Ant as a young man during his 13 years of military service versus now.
Ant’s hair and neatly styled beard are jet black, his eyes piercing blue.
The former sniper’s 5ft-8in frame, with its broad shoulders and muscular arms, has been sculpted by decades of military training.
On a chart of the evolution of man, he would be the mid-point between Brian Blessed and Rylan Clark-Neal.
Having been on tours of duty in Afghanistan and served in the Special Boat Service (SBS: the naval wing of the special forces), the Royal Marines and 9 Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers, Ant has achieved what is known as the “holy trinity” of the UK’s elite forces.
After 13 years of military service, he headed back to civvy street and fell into a television career that has seen him recreate the epic sea voyage based on the mutiny on the Bounty and, more recently, climbing Mount Everest.
In conversation, Ant is likeable and laughs easily, but in his new autobiography First Man In he lays bare his less than exemplary life story.
The book tells of his time in the military, but also reveals the violence that spilt over into his private life – knocking out a man who bumps into him while rushing for a train; beating unconscious a young man who shouted “nice view” as Middleton sat drinking with friends on the balcony of his flat overlooking a car park.
He also reveals how, six months after leaving the SBS, he assaulted two police officers during a night out in Chelmsford, for which he was sentenced to 26 months in prison.
“There’s a lot of dark stuff in there but I wanted to tell the truth,” explains the 37 year old who still lives in Essex.
“I wanted people to know that I’m human and I’m only successful because I’ve learned the hard way. I’ve been in so many dark places but I got myself out.”
Every anecdote, he says, has been carefully chosen to illustrate the “leadership lessons” laid out in each chapter, including “you don’t need to be the leader to lead” and “the war is always in your head”.
“I wanted people to know that I have hit my lowest ebb and even if I look back and cringe, I’m glad I went through what I did because I came out the other side.
I don’t live in the past,” he explains.
Ant with Emilie and his five children.
Ant’s book opens with two of his earliest memories.
Aged five, he saw his father lying dead in his bed, having suffered a heart attack.
Then, four weeks later, he was woken by his mother with the words “Anthony, meet your new Dad”, a brutal man with a leather coat and a Rottweiler.
Their difficult relationship led Ant to leave home to join the army as soon as he turned 17.
Estranged from his mother for almost a decade now, Ant is brisk when asked how his extended family might feel about the book.
“I don’t know and I don’t care really,” he says. “I’m telling my story and if they don’t like it, tough.
“Every other message on social media says how refreshing it is to have a normal person to look up to, who has a past and still built a very successful career.
I’ve so many youngsters who want to be me – if this book can help them, that’s what it’s there to do.
If anyone wants to criticise it, that’s not my problem.”
I wanted people to know that I’m human and I’m only successful because I’ve learned the hard way… I’ve been in so many dark places but I got myself out
Clearly only the opinions of his “inner circle” – his wife Emilie, who he met in 2004 and who he credits with turning his life around, close friends and children – matter, and writing the book forced Middleton’s hand in confessing his past misdemeanours.
“When I was in prison they were still young, so we told them that I was away with the military,” he says.
“It was only recently I sat down with them and told them the truth.
“Priseïs is two years old and Bligh is only one – they’re like Irish twins – but my eldest daughter Shyla is 10 and my second son Gabriel is nine. I didn’t want them to hear it through the grapevine.
I told them, “Daddy got into a bit of trouble,” and said it wasn’t going to happen again. They both have a copy of the book and they have started reading it, but they still think I’m their hero.”
Ant also has a son from an earlier relationship, Oakley, 16, who lives in Portsmouth with his mother.
“One minute you’re dropping your teenage son off to a festival and the next you’re changing a nappy, but I love the versatility and challenge of being a father,” he says.
“The one thing I’ve always said is I don’t want them growing up without a father and they’re my inspiration to make sure I’m the best man I can be. I want them to have the father figure that I never had.”
Matthew Ollerton and Ant Middleton attend ‘The Finest Hours’ Gala Premiere.
Did he ever worry about being killed in combat and leaving them that way?
“I was very selfish when I was in the military, a very selfish man,” he explains.
“I prioritised the job over my family and I know that now, but you don’t think that at the time. You’re so engulfed in it – the military was my life, I put everything into it.”
Only after his time in prison did he manage to put the years of anger and aggression behind him.
The SAS: Who Dares Wins star with his wife Emilie.
“In the military, I dealt with extreme violence every day,” he recalls.
“If you were violent to me, I was going to be violent to you to ensure I came out the victor. In prison, I had a lot of time to think. I never want to leave my family again so that code-red aggression I used to get the job done, I’ve toned it right down.”
Avoiding confrontation must be tricky if he meets men hoping to prove themselves by squaring up to the toughest man on television, I suggest.
“I don’t put myself in those situations,” he laughs, leaning forward and looking me square in the eye.
“That’s the one thing I do not do any more – go out drinking in public. Until about 9pm, people are really nice and polite. Then, once you get past 10 o’clock, everyone wants to fight you.”
So has his increasing fame brought offers of other work to his door?
“I’ve been asked to do all kinds of things – Bake Off, Celebrity Big Brother, The Jump. Strictly have called – or maybe it was Dancing On Ice – but that’s not me. I don’t class myself as a celebrity.
“People say SAS: Who Dares Wins is reality TV but I like to call it factual entertainment. I want to keep things as authentic as possible. If that means not getting as much air time, not trying to make a nice Victoria sponge on telly, that’s fine. It would be going against who I am. Besides, I’m a useless cook.”
Ant’s book First Man In (Harper Collins, £20) is out now.
See Express Bookshop on page 77 in S Magazine inside your copy of today’s Sunday Express.