By average standards, Mark ‘Billy’ Billingham has had a very intense career.
After 27 years in the military – most spent rising through the ranks of the SAS – he worked as a bodyguard for the likes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, before becoming one of the instructors on Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins.
He’s now teamed up with Dark Horse Wine to encourage consumers to try new things, as part of their Dark Horse Pathfinders campaign.
Billingham, 56, spoke to us about his decades in the British special forces, finding solace in exercise, and why he hates being referred to as ‘a killer’…
Many would find the physical tests you put yourself through quite punishing, but you describe it as self-care. Could you unpack that?
“In the regiment, you’re expected to always be in shape no matter what, and that’s more about the mental state of mind and always being ready to go that little bit further.
That’s my mantra, and it’s also part of the mantra of the SAS. I’ve always tried to push myself beyond my limits.
“After leaving the military, I found it very therapeutic, and I’ll get up and do something every day. Where I live in Wales, I’ll go for a run then have a little swim in the river, or go on a 10-15km walk. It gets me in the right frame of mind, and I can mentally go through my itinerary for the day. If I don’t do it, I feel a bit stale and moody.
“I like doing it first thing – no food, no water, no music – just part of my routine that I’ve done religiously for years. And when I get showered, I feel fresh and as though I’ve already done half a day.”
Would you advise everyone try something along those lines?
“I try to encourage everyone to do something. Because it doesn’t matter what size or shape you are, you can do something.
I’m lucky, as I’ve had quite a few injuries but I can still do quite a bit, and I’ve gone past timing how quick I am – now I do it for me.
“It’s a great way of sorting your mental feelings and keeping yourself stable. The endorphins really do calm you down and put you in a good state of mind.
When you feel good inside, you feel good outside, and even if it’s just walking 15 times across the kitchen, you’ve done something.”
Do you owe that sense of structure to the army, or would you be like that anyway?
“I think I’d be like that anyway. As a kid, I was boxing from age nine and competition fighting from age 11, so I’ve always had that drive and discipline.”
What originally attracted you to the military?
“A number of things. I was born on a council estate in the West Midlands – not to say that’s a bad thing, it isn’t – but I came from a poor family and I was getting in a lot of trouble.
If I didn’t get away from the environment I was in, I was probably not going to end up in a good place.
Then at 11, I discovered the cadets through my brother, and I gravitated towards the structure and the discipline.
“I learned things like navigation and first aid, and that all made sense to me – I could see where it fitted into my life.
In school, it was arithmetic and crossing the t’s and so on, and at a young age I thought, ‘No, this isn’t what I want to be doing, I want to be physically taught something I know I can use, that will benefit both myself and others’.”
What are the greatest misconceptions about the SAS?
“First, the image. Everyone thinks SAS guys are 6ft 6, V-shaped and incredibly built, but I could take anybody into a room and say: ‘There’s 10 people in here, five of them are SAS’, and I guarantee they’d get it wrong.
“I hear on TV that we’re ‘trained killers’ and so on, and that makes my blood boil. We’re people who are trained to a high level to confront horrendous situations, like conflicts and natural disasters, and think outside the box.
Generally, that’s about saving people and making life better – we’re not lunatics pulled out in times of war.”
When you left the military, how hard was it adapting back to civilian life?
“The military is all about planning and organising, and obviously civilian life is just the same, so a lot of the skillset fell into line.
What was difficult for me was that you don’t realise how much you take for granted in the military.
“I remember after leaving, I had a bit of a toothache, so I walked to the dentist and there was a big queue.
When I got to the front, they said, ‘Are you registered?’, so I had to fill in a bunch of paperwork. Then I said, ‘Can I see the dentist now?’, and they said, ‘Yes, we’ll give you an appointment next month’.
I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ In the army, it’s there for you – I found that adjustment difficult.”
What do you think makes a good leader?
“Somebody that knows they don’t have all the answers, no matter how experienced they are.
Every day is a school day, you’re always still learning, and to be a leader you have to have a team, and you have to trust in your team and give them the tools to do their jobs.
A team is full of leaders who lead in different areas – as a leader, you just have to keep them all together.”
You were a bodyguard for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. How much of a relationship would you have with clients?
“You have a very close relationship, almost as close as your own family.
Everything in the bodyguard and security world is about trust, because they have to trust your judgement, and that you will do what you say you can do.
You end up virtually living together, and I have to know almost everything about my client – their medical situation, their threats, their worries.
“You have to know their clothing sizes, as one of the main things I’d carry with my clients was a spare set of clothing.
Those are the simple things people don’t realise being a bodyguard involves.
It’s not about having big muscles and pushing people out of the way, it’s about allowing your client to do what they need to do, and you are privy to a lot of what they say and are going through. You have to live very, very close to them.”
How did you find lockdown?
“In the military, we did a lot of lockdowns. Especially in the SAS, we might go away on an operation and have a week or month of total isolation.
So we’re used to it and when the first lockdown came, I embraced it. I never had so much time in my own house – I found cupboards I didn’t even know existed.
“I know a lot of people, particularly younger people, found it hard being told, ‘You can’t do all these things’, and I can understand why.
My approach to it all is that, as uncomfortable as it might feel, you just have to say it’s a passage of time. Push yourself out of that comfort zone – like with fitness, for example – and accept that this time will pass.”
What are the most important things in your life now?
“My family, my health, and the planet. As you get older, you realise more and more the importance of taking care of things and being respectful.
Over the last two years, I’ve lost family members and friends younger and fitter than me. Enjoy life, because you don’t know when it’s going to be taken from you.”