Special Forces – Ultimate Hell Week, the reprise of quality British television?

After the not-so-recent decline of British television it came as a surprise to come across a series with true gumption and grit. The BBC’s “Special Forces – Ultimate Hell Week” offered the initial thrill of seeing 29 people in pain and suffering, alongside our almost morbid fascination with the special forces, but upon further inspection, the show delivered this and much, much more.

As someone with friends in the forces I was automatically drawn to this, because although we think we know what goes on behind those firmly shut doors, we really don’t. We can be told of bravery, fear, pain and heroism – but we can’t even begin to understand. Please do not assume I am under the impression that this 6 episode show can reflect the lives of service men and women of the special forces, it can’t – a fact that can be re-enforced by a friend of mine who recently attended the West End Heroes charity gala at The Dominion Theatre, though a light-hearted affair, supports an incredibly worthy cause.

The six episodes each brought a specialist instructor from six of the toughest special forces around the world; The American Navy Seals, Israeli YAMAM, elite special forces of the Philippines, Russian special forces (Spetsnaz), and the British SAS. The contestants spent 48 hours with each instructor, enduring both physical and psychological challenges – to put it mildly.

What it taught us…

The women can bloody do it 

Many of the forces that each instructor represented revealed that they categorically do not accept women in that particular force. The inner-feminist within me is screaming “if they can physically pass, then why the hell not?!” – however, practicality has to reign here. The reason women are not accepted is largely because they are not physically able to carry the required weight over the required periods of time. This was undeniably true, Miller (female) displayed this characteristic throughout the process, yes, she shone in all other areas, but she struggled carrying the weight, fact. Instructors did not at any point criticise the females ability within mentally focused challenges, or even their speed during individual races. But the women in this programme did us proud. 2 of the final 6 contestants were female, the Navy Seal instructor picked Miller as the team leader because he could “tell who’s got it”, and the proof is in the pudding, watch it and see who wins the whole series.

There’s no place for arrogance in the Special Forces

There were two particular points in the series where this fact shone through to me. Firstly, during the Australian SAS episode, the instructor was keen to find the fears of each contestant – but boy oh boy, he did not take kindly to the cocky, arrogant attitude that one contestant exuded. This candidate was quickly sent home, his parting comment was “he tried to get me to admit my fears, I haven’t got any.” Sure you don’t, buddy. In the last episode of the series the remaining 6 contestants were subjected to the British SAS interrogation training, here they were allowed to answer 4 questions and 4 only. All other questions should receive a simple response of “I cannot answer that question sir/ma’am”. One candidate decided his approach was one of arrogance. On being asked to remove his hat – surely a fairly simple task – he refused, and then begrudgingly dropped it on the floor as opposed to handing it to his “captor”. Whether or not this attitude adopted was what he felt was necessary in the situation given, or if he was playing up to the cameras (as his wry smile would suggest), we will never know. But it didn’t do him any favours in the competition, as he was sent home immediately afterwards, and told this sort of behaviour could have sparked aggression in his captors, potentially harming not only himself but his comrades too.

3 parts physical, 7 parts mental?

Although yes, the physical tasks throughout the process were incredibly gruelling, the contestants chosen were labelled as the 29 fittest men and women throughout Britain. So surely, they should be the best equipped for these tasks. However, the real challenge came in the form of the contestants mental strength. Every contestant that left of their own free-will undeniably ‘gave up’.  Though not surprising, and we in no way way blame them for it, they did give up, this was a psychological consented decision, not a physical restriction. A certain candidate took this too far in the opposite direction, when he was withdrawn from a task for medical reasons. His return to the group brought on a ‘heroic’ outburst of “I didn’t want to be in there (the medical tent), I wanted to be with my team”. Though very noble, this outburst occurred while talking over his commanding officer – that’s a big no no – and sent him home. The exit I found the most distressing was one of the most simple. During the SAS interrogation stage contestant Murphy chose to leave the process after she had been blindfolded for 8 hours and then instructed to strip in front of two people she had never come into contact with, who both donned balaclavas. Do we blame her? Absolutely not.

Now that the programme has come to a close I can freely say that yes, it has been eye opening, and I think watching it would definitely be beneficial to people who belittle the forces. But I will also openly say that this series needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, this was one week, the contestants knew at all times that they could leave whenever they wanted, and go home to their ordinary lives. That’s not the case in the real world for these service men and women. So though insightful, this was created for entertainment purposes, and on reflection, that fact leaves me with a rather bitter after-taste.

Claire Miller

Claire Miller


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