ANYONE watching television in Britain on May 5 1980, a Bank Holiday Monday, were in for a night of drama they would never forget.
The drama wasn’t provided by the John Wayne western on BBC1 or the final of the world snooker championship on BBC2.
Both programmes were suddenly interrupted by the amazing scene of 30 black-clad SAS commandos storming the Iranian embassy at Princes Gate in London’s Kensington, abseiling from the roof onto balconies and hurling stun grenades through the windows.
ITN had the best pictures because they had sneaked in an electronic camera and trained it on the embassy’s back garden, in breach of police instructions.
But when the explosions were heard, followed by gunfire, they jumped to the wrong conclusion and thought the 19 hostages were being killed and that the whole operation had been a disaster. It was, in fact, a triumph.
Only one hostage was accidentally killed and two injured, but the rest were saved. Five of the six terrorists were killed – the one who escaped was caught and later spent 28 years in jail.
This has all come back to me after 41 years because two of the key figures in the siege both died last week – Jeremy Phipps, who organised the SAS raid, and Chris Cramer, a BBC newsman who had been a hostage.
Phipps went on to be a Major-General and the Army’s head of Special Operations. After the raid he went home to find that his wife had locked him out and he had to climb into his house via a drainpipe.
Cramer had been queueing for a visa at the embassy when six heavily armed terrorists burst in and held everyone hostage, demanding the release of 91 Arabs being detained in the Khuzestan region of Iran.
They were opposed to the Khomeini regime which had ousted the Shah in Tehran the year before.
Cramer had just returned from an assignment in Zimbabwe and was suffering from dysentery, which got so bad that he was released two days later.
He blamed himself for cowardice, but in fact he played an important role in the rescue by providing the police and SAS with vital information on the number of terrorists and hostages and the lay-out of the building.
As with Phipps, his career prospered after the siege. He stopped drinking, went on a diet and rose to be head of BBC news gathering and then head of CNN in the United States.
I had been glued to the snooker final between Alex “Hurricane” Higgins and the eventual winner, Canadian Cliff Thorburn.
I was outraged when the match was so rudely interrupted but, like everyone else, I was mesmerised by the SAS raid, the first time one of their operations had been shown on live television.
So mesmerised, in fact, that I arranged for some colleagues on The Observer, of which I was Editor at the time, to help me write a book about it, which we started two days after the end of the siege and handed in one week later.
I still have a copy of the paperback, for which I persuaded John le Carre to write a typically colourful introduction.
He wrote: “The SAS were Action Man personified, stepping off the back of our cereal packets and performing the impossible. Britain’s own Dirty Dozen. A bunch of OO7s, licensed to kill on our TV screens at peak viewing time.”
The Metropolitan Police were criticised for having failed to negotiate a settlement in the six days of the siege.
But when I was summoned to Scotland Yard by the Commissioner, Sir David McNee, it wasn’t because we had criticised the police operation in the book.
He sat me down and poured me a glass of whisky that was almost overflowing, then sank one himself.
I got the point. We had accused him, as a Glaswegian would see it, of the heinous offence of being a teetotaller.
Who will roar for the Lions?
Now that the Six Nations championship has ended in glory for Wales and humiliation for England, speculation has moved on to the British Lions summer tour of South Africa (Covid permitting, of course).
The rugby writers have all made their choices for the Lions, but only one man’s selection really matters – that of Warren Gatland, the head coach.
In trying to read Gatland’s mind it is instructive to look back at the players he chose for his last Lions outing – the 15-15 draw that levelled the series in New Zealand in 2017.
All but two of the players he chose that day have appeared in this year’s Six Nations and are obviously available for selection again. Only two flankers are out of the running this time: captain Sam Warburton, who has retired, and Sean McBride.
These were the players Gatland favoured then – and he will doubtless think hard about them again: Liam Williams, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Davies, Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Tadgh Furlong, Maro Itoje, Alan Wyn Jones and Taulupe Faletau. I wouldn’t be surprised if they all reappear in the touring party.
Two problems Gatland will be wrestling with is whether Wyn Jones and Sexton are too old at 35 to tour again.
At the beginning of the Six Nations I doubted if either could make it, but the Welshman has led his country to the Triple Crown and the Irishman played a blinder in the defeat of England in Dublin. For Wyn Jones it would be a fourth Lions tour, one behind Willie-John McBride, whose last all-conquering tour was in South Africa at the age of 34.
If he goes, it should probably be as captain. He is a natural leader who even wore the captain’s arm band in some matches on his first Lions tour in 2009.
It could be argued that he would not be an automatic choice in the second row against the claims of Itoje and the two Irish locks, James Ryan and Iain Henderson, but his form in the Six Nations was good enough to earn a place.
I was astonished to read that neither Will Greenwood nor Stephen Jones chose Itoje for their Lions second row, and a friend of mine thought he shouldn’t go on the tour at all. I’m sure Gatland won’t agree with any of that.
He will remember, as I do, that Itoje was immense in the final Test against the All Blacks in 2017. His size and aggression will be invaluable against the giants in the Springbok pack.
So who would be in my Lions Test team? Here are my first (and second) choices:- Stuart Hogg (Liam Williams), Anthony Watson (Louis Rees-Zammit), George North (Henry Slade), Jonathan Davies (Owen Farrell), Liam Williams (Jonny May), Johnny Sexton (Finn Russell), Conor Murray (Ben Youngs), Wyn Jones (Rory Sutherland), Ken Owens (Jamie George), Tadhg Furlong (Kyle Sinckler), Alun Wyn Jones (James Ryan), Maro Itoje (Iain Henderson), Tadhg Beirne (Courtney Lawes), Tom Curry (Justin Tuperic), Taulupe Faletau (Billy Vunipola).
The world champions look formidable, especially on the Highveld, but I would never bet against Gatland, who is coaching his third Lions tour and has yet to lose a series.