SAS instructor and author Billy Billingham, 57, on getting crotch rot in the jungle, guarding the A-list and how he escaped a life of crime.
You’re in the Vietnam jungle for this series of SAS: Who Dares Wins. Is it the toughest location?
Without a shadow of a doubt. You’ve got the temperature, which is like stepping into a steam room fully clothed. Then you put a Bergen backpack on your back, which has 60-odd pounds in it. You’ve got the visibility; it’s hard to navigate where you are because everything looks the same.
And nothing likes you – the plants want to sting you and cover you in rashes, the insects want to eat, bite and stick to you. On top of that, you’ve got to do some of the most horrendous tasks all based on people’s fears. If you can survive in the jungle you can survive anywhere.
Have you ever had crotch rot?
Yes. You get it between your legs from marching all day long and you literally put handfuls of nappy cream there to keep it clean and sterile. Prickly heat too. You’ve got the Bergen on your back and your rifle in your hands so you can’t even scratch. It’s torment. You’re constantly wet because you’re sweating all the time.
You have two sets of clothing – one is wet, one is dry, so as soon as you can get into your bed, you get naked, check each other over for ticks and leeches, dry yourself off, get in your dry kit and get into bed. If you’re too lazy, it’ll turn into infestation.
How does it feel to be the new chief instructor?
It’s natural progress for me. I’ve actually done it for real anyway. I’ve been an instructor and chief instructor in the parachute regiment and the SAS. It was just falling back on all those skills I already had. And it’s such a great team with Foxy, Rudy and Chris Oliver now. It’s a great job.
Do you all genuinely get on?
We do. It’s like being back in the military again. They should do a programme just on the banter we have behind the scenes. We’re really ribbing into each other all the time.
Do you stay in touch with ex-host Ant Middleton?
Yeah, I hear from him now and again, he’s doing well. While we were in the jungle we sent him a birthday message.
You left school at 13, didn’t you?
I got kicked out of school at 13. I grew up in a poor family but there’s never an excuse for being as naughty as I was. I got into gangs thinking that was a way to be a tough guy. I was getting in fights and trouble with the law. And then, thinking I was really clever, I glued the maths teacher to the chair and got thrown out of school. I enjoyed the cadets because I was learning how to do navigation, first aid, and could see how it was going to help me. And I was able to change my direction by joining the military.
Do you ever wonder where you’d be without the forces?
I hate to think where I’d be. I wouldn’t be sat here speaking to you. At the age of 15, I got stabbed, nearly died. And that really opened my eyes to stop this nonsense. I know I was the one that was wrong; I didn’t get in to the wrong crowd, I was the wrong crowd. My family was going through hell, my mum was working all the time to put bread on the table while I was wreaking havoc.
You’ve got six kids. What kind of dad are you?
Fantastic. I’m always active and just doing the right thing based on all the things I got wrong in life.
Do you split your time between Hereford and Florida?
Yeah, my wife is American, and we have a charity and business there. We’ve just launched a new military-inspired travel line called Deux Mains. So everything from travel bags to credit card holders. It’s made by fantastic craftsmen and women out in Haiti. The idea is to empower people.
You’ve written a second novel…
Survive To Fight is my second Matt Mason novel. Matt starts off in the military doing SAS-type roles and then leaves, going into conservation. I love it, it’s very therapeutic. It’s not like a crazy James Bond, it’s the reality of that world.
You’ve been a bodyguard for A-list celebrities.
Yes, I went from being below the parapet to being in every magazine and having people take photographs of you all the time. You’re protecting their life to a degree but really protecting their image more. You’ve got to assume the worst because you only ever have one opportunity to stop it. Everybody’s under some sort of threat. Someone might not like Brad Pitt or might be overzealous. But mainly it’s making sure they can have their own family time and live a normal life.
Have you stayed friends with any of them?
Yes, all of them. Every now and again, we’ll bump into each other. I was in New York recently about to meet up with Sean Penn but unfortunately, it didn’t work out. There’s always a quick call or message saying how are you during at Christmas and that sort of stuff.
SAS: Who Dares Wins – Jungle Hell, Mondays at 9pm on Channel 4
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