraid of heights and tend to walk the other way when you see a spider, you’ll probably be watching the new series of SAS: Who Dares Wins with me from behind the sofa. Set in the searing heat and brutal terrain of the Jordanian desert, candidates taking part in the ultimate reality TV show are enduring the kind of challenges, physical and mental, that members of the military’s elite Special Forces are trained to deal with and overcome as part of the job.
And driving the civilian recruits to the edge of exhaustion are the Directing Staff (DS) team, including ex-Special Forces instructor Mark ‘Billy’ Billingham. “The show gets harder and tougher for the candidates with every series,” said Billy when we talked shortly before the new series launched on Channel 4. “We take people to the depths of their mental and physical fears, to confront them and deal with them – we like to call it turning mass destruction into mass reconstruction, peeling back the layers and as a result making them better people. It is all about the people.”
Billy, who grew up in Walsall and now splits his time living in Hereford and the US with his American wife, added: “On the show we help people through the dark spaces in their lives. Every person who takes part comes away a better person. Mind you, if someone needs to be told they’re a prat, I will tell them they’re a prat!”
On a scale of one to 10, Billy says SAS: Who Dares Wins is around a seven for its realism to the training that UK Special Forces have to go through. The new series is especially demanding being set in Jordan where Billy underwent Special Ops training himself. Looking back on his youth, he admits that he “went rogue”. Living on a tough estate in Walsall his mum and dad couldn’t control him and he was in constant trouble with the police and gangs and was even stabbed in the back at the age of 15.
Things started to change for the better, he says, when he tried to steal from an old man who instead of reporting him gave him his time and befriended him. With encouragement, Billy started boxing which laid the foundation for the resilience and routine required by the military. The experience, he says, proves that everyone needs someone to give them a second chance in life.
Billy joined the Parachute Regiment in 1983 and served until 1991 holding various roles, including patrol commander for operational tours in worldwide locations He joined the Special Air Service (SAS) in 1991 as a Mountain Troop specialist and was responsible for planning and executing operations and training in the likes of Iraq, Afghanistan, South America and Africa.
He led a number of hostage rescues and was awarded an MBE by the Queen and received the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery. Billy is a certified Special Forces instructor. His other skills make for an impressive CV – Counter-Terrorist Sniper instructor, Advanced Evasive Driving instructor, Tracking, Jungle Warfare and Navigation instructor, Demolition and Sabotage instructor, skiing Instructor, Mountaineering, Rock Climbing, Abseiling and Ice Climbing instructor, Combat Survival and RTI Instructor and Counter-Terrorist instructor.
After serving 20 years in the SAS, Billy became a bodyguard and looked after celebrity A-listers such as Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Sir Michael Caine, Jude Law, Kate Moss, Hulk Hogan, Russell Crowe and Tom Cruise.
He admits his role in SAS: Who Dares Wins almost didn’t happen. For a man who has spent his life taking on new challenges, Billy was reluctant to join the DS team when the first series of the show was being planned. “I had done some bits of previous TV work, but I didn’t like the idea of the show to be honest. As soon as they said the word SAS, I said I’m not interested as all the previous stuff on TV which was supposedly based around the SAS was so cheesy. So, I didn’t take part in that first series. The TV people kept approaching me though and sent me copies of the shows – and I thought to myself ‘I wouldn’t mind doing this’. And I’ve kind of grow into it ever since.”
The show has proved a huge hit with viewers and is such compulsive viewing that it has spun off American and Australian versions as well as the hugely popular Celebrity SAS series. Billy stars in all formats and has earned the image of being ultra-tough and competitive but also sympathetic on occasions in the show’s mirror room – the space where the DS confront candidates who are struggling or have other issues.
He says he found the mirror room sessions the most difficult to handle initially because being put in front of the camera and having to talk rather than be out in the thick of the action all felt a bit alien to him. The fact that he is now a recognised face from the show has also been tricky to deal with at times. “People come up to me now and know who I am but sometimes it can be difficult,” he says.
“One thing I don’t like at all is being stared at. I was with my wife at the airport in New York and there was a huge guy staring at me. He didn’t stop, so I went up and confronted him and told him I didn’t like that he was staring. He just said he was sorry but wasn’t I the guy off the TV?”
Life now for Billy couldn’t be more different. From being in the SAS and not being able to tell anyone, even family, what he was doing around the world, he is now free to show and share who he was, and is, on TV. Of his time in the SAS he says: “Obviously it was tough and I could have died several times and been captured but you just have to push yourself to go that bit further. Everyone is stronger than they think they are.”
Being a TV personality has made Billy’s own children “very proud” he says. He’s not one to dwell on the past but admits that his biggest regret is not having had the time to see his kids grow up. “I was all over the world, in places like the Balkans and the Middle East and the family suffered,” he says. “My kids are wonderful and we get on great – and now I have grandchildren and I am making up for all the time I missed with my own kids by giving them as much of me as I can.” Billy was away from home so much during his time with the SAS that he wanted his kids to know why dad had been missing, so he wrote a book. Titled The Hard Way: Adapt, Survive and Win, it was published in 2019 and quickly became a top-seller. In the book, Billy reveals his ‘no BS’ approach to his time in the military.
DON’T BE A DICK
‘No BS’ equates to three rules which Billy says everyone should follow. First, tell the truth and accept the truth. “Some people are just too scared to tell others the truth,” explains Billy. Second, take it on the chin and bounce back, but don’t keep making the same silly mistakes over and over. Third, be a good person. Or as Billy put it: “Don’t be a dick!”
Not surprisingly with his background, Billy says he is “always looking for a challenge”. So, how about breaking the record for the highest-ever parachute jump? “It’s been something I’ve talked about doing for some time as a science project” he says. “And I’m hopeful we will finally go for it this year.”
With the motto ‘Who Dares Wins’, is there any doubt that Billy won’t make the ultimate leap into the record books!