A lot of people have been asking me about the film I made for Sky Atlantic – Big Phil’s War: Fighting ISIS – how it came about and whether there will be another one? To answer the last question first – yes, but getting these things together is hard, so you’ll have to wait a while! And how did it come about – well that’s what I’m going to write about for the next few weeks, as well as the stories behind what happened on screen, and all the stuff we never showed!
I first had the idea when I was talking to my producer Toby Sculthorp. When I’d first met Toby a few years ago he had given me one very simple piece of advice.
“No matter how vile the very vilest people you have ever met in all your travels all over the world Phil, nothing will prepare you for how vile the people are who work in television.”
And do you know what? He was right.
I’d read a lot about people from the West who were volunteering to go and fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq by linking up with Kurds. He agreed it was a good shout to try and track some of them down and find out what made them tick – and then the plan was to follow them all the way out to the Middle East and see what happened.
We both agreed it was a good idea – but as we all know – no plan ever lasts beyond the first point of contact!
The first trip I made was out to Rotterdam to see the motorcycle gang No Surrender. The press in Europe had been full of the story about how three members of the club had volunteered to fight with the Kurds, so naturally I was keen to catch up with the lads, share a few drinks and find out what was behind it all.
Now everyone knows that no self respecting MC likes outsiders sticking their noses in – particularly journalists. And yes – like it or not – that was what I had become. From tearaway, to soldier, to a fully paid up member of Her Majesty’s Press Corps! It felt strange I can tell you. Like the bikers themselves, I had spent all my life avoiding anyone poking their noses into my business – and now I was the bloody poacher turned gamekeeper!
Luckily I know a few people from that world and without giving too much away, a few phone calls were made, and the right people were prepared to say some nice things about me, so I would at least get to have a hearing. It was off to the Land Of Windmills! I got to the clubhouse in Rotterdam and I was met by a couple of the lads. I have to say they were very, very friendly and I was granted the great honour of being allowed into the clubhouse. Of course, being Dutch they managed to speak better English than I did. And also being Dutch – they managed to get the bar up and working at the very civilized hour of 09.00. I was beginning to enjoy all this journalism bollocks!
But over the first cold beers for breakfast came two bits of bad news.
First up – no-one in the club could talk to me officially in any capacity – about anything without the explicit say-so of the chapter president Klaas. And although Klaas had been intending to attend our meeting – there was a slight snag. He was in hospital.
“Nothing serious?” I asked.
“Nah. Just a couple of gunshot wounds.”
It turned out Klaas had been caught up in a bit of turf warfare and wouldn’t be around for a while.
“And now so more problems for you Phil. I’m afraid that Ron – one of the lads who fought in Syria – he can’t be with us either?”
“Hospital?” I asked.
“No. Mortuary. He’s dead”
“Wow. That must have been some tear up.”
But it turned out I was wrong. “Nomad” Ron as he was known in the MC hadn’t been killed in the shoot out – he’d been killed in a road accident. More precisely he had ridden his bike into a tram… something of a hazard in that part of the world apparently.
I know it’s easy to make jokes about someone piling in that way – but I did feel genuinely bad for the geezer. Even though I never got to meet Ron, I felt I could understand him completely. He was no different from me really. The fact that he had lived an outlaw existence and by his own rules; the fact that he – and the rest of the MC – liked a drink and a tear up and the fact that he was prepared to get off his arse and go and mix it with the biggest arseholes on the planet because he knew that’s what they were, and he didn’t give a fuck about the consequences. Top bloke.
I also felt bad because so many of the blokes I had served with had been badly injured or killed in traffic accidents. I thought about Martin and Ady from D Squadron who had died in Kenya because of the shit state of the roads there, just before we went on Operation Barras to rescue the Irish from the West Side Boys.
So me and the No Surrender lads had several more beers and they smoked their big fat Havana cigars and we all parted the best of mates.
And by the time I got back to London I was still in quite a good mood, despite everything – until I met up with Toby.
“Well, Did you get anything on camera?”
“No mate.” I explained the situation but he still wasn’t happy.
“F**king useless. You’re fired.” I’d heard it all before.
“Right then – I’ll see you next week.”
“Only if you’ve got something for me.”
I did as it happens, two more leads (as we journalists say) to pursue. All of which will be revealed in the next episode.
Featured image courtesy of Ekstra Bladet