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picture of David Constant going in first with hand grenades

Who Dares Wins

The truth about cricket's involvement in the 1980 Iranian Embassy Siege. New documents give a surprising new twist to the most famous snooker interruption of them all. PDCC meets one of the men who cheated death to save the hostages.

"To be honest I'd never even heard of the SAS before that. If you'd asked me then I would have said it was a song by Abba."

David Constant might be retired these days but his memory is as fresh as ever.

picture of David Constant
David Constant retired from umpiring in 2005 He officiated in 36 tests.

For about an hour during the early evening of the Bank Holiday Monday of May 5th 1980 the entire nation sat transfixed in front of their television screens as a unprecedented real-life drama was played out in front of them. The BBC even interrupted its live coverage of the world snooker final to go live to the scene.

The Special Air Service - better known as the SAS - were about to liberate a terrified group of hostages that were being systematically killed by their captors. It was an operation that had no room for error. The eyes of the world were upon them.

Or so we were told. The truth was very different.

The siege of the Iranian embassy began at 11:30 on the morning of Wednesday, 30th April 1980.

Six armed Iranians overpowered police constable Trevor Lock, of the diplomatic protection squad, who was standing guard outside the embassy. Inside the building they took 26 hostages.

The six Iranian gunmen claimed to be members of a minority Arab population in southern Iran. They called themselves the Democratic Revolutionary Front for Arabistan - their name for the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzestan.

They were protesting against oppression by the Ayatollah Khomeini who had come to power in Iran during the previous year.

The hostages were mainly Iranian embassy staff, but also included a number of tourists and two BBC employees - journalist Chris Cramer and sound recordist Simon Harris - who had stopped by to pick up visas.

The official version had led us to believe that it ended five days later when the SAS stormed the embassy and killed five of the gunmen.

The Iranian Embassy Siege was one of the pivotal moments of recent British history yet is still widely misunderstood. Now that is all set to change with the release of sensational never-before-seen documents under the Freedom of Information regulations.

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, ... "

These previously secret papers reveal that the SAS were not the main organization involved in the rescue of the hostages ... nor was it the Army, the Police, any professional para-military organisation or group of specialist emergency interventionists.

No, the heroes of the hour were members of that most genteel profession ... First Class Umpires.

David Constant chuckles as he recalls the circumstances that led himself and some of his fellow umpires into the adventure of a lifetime.

"It was our annual meeting of the First Class Umpires Association. Every year we get together in London to discuss rules changes and general matters of interest to umpires ... and to have a good drink up as well, of course."

Now in his mid-60s Constant had joined the first class list in 1969 and had progressed to become a respected test umpire. In 1980 he was also president of the umpires association.

"I'd booked a room in the building next door to the Iranian embassy. We'd used the same venue in previous years and it was handy enough for us all to get to. We didn't know until we got there that there was this siege-thing going on in the building next door. It didn't really bother us that much. We had more important things to worry about such as the changes to the no ball rule and David Shepherd forgetting to leave a note for his milkman", chuckles Constant.

As the first of the hostages was killed and dumped onto the street, the Government, in conjunction with Scotland Yard, knew that they had to act quickly. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher interrupted her own enjoyment of the Alex Higgins -v- Cliff Thorburn snooker final to personally instruct Scotland Yard supremo, Chief Commander Ian Todd, to "get it sorted" or else she would come and do it herself.

Meanwhile, the terrorists stated that they were going to kill a new hostage every half an hour if their demands weren't met. There was no time to lose.

An emergency call was put out to the Special Air Service; the notorious crack-unit better known as the SAS.

"Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood ... "

However it has now been revealed that the SAS could not attend until the following day because they were all on a Health and Safety training course in Aberdeen. The newly released documents state that SAS chiefs refused to cut short their training because otherwise they would have to pay the full cost of the residential course without completing it and nor would they get their certificates.

David Constant takes up the story: "We were just about to all go out to try and find a Harry Ramsdens when the chief of the Met came in to see us. He was in a terrible state. He said “you have got to help us. I can't send Police in because it's a Bank Holiday and they all want double time and Mrs. Thatcher's on my case. I just need a couple of fellas to get in there and sort it out.”. I thought that if we could get it done in half an hour then we could still catch the end of the snooker in the pub."

The umpires had a brief chat amongst themselves and agreed to help. Alongside David Constant was rookie umpire David Shepherd, Jackie Van Geloven, Barry Meyer and 70-year-old John Langridge.

"A few of the lads didn't fancy it", explains Constant, "Dickie Bird was worried about the light and Arthur Jepson said he'd had a fiver on Alex Higgins and wasn't moving. Tom Spencer was in the bath and Derek Shackleton had a pie in."

"And teach them how to war! ... "

The plan was for the umpires to approach the siege from adjacent balconies. Constant was given the job of going in first and throwing in a hand grenade to disorientate the hostage takers. With the terrorists stunned the umpires would move in and disarm them. To make themselves less conspicuous the umpires put on whatever dark clothing they could find over their trademark white coats.

picture of David Constant wearing best jumper
"Constant: My best jumper was ruined. My wife nearly killed me when I got home. She still doesn't believe me."

Constant and co. were not allowed to carry guns so were armed only with cricket bats encased in David Shepherd's thermal long-johns to make them look like rifles. John Langridge decided to carry an ironing board with him as a potential makeshift stretcher.

"Muggins 'ere drew the short straw", recalls Constant, "I had to get onto their balcony, jump in through the window and throw in this grenade type thing. It went OK until I actually got to their window. The bloody bomb went off in my hand and I was face to face with this bloody hostage taker pointing a gun at me with his finger on the trigger. I thought I was done for ..."

Constant was a microsecond away from death but luckily for him David Shepherd had entered the scene through the opposite balcony and seeing the danger had thrown his light meter at the gunman's hand, causing him to drop the weapon. Now disarmed the Iranian bully boy was no match for the Gloucester-born umpire, who followed up his pin-point fielding with a Big Daddy style charge and deadly belly flop.

A reprieved Constant recovered his cool and led the other umpires into the room. As Van Gelovan and Langridge concentrated on leading the hostages to safety, Constant, Shepherd and Barry Meyer took on the Iranians in hand-to-hand combat.

picture of chip pan fire
The dramatic moment when the situation is made worse by Dickie Bird's untimely chip pan fire.

"Disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage ... "

Constant - a cheerful, gentle man by nature - belied his slight build by taking out two of the gang in one fell swoop. "It was a trick I'd seen Mr. T do on The A Team. I got two of the fellas in a neck-lock and then brought my arms together quickly so that they head butted each other. Peter Willey used to do it sometimes on team mates if they disturbed him when he was reading Titbits."

The remaining members of the Democratic Revolutionary Front for Arabistan put up scant resistance. David Shepherd took particular pleasure in roughing up the miscreants. He'd been looking forward to a night in the pub and was not best pleased that his plans had been put on hold. Barry Meyer too was enjoying himself. Although his glasses had blown off in the blast the ex-Gloucestershire wicket keeper was finding the foreigners rather lacking in their appreciation of the Queensbury Rules.

"Barry had boxed in the army at a decent standard and gave the Iranian lads a bit of a lesson. He would knock them down and then Shep would do his belly flop on them. I actually felt a bit sorry for them."

With the job done and the hostages freed the umpires still had time for a quick shower and shave before hitting the town.

picture of hostage Christopher Hogg
Hostage Christopher Hogg owed his life to the efforts of the umpires.

Constant was initially unaware just how much media attention the incident received. "We were in the pub and everyone was talking about it. It was SAS this and SAS that. We felt a little bit unappreciated but that's umpiring isn't it! It's when you have a bad game that people notice you and not when you've done something right."

The Conservative government were extremely relieved at the outcome of the siege but faced a massive dilemma. Already unpopular, did they really want to tell the world that such a mission was undertaken by a group of middle-aged cricket officials with a selection of improvised weapons? Hence the myth of the SAS was born.

"Cry 'God for Harry! England and Saint George!'"

But is David Constant bitter about it today?

"Not really. It was just a bit of fun. I think Shep got the taste for it and became a bit of a handful round the circuit for a while. He used to pop into the pavilion at lunch and ask if there were any sieges going on that he could help with. I heard he stormed into a couple of county AGMs through the window and caused a bit of a scene. You could usually calm him down by giving him a few used stamps for his collection. Then there was Barry Meyer's ill-advised professional boxing career. I still wince when I think of that Roberto Duran fight ... ouch ... but apart from that life just returned to normal. In fact I had more trouble with the Pakistanis in the 1980s than those poor Iranians. I could have done with the SAS helping me out then."