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How a film about the Iranian Embassy siege was spoiled by Britsploitation

Lewis Collins practising stunts for his new role as Captain Skellen in Euan Lloyd's film 'Who Dares Wins'. Picture: Central Press/Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

On the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Embassy siege, Richard Luck recalls the Britsploitation romp it inspired.. a film that spectacularly failed to do justice to the heroes it wanted to laud.

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Snooker was a very big deal in 1980. And no master of the green baize was more popular than Northern Ireland’s Alex Higgins. So it was quite a surprise when, with ‘The Hurricane’ in hot pursuit of a second World Snooker Championship, the BBC left the Sheffield Crucible for a different sort of a drama taking place in a very different kind of arena.

On April 30, 1980, six members of the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation Of Arabistan stormed the Iranian Embassy in Prince’s Gate, South Kensington. The armed men held 19 people hostage for five days, during which time they executed chief press officer Abbas Lavasani.

It was at 7.20pm on the sixth day of the siege, May 5 – Bank Holiday Monday – that armed forces moved against the terrorists. With the eyes of the world focused on London, the SAS – the Special Air Service – rappelled from the building’s roof, threw stun grenades through the windows, and then stormed the embassy. By the time the men in the black balaclavas were through, the terrorists were dead and a Britain raised on Action Man and Airfix had brand new military heroes.

Oh, and the snooker? Alex Higgins wound up losing to Canada’s Cliff Thorburn 18-16 having once been 9-5 up. And the sponsor’s of the event? Embassy cigarettes.

Were it not for those dramatic events that late spring evening, it’s unlikely that our’s would be a country in which Bravo Two Zero would become a bestseller and Ant Middleton could be considered a personality. Adored by Derek Trotter and Alan Partridge, the SAS has become shorthand for a certain breed of serviceman – as Ross Kemp remarks in Extras, they are seen as ‘super army soldiers’.

As for the first person to cash in on the unit’s new-found fame, that would be film producer Euan Lloyd, a Kensington local who had actually been at the police cordon to witness Operation Nimrod unfold. Having banked the phenomenally-successful mercenary action movie The Wild Geese, Lloyd believed there was a similar film to be made about the SAS.

That picture was Who Dares Wins, a testosterone-drenched celebration of the Special Air Service, jam-packed with helicopters, explosions and TV tough guys. From a story by Prisoner co-creator George Markstein with a script by Reginald Rose (Twelve Angry Men) and a pulsating score courtesy of the brilliant Roy Budd (Get Carter), you could be forgiven for thinking the Ian Sharp-directed drama was rather a classy affair. But you’d be wrong – dead wrong.

No, Who Dares Wins (released as The Final Option in the US, where it’s fans included Ronald Reagan) is a film in the best/worst traditions of Britsploitation cinema.

This country has produced all sorts of exploitation movies over the years. Horror films, skin flicks, expose pictures, monster movies – each has been in vogue at one time or another. Who Dares Wins belongs to that sub-genre of British movies torn straight from the headlines.

Films inspired by contemporary events and/or major tabloid stories include teens-gone-wild pictures such as Beat Girl (1960) and The Party’s Over (1965), holidaymakers-in-peril films like And Soon The Darkness (1970) and a near-constant stream of football hooliganism sagas.

Now, not all movies of this sort are trashy – some like Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place (1971) and Ian Merrick’s The Black Panther (1977) verge on classic status.

That the same can’t be said of Who Dares Wins doesn’t mean the film isn’t worth discussing, mind you. On the contrary, it’s the film’s very excesses that led to it becoming popular with both the public and the SAS who to this day, refer to Who Dares Wins as ‘our film’.

Depending on your age, the things you’re most likely to remember about Who Dares Wins are that it stars Lewis Collins and Judy Davis, and it features a great shot of the former running down a corridor, flanked by a couple of gun-bearing chaps wearing balaclavas.

Collins’ character, Captain Peter Skellen, is actually so hardcore, he’s considered too dangerous for regular SAS duties.

Instead, he is charged with infiltrating the People’s Lobby, a band of lentil-munching lefties so bent on banning the bomb that their leader, the Patty Hearst-esque Frankie Leith (Davis), proposes a raid on the US Embassy. Can Captain Skellen save the day? What do you think?

There’s so much going on in Who Dares Wins, it’s hard to know where to begin an analysis.

Given the limited experience of director Ian Sharp – his only previous film was the utterly forgettable The Music Scene (1979) – let us instead turn our attention to his leading man.

One of the biggest TV stars of the age, Lewis Collins’ life had long been rather extraordinary. Born in Birkenhead, the young Lewis was asked to audition for The Beatles following Pete Best’s sacking but choose to pursue other interests.

These included a stint in the Territorial Army as a paratrooper and an audition for the role of 007. In the end, ‘Cubby’ Broccoli decided that Lewis was ‘too aggressive’ to play James Bond.

However, he was just violent enough to essay paratrooper-turned-SAS man William Andrew Phillip Bodie opposite Martin Shaw’s former DI Raymond Doyle in London Weekend Television’s The Professionals.

A ballet of bullets, birds and beating up blokes, The Professionals was The Sweeney in jeans and trainers. Quite what stalwart actor Gordon Jackson – as head honcho George Cowley – made of it all, is anyone’s guess.

Lewis Collins, however, seemed to be having the time of his life. What’s more, Bodie’s penchant for violence and military background made him an excellent fit for the role of Who Dares Wins’ Captain Skellen.

In casting the actor, producer Euan Lloyd was determined to spruce up Lewis Collins. Out went the crewcut that was his Professionals trademark. Instead, when we first see Skellen in his civvies – at an evening of agitprop theatre, no less – he boasts a heroic head of hair and a positively Partridge-esque blazer-and-tie combination.

That his fellow theatregoers are clad exclusively in beige woollens leaves our hero looking less like an expert in covert techniques and more like George Sanders mid-Glastonbury excursion.

Still, Skellen is dashing enough to win the affections of Judy Davis’s heiress-gone-wrong. A hot property at the time following her starring role in Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979), Davis’ Frankie Leigh is one part Patricia Hearst to two parts Ulrike Meinhof, with just a dash of CND’s Joan Ruddock.

Her partners-in-crime include Hammer scream queen Ingrid Pitt, The Day of the Triffids star John Duttine – complete with Zapata moustache – and intelligence officer-turned-tough guy actor Mark Ryan.

Since their walls are plastered with picture of Karl Marx, Bobby Sands and Che Guevara, we’re left in no doubt that the People’s Front don’t have the public’s best interest in mind.

The extent of their villainy becomes apparent at a protest concert where members of Fairport Convention – no, really – inspire clapping so arrhythmic, one can only assume that the concertgoers are each listening to a different song.

Also present at the gig is Kenneth Griffiths’ ineffectual Bishop Crick, a crude caricature of real-life anti-nuclear protester Bruce Kent, and Aharon Ipalé’s Malek, the shadowy Middle Eastern financier who’s been funnelling money to the People’s Front.

Of course, while all this is taking place, moviegoers are keenly anticipating the explosive finale.

When the terrorists do finally seize the US Embassy, it is to the chagrin of Robert Webber’s General Potter and American secretary of state Arthur Currie (Richard Widmark). The bad guys inform the authorities – principally Edward Woodward’s police commander Powell – that they wish to demonstrate their commitment to nuclear disarmament by detonating a nuclear missile over the Holy Loch nuclear submarine base.

With logic like that, it’s no wonder Powell looks worried. But with Peter Skellen on hand – and yes, those words should amuse anyone old enough to remember his piano-playing near-namesake – all is not lost. Indeed, get the children in, mother, because the SAS are on their way!

In Who Dares Wins, whenever you see the Special Air Servicemen without their balaclavas, they are being played by the likes of Nick Brimble and Zig Byfield, men who spent the 1970s and 1980s kicking the bejesus out of everyone from Reagan and Carter to Demsey and Makepeace. But when the faces are obscured, it’s the real McCoy, the SAS having insisted on performing the training sequences and the final assault as a badge of honour.

Add this authenticity to the excitement that surrounded the SAS following the Iranian Embassy siege and it is little wonder that Who Dares Wins opened big at the UK box office.

Unfortunately, the combination of Collins’ muscular performance and the fact you’re rarely more than five minutes away from an exposition proved insufficient to sustain the healthy £300,000+ opening.

Negative reviews further hindered the picture’s performance. Critic and co-author of the essential cult cinema study Your Face Here Ali Catterall recalls that while Who Dares Wins went down a storm with the Murdoch papers (‘Who says art and politics aren’t colluding to produce jolly good and timely entertainment,’ remarked the Sunday Times’ David Hughes), the Guardian’s Derek Malcolm dismissed the film as ‘Truly dreadful… a wildly unlikely piece of propaganda’. Factor in a botched US release and a dispute with CND, and it is hardly surprising that talk of a sequel – to be set during the Falklands War – remained just that.

His hopes of big-screen success scuppered, Lewis Collins returned to The Professionals, shot a couple of Italian exploitation movies, then moved to California to sell computer parts. He died of cancer in 2013, aged 67. Judy Davis, on the other hand, rushed back to respectable movies, receiving Oscar nominations for her performances in David Lean’s A Passage To India (1985) and Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (1993). Mark Ryan, meanwhile, found himself starring in the 1980s TV series Robin of Sherwood as Nasir, the charismatic Saracen who had never been a part of the Robin Hood story before but is now as synonymous with the tale as long bows and Lincoln green.

Four decades on, Who Dares Wins enjoys a profile that is at odds with its initial box-office failure. Mention the film’s title today and most people – and virtually all people of a certain age – know what you’re talking about. Hell, the image of Lewis Collins running down that corridor has even become a gif; the short sprint having been turned into a 10-hour marathon.

And as Who Dares Wins is still with us, so is Britsploitation cinema. Of course, the big sensation of the past two decades has been the fallout from the Rettendon Range Rover murders of 1995, which have so far ‘inspired’ nine movies, with another currently in production.

There have also been further movies made about the SAS including the BBC’s adaptation of Bravo Two Zero and ITV’s The One That Got Away. There has even been a film about the Iranian Embassy siege, 2017’s 6 Days starring Jamie Bell, Abbie Cornish, Mark Strong and – would you believe it? – Lewis Collins’ old partner in crime-fighting Martin Shaw.

And with Channel 4’s assorted SAS-related series still drawing an audience, maybe they’ll be more movies about the unit in the years to come. That’s once Ant Middleton’s successfully chinned the coronavirus, of course.

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