A few weeks ago, when writing about Channel 4’s Celebrity SAS, I suggested that United Kingdom’s new foreign policy under Boris Johnson was to fire the UK’s surplus celebrities at their enemies with a big catapult. In the process I may have become a little bit judgy about that country’s thrusting militarism because of, well, them invading everyone all the time. I mean, there’s a reason I don’t wear a poppy in my byline picture despite the fact it’s company policy.
I’ve a completely different take on Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week – The Professionals (Wednesday, RTÉ One), because the special forces in question are those of our own Army, who are rarely at war with anyone, except perhaps the Curragh golf course or the guards. I’m also an Army brat, so I have lots of insight into their rarefied world that I will share with you in a few paragraphs.
The instructors apparently feared that if they called it Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week, people might assume they meant Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week – Mere Amateurs
But first let us regard the title. Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week – The Professionals is a lot of words, containing both a colon and a dash, and an unnecessary qualification. It suggests a certain amount of endearingly low self-esteem on the part of the featured Irish special-forces instructors, who apparently feared that if they just called it Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week, people might assume they meant Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week – Mere Amateurs or Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week – Some Guys in Fatigues.
Of course, those latter titles are perfectly good descriptors of the poor celebrities. “Celebrity” in this country is a pretty loose term that is barely an upgrade from “my favourite barman” or, indeed, “beloved local oddball”. Many of the celebrities on this show are sportsfolk. They play all of the popular sports: lacrosse, rollerball, golf, quidditch, breakdancing, darts and nationalistic ball-carrying game (I can’t remember the names of all the sports) and thus they’re all pretty fit and healthy. None of them is, for example, a heavily set television writer whose first response to the mildest of perils is to lie flat on his back weeping and shouting “Carry me!” and “Get me nice cheese!”
By this week’s episode the original 18 celebrities seem to have been whittled down to 14. I don’t know how the missing four celebrities died (I missed the last two episodes, but I assume they died), but I guess they left this earth falling from a plane or on fire while simultaneously signing a release form that was retrieved from their charred or plummeting corpse.
The gist of this programme is that the various celebrities must undergo the intense physical challenges and deprivation that a typical Army ranger must undergo as he’s being trained for action or, more likely, to appear in a show like this. I know all about this. I lived for a while on an Army base in my gilded youth. I recall the way in which the Irish Army readied itself for conflict by taking a half-day on Wednesday (and Fridays too if they were on the golf team) while wearing cravats and growing extravagant moustaches and sitting smoking pipes outside the subsidised bars. I may be misremembering this. I also recall being beloved by the whole camp.
Anyway, my militaristic dad would regularly turn up at home after a few days’ absence, wearing a fancy costume and with his face camouflaged. Initially, I just assumed it was some sort of newfangled lifestyle choice (I was an infant of the world), but it turns out he was in charge of the Army Ranger Wing (I’m serious).
Dad made the Army look like great crack. He was always gleefully abseiling down the sides of buildings and leaping out of helicopters into the sea and complaining about how many rounds the A-Team fired without reloading
He made the Army look like great crack. He was always gleefully abseiling down the sides of buildings and leaping out of helicopters into the sea and killing wild animals (mobile food) with his bare hands and complaining about how many rounds the A-Team fired without reloading. He even gave me a go of a machine gun when I was about 10, which you can’t do today because of stupid “laws”. I think I still have it somewhere.
Being in the Army doesn’t look like fun at all in Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week – The Professionals. In fact, another name for this programme could be Throwing Celebrities off a Bridge into a Ravine, because that’s this episode’s first activity. The celebrities who plunge from the bridge are attached to springy ropes because of the aforementioned “laws”, but that doesn’t take away from the terror of their experience. You could, indeed, use much of the footage here for a quizshow segment called Shivering with Cold or Shaking with Fear? Usually, on this programme, the answer is “Both”.
Over the course of the programme, the perfectly pleasant celebrities are dangled from helicopters by ropes and are swung around Mizen Head like big human pendulums and are made to rush into burning buildings to save heavy mannequins from fire despite their lack of gratitude or sentience (the mannequins, not the celebrities). Every now and again one of them has a hood thrown over their head before being extracted from the group and interrogated by glowering authority figures. (I’m familiar with this type of thing from Irish Times internal meetings.)
Then at the end of the show, when finally allowed to sleep, they’re woken in the middle of the night, forced to strip to their underwear, plunged into freezing water and made to carry big logs. This is now a very specific fear of mine that I never had before. It’s possibly a measure of how alienated modern life has become that this sort of pointless recreational hardship is increasingly seen as being filled with meaning. Not to worry: climate change and the destruction of our supply chains will put an end to all that.
Meanwhile, on Selling Ireland’s Most Exclusive Homes (Monday, RTÉ One), in the midst of a housing crisis, silky-voiced estate agents give us the hard sell on multimillion-euro hunting lodges, Georgian getaways and modernist mansions. This programme doesn’t go in the direction I expected.
At no point in their spiels about these vast homes do the estate agents discuss safe rooms, escape tunnels, weapons caches, stockpiling canned goods and unrest in the cities. And at no point does Dermot Whelan, its jaunty narrator, say “And now the angry villagers are building something … It looks like wooden scaffolding!”
Indeed, there’s absolutely nothing at all in this programme about property being theft and the historical inevitability of revolution, which feels, to me, like blatant disregard for RTÉ’s famous sense of “balance”. Still, this programme will be a useful document to have when we’re seeking locations for the various soviets, collectives and death cults of the not-too-distant future. Hell Week, indeed.
Original posted at www.irishtimes.com