I just had time to take in the size of them before the black bag went over my head – slabs of muscle moving quickly among us, shouting.
“Down! Get down on your knees, now!”
“I said on your knees, not on all fours like a f------ dog. Look at the state of him!”
Cue chuckles; the cruel chuckles of men who have known pain.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
A TV premiere for the new series of Celebrity SAS featuring Matt Hancock? At The Barbican? With celebrities and breakfast?
I’d be delighted, I told my editor. I even wore my linen suit.
The world exploded
So there I was, sipping smoothie from an upcycled jam jar, nodding like a fraud as a TV journalist related a showbiz anecdote using entirely first names whom he assumed I knew, when the world exploded.
I can’t remember exactly what our kidnappers said once they’d finished blindfolding us. But it amounted to: “We’re in charge. Do exactly what we say, or else.”
The point is, they didn’t need to.
The first thing you realise when you lose your primary sense is your total vulnerability.
Your eyes ache as they try to find even a smidgen of light, anything to connect you to your former reality which, although only seconds in the past, now seems irretrievable. But these people know what they’re doing. They’ve put blacked-out snorkelling masks over the bags so the chances of that are zero.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that these are the fearsome Directing Staff, the former special forces soldiers (SAS mainly) who put the celebrities through their paces on the Channel 4 show. These are operators whose proficiency with knives, guns and bombs is rivalled only by the savagery of their quips.
I learn this sooner than most because, not being fond of name badges, I haven’t put one on.
Big mistake. And a good lesson. In military training, any hint of rebellion or ill discipline, any suggestion that the rules are optional, attracts the attention of the staff like blood in the water to a shark. Matt Hancock learns this quickly and amusingly in episode one, so I’m in dubious company there.
In my case, the staff decide that because I haven’t named myself, they’ll call me whatever they like.
“Woah, woah, what have we here, tall drink of water,” says a nasal but no-less intimidating American voice belonging to Rudy Reyes, formerly of the Marine Corp 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, with whom he led the assault on Baghdad.
“Tall drink of water”, I discover later, is a hackneyed US chat-up line usually reserved for a certain type of leggy woman (I am myself quite tall). And this from a man who has reminisced quite openly on the BBC about killing civilians in Iraq. Charming.
We are instructed to use our hands to find the shoulders of the person in front, which throws up certain issues, but again, you don’t argue with these people.
Least fun conga line in history
Then we move off in the least fun conga line in history, buffeting and dragging each other in one long chain of dumb vulnerability.
“Stay alert, stay alive,” Rudy shouts. Then repeats it for good measure. Thanks, Rudy.
We march round corners, down stairs, into lifts, at one point into a minibus.
“In the special operations world, we see with our hands,” says Rudy. “Explore.” The thing about that is, I’m stuffed into a vehicle with people I don’t know, and these days you’ve got to be careful.
Eventually, following more shouting, cajoling, and abusive nicknaming (“cufflinks” is another of mine), we reach some sort of destination.
And are just left there.
For minutes, hours? It’s very hard to tell. That’s when your mind starts to short-circuit. I assume I’m inside, until I feel a breath of wind. But if I’m outside, where?
An infinitesimally small part of my mind wonders if they’ll push me off a building. Small, but in the black silence it starts to grow. That’s what being blindfolded does to you. It’s why the staff do it constantly to the contestants in Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins.
Something is happening up ahead. I hear the sound of harnesses, ropes. At length, a desperate yelp.
When it comes to my turn I am rudely shoved in a harness and told to walk across two planks which I have to find with my feet. I don’t know the size of the void they are suspended over, but I didn’t like the sound of that yelp.
With almost belligerent slowness, I make it across, so I never find out.
And there the mask is lifted. Before me, Rudy, however many tattooed stone of him, is giving me a big old American smile and a crushing handshake.
“Well done, tall drink of water,” he says.
A coffee is restored to one hand. A bougie flapjack to the other.
The fixed-smile world of television descends once more, and we settle down to watch the show.
It is full of laughs and pratfalls, but clearly real and tough. Given what we’ve just experienced, we watch with a little more respect than we might have done.