Ross Kemp: confronting danger

A very strange thing happens in Ross Kemp’s new documentary series Extreme World. The 49-year-old filmmaker is looking for a gangland kingpin in Papua New Guinea when four men come out of the bush with guns. The strange thing is Ross’s reaction. He remains eerily calm, looks the gunmen in the eye and tells them that, no, he’s not getting down on his knees and, no, they aren’t going to kill him. The gunmen eventually decide that they’re dealing with a “warrior” and put their weapons down.

The day before I meet him, Ross watched the film for the first time. “I thought, F*****g hell, Ross, what were you thinking? But with hindsight you go, Well, if you’re going to meet a bunch of people who rob, rape, kill, then you run the risk of it happening to you. The nature of what they do defines who they are, doesn’t it?

I suppose the ultimate feeling is, I’ve been in worse situations; I’ve had worse things happen.

It’s hard to imagine what could be worse than having a gun stuck in your face with the very real possibility that the person holding it might pull the trigger. But for the last nine years, in a series of hard-hitting documentaries covering everything from pirates to teenage Congolese militia to, in the new series, drug addicts in the Brazilian favelas and underclass crime in Las Vegas, Ross has made dire situations his stock in trade. He now has a macabre library of scary moments to reminisce about. So what’s been the scariest?

“I remember being in a bomb-making factory with the al-Quds brigade of [the Palestinian] Islamic Jihad. The sound man bumped into a Katyusha rocket, which hit the next Katyusha rocket, which hit the next—bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing—in a room not bigger than this, where they were making mortars in the sink. If those things had gone off, we’d have all gone to hell. But I wasn’t really worried about that. I was worried about the Israeli drone that was no doubt circling us and had followed us all the way from Erez terminal. I was more worried about the white light [bomb] that was going to drop from the sky.”

Because Barking-born Ross came to public attention as an actor on EastEnders, and because his character Grant Mitchell was a clumping tough guy, it’s tempting to hear his tales of derring-do and scoff just a little. He’s even done some scoffing of his own—in an episode of Ricky Gervais’s Extras, Ross sent up his hard-man persona something rotten, implying he’d been in training with the SAS, the “Super Army Soldiers” as he so memorably put it.

But he’s built up such a body of work, with a Bafta win for Ross Kemp on Gangs to boot, that it’s hard to deny him the title of credible documentary filmmaker, whatever else he is. Watch some of Extreme World and you might also conclude he’s something of a masochist. Yet Ross says that his films are based on sensible risk assessment and experience.

We’re not a bunch of idiots running around without a compass. Yes, we go off map, that’s the nature of it—it wouldn’t be called Extreme World otherwise. But everything is calculated.

Ross gives credit to his small, dedicated team of cameramen and producers for getting him the access.

“I take all the glory, but we’ve all been in a situation where our lives have been endangered—and we’ve all got families [Ross married lawyer Renee O’Brien in 2012, and has a three-year-old son by a previous relationship]. We’re a democracy until it gets to a 50/50 situation. Then it becomes my call because I own the company that makes the films.”

Some of the extremes Ross has gone to seem so purposefully perilous that you ask yourself why he feels compelled to make these documentaries.

I love travelling. I love the world. I think human beings are fascinating—and there are some things that link us all.

Doesn’t that worry him? If we’re all the same at heart, that means we can’t dismiss a machete-wielding crackhead as just a wrong ’un. We’re all implicated.

“I’m an optimist. I’m nearly 50 years old, I never thought I would be, and I’ve met some incredibly good people along the way. I’ve met some atrociously wicked human beings, but most of them are victims of their situation or geo-graphy. I’m lucky enough to be in a situation where I’m given the time to look in depth at subjects. News reporters just don’t have that time, and most people who work for broadcasters now don’t get that time either.”

Ross is a fidgety presence. You sense he’s just a man with itchy feet who needs to do something. EastEnders, he says, got a little samey.

“For ten years of my life I travelled up the A41, all the way from south London to a place called Elstree Studios, BBC, yeah? There and back. And therefore I  was regurgitating, you know, 70 pages of dialogue, which I’d learn either the night before or on the way home—in between lighting changes, sometimes. I went to exactly the same place, for exactly the same set and worked with exactly the same people.”

He’s careful not to do down his old  EastEnders colleagues (“Just respects to them. I have a great fondness for them”), but he wouldn’t swap his life then for his life now.

“Now, there’s total disorder and chaos in my life. I don’t know where I’m going from one year to the next, I don’t know if it’s going to be dangerous, if it’s going to be fun, if it’s going to be uncomfortable. I’m a dreadful time keeper; I used to be a really good one. I love life more than ever. I’ve met varied cultures—evil, good, saintly—and get paid for the pleasure, so I think I’m an incredibly lucky guy, touch wood.”

Ross Kemp: Extreme World is on Sky1 HD.

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